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How the "Saints and Sinners" Race Changes the Lives of Missionaries and Runners in Unexpected Ways

Are you a saint or a sinner?

Just outside of Las Vegas, Nevada, there's a half marathon where you can be either.

The Saints and Sinners Half Marathon attracts all kinds of runners for its catchy name and beautiful, downhill course next to Lake Mead.

But there's something more to it which changes the lives of both the participants and people the race was created to help. 

Organizing the Race Step By Step

Founder Heidi Parks says she was inspired to create the race in 2012 after reading the story of Sedrick Tshiambine in the Ensign. Tshiambine, a member from the Democratic Republic of Congo, rode his bike 9-19 miles to buy and sell bananas for four years before earning enough money for a $250 passport for his mission. 

A few months after reading Tshiambine's story, Parks felt compelled to begin a race where all of the proceeds would go to the general missionary fund.

Though Parks had experience planning events as a student body officer at BYU-Idaho, she had never organized a race before but says felt like she "100 percent" needed to do it despite a busy schedule that involved starting an MBA program and raising five children.

"We all thought she was kind of crazy," current race organizer and Parks' sister Kristina Southam says. "She was Nephi building a boat and the rest of our family were Lamans and Lemuels wondering what was going on, but we were trying to be supportive."

But step by step, Parks organized a race where all of the proceeds would go to the general missionary fund by creating a half-marathon race people of all religions could enjoy. 

The name, "Saints and Sinners" sounded catchy and fun to Parks, especially when she wanted to have the course near Las Vegas.

But, when none of the sites she picked seemed to work out, Parks tried a more historic site.  

"I totally felt like we should try Lake Mead, which is an absolutely spectacular course," she says. "It all just kind of came together and I found out I had to file an application to have the race there a year in advance, which was two days from when I visited."

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Image courtesy Heidi Parks

Although Parks was initially concerned about the timing in her life, as it turns out, the race couldn't have begun at a better time for missionaries. Just three short weeks after President Monson made the historic announcement during the October 2012 general conference to lower the missionary age for men and women, Parks began the Saints and Sinners race.

And while the race came at a good time to impact the lives of missionaries around the world, it also came at a good time for race participants as well. 

The Impact of the Race on the Runners

Since the first race in 2012, runners of all levels and religions have participated in the event, like Dr. Phil Larsen, a foot and ankle specialist, avid runner, and Boston Marathon veteran.

While at a baptism in Nevada, Larsen saw a flyer for the race.

"I thought the name was funny, Saints and Sinners," he chuckles.

But it was the cause that interested Larsen more than the name. While helping to donate shoes to an orphanage in Peru, Larsen bought used suitcases from the Salvation Army and Deseret Industries to transport the shoes, "To me, it was embarrassing because they were old and worn out, but they still worked fine," Larsen says.

Larsen later found out the second-hand suitcases were used in a way he wasn't expecting. 

"I left the suitcases there and the missionaries that were going out used them," he says. "And it was like, to me, they were old, beat up things but to them it was Christmas. It was like gold for them to have something to carry their stuff around in."

With this experience in mind, Larsen ran his first Saints and Sinners race in 2012 and has contributed to the race and encouraged his family members to do the same ever since.

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Image courtesy Heidi Parks

But other runners have also made it a tradition to contribute to the Saints and Sinners races.

For Nicole Beck, the Saints and Sinners half-marathon became a way to honor her deceased husband, Officer Alyn Beck.

While eating lunch at a restaurant in Las Vegas in 2014, Beck's husband and another officer were ambushed by two shooters and killed.

After his funeral, Beck went on a canyon run near her hometown in Wyoming to try to find some peace. 

"I cried out a million tears and you know just kind of was angry and tearful," Beck remembers. "We were stopping at the top and just kind of listening to the water and just trying to regroup thinking 'How am I going to do this and go on without him?' On the way back, it was a much longer run and I hadn't really run that far in a while, so I was just wanting to give up and thinking, 'Why did I do this?' And just kind of felt like I heard him. Every time he would run, he would say 'You've got this, babe. Don't stop you got this babe.'"

Nicole told four of her co-workers about the experience and one of them came up with the idea that they should run a race in Alyn's honor. A non-member, this coworker researched races nearby and found the Saints and Sinners race where all of the proceeds would go to the general missionary fund.

Initially, it was just Beck and her co-workers, but when she wrote on Facebook about the race she saw an outpour of support from her friends and family who also wanted to join in the race.

Eventually, more than 100 people signed up for the fun run, half-marathon relay, or the half-marathon race in honor of Alyn. 

And Parks and her crew took notice of a large number of people running under the name "Team Beck."

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Image courtesy Heidi Parks

Through email, Nicole explained the reason behind such a large team and was touched by the response she received. 

"And I was just in awe of that and they came back and said, 'We want to put together a little honor medal that's special just for you that will say, 'In honor of Alyn Beck.' I just remember I was crying. Like, who does that?"

On the day of the race, Nicole said she felt peaceful knowing so many were honoring her husband through the kind of service Alyn would have loved to do. 

"Alyn, it was just the kind of thing he would have loved," she says. "He was all about the more the merrier and that's a great experience I will always love."

The Race Today

Though it's difficult to measure the impact the race has on missionaries around the world who benefit from the general missionary fund, Parks says she's confident the proceeds from the Saints and Sinners race have made a difference.

Parks says she works directly with the Church Missionary Department through LDS Philanthropies and the money raised from the Saints and Sinners race doesn't go to first-world countries but instead goes to impoverished areas where future missionaries can benefit from it most.

And local missionaries even help volunteer at the race, helping to raise funds for their fellow missionaries around the world.

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Image courtesy Heidi Parks

Over the years, the race has grown to include participants from more than 40 states across the country and even a few runners from out of the U.S. like Ireland and Brazil. And there's also a virtual race for those who can't make it to the starting line in Nevada. 

The race is held in February to beat the desert heat and provide a fun race for people with New Year's resolutions, Southam says, with this year's race set for February 18. 

With "saints'" stations on the right and "sinners'" stations on the left, plus a saints or sinners finish, the race engages with its theme but also helps people to find a connection beyond the missionary donations.

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Image courtesy Heidi Parks

And though the race has benefited the missionary fund over the years, it's also benefited all who participate. 

"We have people who say they are running for their angel mother who passed away or they're recovering from some kind of addiction, so there here to overcome these things," Southam says. "So I feel like there's a spirit of triumphant."

Lead image courtesy Heidi Parks
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