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Heidi Moreton expects to spend Saturday chasing 500 girls through Sugar House Park. For 12 weeks, the third- through fifth-grade girls enjoyed programs offered by Girls on the Run while training with their mentors for the race. The nonprofit's fifth annual benefit event will be the program's finale — and will raise an estimated $10,000. "First and foremost, we do it because it's a celebration for the girls," said Moreton, the nonprofit's executive director. "We give them the skills to set a goal, and when they achieve it, it's pretty cool that they can hopefully place that to other areas of their lives."

Benefit race season is off to a running start in the Salt Lake Valley, packing parks with runners and walkers every weekend through September. In a state routinely ranked as the nation's leader in volunteering, thousands of walkers, bikers and runners will sacrifice the relaxation of their summer weekends for a few miles of exercise to raise funds, fight diseases and show support.

Many of the races are cornerstone fundraisers for the nonprofits and organizations who host them. Limited park space, the ideal running season and the ever-increasing popularity of benefit runs have combined to leave groups jockeying for a spot months before their events begin.

Girls on the Run booked its race in January. "Even then, it was tight," Moreton said. "We didn't even get the date that we wanted, with so many benefit runs at this point."

Cynthia Stringham, a spokeswoman for Salt Lake City Events, said Liberty Park and other Salt Lake City spots are booked up for most summer weekends to accommodate the races.

Park reservations often fill up as early as January, she said, and can cost anywhere from $100 for a 5K to $15,000 for a large marathon. The Liberty Park website lists 13 run and walk events scheduled between now and Sept. 30.

The Brain Injury Association of Utah nabbed Liberty Park for Saturday, when it will hold its 18th annual 5K Run, Walk and Roll. Executive Director Ron Roskos expects to spend up to $1,000 on the event, while raising around $8,000 from 500 participants.

Roskos said the race season is essential because it provides an infusion of funds as well as the opportunity for hundreds of people to rally around a cause.

"It's a way that people can come together to be able to support organizations and also to support those that have a brain injury, cancer or whatever the event may be," he said.

At This Is the Place Heritage Park, Best Buddies Utah will hold its second annual walk Saturday — aiming to raise up to $30,000, plus something money can't buy.

"The mission is to establish one-to-one friendships for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities," said state director Kristine Pepin. "We are inviting everybody in the community and buddies from all of our chapters to be together and enjoy a beautiful day."

The Best Buddies Friendship Walk is expected to cost $1,000 and draw around 300 participants, offering exposure for Best Buddies and its goal of social inclusion of people with developmental and mental disabilities.

The Komen Salt Lake City Race for the Cure marked the unofficial kickoff for the benefit race season last week, packing downtown Salt Lake City with 12,500 people and raising an expected $800,000, said Debbie Mintowt, executive director of Susan G. Komen Utah.

Mintowt said the race is the organization's "flagship" fundraiser for fighting breast cancer. Once there's a final tally of donations, she expects the average amount of a gift to have increased, even though registration numbers dropped from 16,000 people last year.

She said the decrease could be a result of changing venues from The Gateway to Library Square this year, or a consequence of the outcry that occurred earlier this year when Komen cut and then quickly restored funding for breast-cancer-prevention efforts by Planned Parenthood.

Another large race, the Bike MS Utah Harmons Best Dam Bike Ride on June 23 and 24 in Logan, will attract 3,000 participants and raise $1.6 million for multiple sclerosis research, spokeswoman Juliann Fritz said.

Fritz said the sight of 3,000 riders pedaling up to 175 miles during the weekend is powerful, especially to fight a disease that can be immobilizing.

"Everyone feeds off of each other's energy and spurs them on to pedal further," Fritz said. "Multiple sclerosis is a disease that stops people from moving, so to have a network or team behind you helps someone with MS move forward."

On Wednesday afternoon, 19 girls participating in Girls on the Run sat in a circle in the Morningside Elementary School gym. They said they were "anxious" and "excited" about Saturday's 5K, then headed out to the Holladay school's field to run just a few more practice laps.

Saturday will be the final run with the club for many of the girls at Morningside, but Girls on the Run coach Chelle Brain said the feeling of conquering the 3.1-mile challenge will stay with them long after they cross the finish line.

"For them to be able to say, 'I can do this. I thought I couldn't, but I can,' that's so cool," Brain said. —

For more on the races

Brain Injury Association of Utah:

Best Buddies Friendship Walk: