SPOTSWOOD, NJ - Taking over the helm of the Spotswood 5K from longtime Spotswood Recreation Department volunteer Paul Wasserman left Robert Hilse with mixed emotions. He was excited at the prospect, but sad that his friend was retiring from the Spotswood Recreation Department after many years of service.

"Volunteering to take over as race director is a little bittersweet for me," Hilse said. "I've known Paul since our boys were in scouts together so at least 12 years or more at this point. Knowing what he put into that race every year and his level of commitment to it, I knew those were going to be some pretty big shoes to fill. So, that's a little intimidating for me. Being a distance runner for many years now and having run every distance from a 5K to a full marathon, it's exciting to be a part of my own local race and work at something we can all be proud of."

Hilse joined the Spotswood Recreation Department as an official volunteer four years ago, but he's been around it a lot longer. He started getting involved about nine years ago when his son was playing in the REC Department's indoor floor hockey league. Hilse enjoyed helping Chris Hill with the evening floor hockey program and eventually took over the popular program when Hill stepped down.

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"Being a part of the events and programs the REC Department put on every year is so much fun," Hilse said. "Sometimes it's more fun for us than the kids!"

This year's annual Spotswood 5K in September came wrapped with unique challenges because of the coronavirus pandemic. Hilse began working on his first Spotswood 5K back in January from Wasserman's detailed notes and ideas he wanted to add. The anticipation and excitement started to grow. Then, the COVID-19 crisis began to amp up in the Garden State.

"The pandemic hit and it stopped everything," Hilse explained. "Currently, the pandemic has forced the cancellation of just about all of our programs and events due to restrictions and I knew in May if there were any restrictions we needed to impose in order to have a live event it just wouldn't work.  People won't want to come out and run in face coverings and try to social distance."

"I felt we would lose out on registrations because of it," Hilse continued. "We had an opportunity in May when the race timer we use, Best Racing, reached out to us and offered to help us convert the live event to a virtual event at no charge.  Thanks to his loyalty to the town we now had the chance to continue our traditional race without canceling."

This year's race will be a virtual one with runners and walkers being able to complete the 5K or Fun Run from August 22 until September 19. Participants can run the regular Spotswood 5K course or do a different 3.2-mile course. Registration can be completed online and all participants will receive a t-shirt.

"We decided that with the virtual event not having as much operating expenses as the live event would, we reduced the price from $25 early registration and $30 day of registration to $20 for the 5k and $15 for the Fun Run," Hilse said. "We will still be offering awards to the overall winners."

The top three male and female runners and the top male and female runner in each age group will receive prizes. Prizes include a gift card/cash prize and a certificate of achievement in place of the usual trophy.

"To be eligible for an award, finishers will need to have a screenshot or picture of the activity through the tracking app they used and e-mail it to us as proof of the run," Hilse added. "From there it's just manual data collection on my part to put it all together."

Many runners use Runkeeper, MapMyRun or Garmin Connect to keep track of their daily runs and times. Award winners will be announced a few days after the September 19 deadline. Hilse is working with fellow Spotswood Recreation Department volunteer Andrew Zaborney to set up a Facebook or YouTube live presentation to announce the 2020 winners of the Spotswood 5K. 

Since the race is virtual, Hilse only has a few participants signed up to date. In case area runners and walkers need a little push to sign up, all the proceeds will go to support the Alice's CUP Food Panty, which helps to feed Middlesex County families in need. Normally, the money would go to Spotswood High School sports or extracurricular programs. Last year's proceeds went to the Chargers cheerleading and wrestling programs.

"This year we decided to go in a different direction," Hilse said. "Because of the long shut down many people were out of work and had to rely on our local resources, such as the food bank, to provide for their families. Normally, the food bank supports many families throughout our area, but now with more seeking assistance it created an overwhelming need that they were having trouble keeping up with. The board agreed that for this year, since the high school programs are all on hold, we would donate all of our proceeds to the Alice's CUPS food bank."

Registration for the 2020 Virtual Spotswood 5K can be completed online. Registration ends on Saturday, September 12. September 12 would have been the actual date of the 2020 Spotswood 5K. Hilse is hopeful many more people get on board with the virtual format of this year's race and register.

"As always, the REC Board is committed, above all else, to do as much as we possibly can for the community," Hilse added. "If we can help anyone with our donation to Alice's Cup, then it's all worth it."