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Indy Mini volunteer turned athlete thanks virtual race for boosting mental health

INDIANAPOLIS (WISH) – The Indy 500 Mile Challenge comes to an end on Thursday after six months of people logging their miles to the virtual finish line.

The 500 Festival announced the first time fitness opportunity in June as a way to keep the spirit of the month of May going through the pandemic.

“We didn’t anticipate what we’ve gone through in the last eight months but our mission is very broad: it’s to enrich lives, foster community impact and celebrate the Indy 500,” said Bob Bryant, president and CEO of the 500 festival.

For Indianapolis resident Joyce Hertko, the challenge came at the right time.

“It’s been a difficult year for me and for so many people with having to stay inside,” said Hertko who also says the pandemic started to take a toll on her mental health. Until she heard about a new fitness challenge that she says helped her get through a tough 2020.

“So for the last 15 years my husband and I have volunteered for the OneAmerica 500 Festival Mini-Marathon helping elite runners at the starting line,” said Hertko who neighbors call “farmer Joyce.”

“I’m an early riser, I’m at my best at 5 a.m., so I’m always able to get to the starting line with no problem,” Hertko said.

As much as she loves to watch the elites, the finish line is her favorite part of the race.

“You see all these other people who worked hard and struggled and cross the finish line in tears with excitement,” added Hertko.

It was excitement she was looking forward to seeing in May until like most things, it too was moved virtually.

“For over 65 years we worked to bring the community together. We looked at creating some additional events that would keep people active and challenged and physically fit, but also connected,” said Bryant.

For the 7,000 people who singed up for the Indy 500 Mile Challenge, Bryant says some saw it as a way to stay involved and support the work of the organization

“The 500 Festival does such amazing work in school and in our communities. Sure 500 miles is a long way to that goal, but if you do a little every day you can get it done,” said Hertko, who ran three miles a day, more on weekends, and logged her 500th mile on Dec. 2.

“It has been challenging, but its nice and important to be be outside and to get fresh air and to be physically active, it’s really helped me a lot,” the runner added.

Bryant says because some participants wanted their medal and t-shirts earlier to have at their own finish lines, the organization doesn’t have official finisher numbers, but they expect it to be close to the 7,000 people who originally signed up.

As for Hertko, she plans to keep her nickname going while running or walking everyday.