For eight years, Michelle Cole has been race director of Especially for You, an annual race against breast cancer, founded by Mercy Medical Center and General Mills.
The race draws thousands of walkers and runners to downtown Cedar Rapids, but despite her years of experience, Cole said each year’s race still takes her breath away.
“To stand at the starting line and to be able to look back and see that people are flooding the streets … and they’re all in the same shirt, they’re all here, they’re united for a common cause. They’re all coming together to say ‘we want to fight breast cancer.‘ That is truly inspiring,” she said.
And flood the streets they do. Last year more than 15,000 participants from 35 states participated, starting at the Mercy Medical Center campus near 10th Street SE and finishing at NewBo on Third Street SE.
This year’s 5K walk and run was held on Oct. 1 and approximately 16,000 registrations were expected.
According to Cole, $400,000 was raised in 2016 to provide services such as screenings and biopsies to Eastern Iowans who are uninsured or underinsured, which has always been the main purpose of Especially for You since the first race in 1991.
“Since we are focused so much on neighbors helping neighbors, being right here locally, we are at a point where trying to focus on research or treatment is really outside of the scope and realm of what we would be able to do,” Cole said. “Being able to focus on screening and all these diagnostic exams is really our area of focus.”
Cole said early detection makes all the difference when it comes to beating cancer.
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She knows the personal pain of this devastating disease. Her father was diagnosed with melanoma when she was 16 years old, and he died soon after.
Now, Cole is in charge of planning one of the largest fundraising events in the state, and her schedule is filled to the brim all year long.
“I remember being at the race before I was director and just looking around and thinking ‘this would take so much to plan,’ ” she said.
Luckily, Cole is not alone when it comes to planning this massive event. She works with 64 “very active” committee members in 21 subcommittees and more than 300 volunteers who help her plan and execute every aspect of race day, including road closures, children’s activities, a pancake breakfast and the post-race party among other things.
“This event is predominantly so successful because of our volunteers,” she said. “They are the heart and soul of Especially For You.”
If you ask those who work closely with Cole to describe her, two words keep coming up: passionate and organized.
She is known around the Hall-Perrine Cancer Center at Mercy for her many binders, which contain meeting minutes, maps, charts and other “must know” information, to keep everyone on the same page.
Cole said one of her main goals when planning Especially For You events is to keep the atmosphere positive.
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“Even though we are focusing on a very serious subject and we’re fighting a disease that can be devastating, we try to focus on the impact that we are able to have and how we are able to help people,” she said.
Last year, 694 cancer survivors registered for the race. Cole said the annual survivor photo is one of her favorite traditions as a visualization of what Especially For You represents.
“Even though this event only happens on one day, because of people’s generous support, we’re able to continue the fight against breast cancer every single day.”
*This article was originally published in the fall 2017 issue of The Gazette’s HER: Women in Business magazine.*