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Hooterz tradition coming to an end

Jess Ochis, Pam Willette, Becky Masessa and Amber Berg pose in different Hooterz 5K fun run T-shirts to represent a few races over the nine years they have organized the event. Contributed Photo

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The Save Our Hooterz 5K fun run is in its 10th and final year this May, according to the organizers.

Esko's Becky Masessa, Jess Ochis, Amber Berg and Saginaw's Pam Willette joined together 10 years ago to start the fun run as a breast cancer fundraiser at the urging of Masessa's sister, Betty Alders. Alders' mother-in-law had died from breast cancer at age 57, and Alders told Masessa about the cancer walks she had been participating in.

One woman out of eight will be diagnosed with breast cancer at some point in her life, Willette said.

It's estimated there will be 252,710 new cases of invasive breast cancer among United States women and 40,610 breast cancer deaths in 2017, according to the Susan G. Koman site.

The goal of the group was to be able to participate in the Susan G. Komen three-day fundraiser, which is a 60-mile walk. The cost is $2,300 per person and goes toward breast cancer research.

The women, now all in their 40s, tried other fundraisers in the first year including a spaghetti feed, B&B wagon, working at a circus (this one brought a chorus of groans) and their favorite, a wine tasting event.

Their final fundraiser for the first year was the Save Our Hooterz fun run. In the first year, more than 140 people registered for the run. Now the run averages about 200 people each year, with a record in 2011 of 229 participants.

Runners range in age from 12 years old to people in their late 80s. The participants come from all over Minnesota and a few from Wisconsin. Several groups have signed up over the years, including a large one of 30 people. There are many families with strollers, a few running groups and plenty of individuals participating.

The organizers encourage but don't require runners to wear costumes. A few of their favorites were teen boys wearing pink padded bikinis and a pink Spiderman.

The original plan was to do only one fun run and one Susan G. Koman walk, but it took about three years to raise the funds for the three-day event. So now, nine years later, their final fun run and their third three-day walk loom nearer on the horizon.

While two of the women are runners and Masessa was a walker, Willette was neither when they first began. They laugh as they remember the first time Masessa walked from Cloquet to Esko and back to Cloquet with Willette for training.

As they arrived in Scanlon and Willette realized there was still a steep hill to climb, she shared her unhappiness loudly and boisterously with Masessa.

"If I would have had a phone I would have called for a ride," Willette said with a laugh.

Willette originally thought the women would walk during the day at the Koman event and go back to a hotel to clean up and relax.

Upon closer inspection Willette discovered the women walk 20 miles per day and sleep in a hot-pink two-person tent at night.

"It was empowering." Masessa said about the walk.

The others nodded in agreement.

"It was the hardest thing I have ever done," Willette said.

The first three-day walk for the women was in Chicago; for the second they traveled to the Twin Cities. They decide where to go by the date that accommodates their different schedules.

"It was incredible, but a lot of work," said Ochis. "The first day was hard but the second day was grueling."

The women discovered that brushing teeth and cleaning up in the morning and night was done outside in the open, in a long trough-like sink. Showering was done in a special semi-truck trailer.

After the end of the 20-mile day, many people visit the blister-care tent. Willette was one of those people, she had a long blister on one foot at the end of her first day.

Then there were the stories. The women listened to emotional guest-speaker survivor stories and talked to many other survivors during the event.

They noticed a guy driving a pickup truck pulling a trailer with a couch on it. They later found out his wife died of breast cancer and he had promised he would drive the truck to the three-day event so walkers could have a comfortable place to rest.

"Men are affected by breast cancer also," Ochis said. She added there are a few male breast cancer survivors who participate in the walk.

There were plenty of snacks and drinks offered to the walkers during the event, and children offered notes they wrote to encourage the walkers.

At the end of the first day of the first walk, the women were given Dilly Bars.

"We started crying," Masessa said. "It was so emotional."

Between 1989-2014 breast cancer mortality declined by 38 percent among women in the U.S., thus avoiding 300,000 deaths, according to the Susan G. Komen website.

While the group is looking forward to their final three-day walk, first they need to complete their last Save Our Hooterz 5K fun run.

They credit sponsors for helping keep their costs down. Advantage Emblem from Duluth uses the specially made labels on the Hooterz wine (given as prizes) to coordinate the colors and designs of the T-shirts for the fun run each year. Children receive novelty souvenirs to take home with them. Another fun tradition for the adults is a Bloody Mary Bar at the Lost Tavern immediately after the race.

Family has also helped make the event a success each year, whether helping organize or helping on the day of the event.

"People feel empowered at the fun run. It's a safe place for them to share their stories," Ochis said thoughtfully. "It's crazy that it's already been 10 years." The others nodded in agreement.

While the women are done organizing the event, they would love to see someone else take over and keep it going.

Email hooterz5k@live.com for more information or to preregister.

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