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Running changed Karen Bontrager’s life. Now she uses running to change the lives of others.

Bontrager started the No Fear in Love Race as a response to her own experience in an abusive relationship. Now in its fourth year, the six-mile run has blossomed into a community celebration of healthy relationship practices.

But it started as one woman’s stand against domestic abuse.

One morning four years ago, Bontrager went out for a run.

Bontrager had been struggling with an abusive relationship, and lately had turned to exercise as an outlet. Through running, Bontrager said, she gained confidence and self-esteem.

Suddenly, on that morning run, she realized: She had the power to get out. Still, to give herself the strength to follow through, she decided she would not run away from an abusive relationship, but toward a larger goal.

“I needed to focus on the light, not on the darkness,” Bontrager said.

So Bontrager decided to start the No Fear in Love Race.

The inspiration for the event came to her in a moment, but the preparation powered her through the long months ahead. As she worked through leaving her abuser, getting kicked out of her home, and struggling to find the money to pay for her tuition at George Mason University, she continued to work toward making the race a reality.

“I’m a fighter,” Bontrager said. “Once I realized my own value, my whole life changed. I became empowered, and I wanted to spread that power.”

Finally, in February 2011, just months after leaving her abusive relationship, Bontrager held the first No Fear in Love Race.

Three years later, the event is still going strong. Bontrager is busy preparing for the fourth annual race, scheduled for Sunday, Feb. 23.

The run will be held at Woodson High School in Fairfax. Like every year, it will kick off at 6:45 a.m., to coincide with sunrise, so runners will move out of the darkness and into the light.

For Bontrager, such positive imagery is key to the event’s success. The 43-year-old said she wants to communicate the positive side to her experience and to relationships.

As a result, rather than focus on the dangers of domestic violence, the No Fear in Love Race spotlights the hallmarks of healthy relationships.

That positivity has attracted others to help Bontrager in her cause. Bontrager graduated from George Mason in 2011, but not before getting the entire Department of Communication on board, said Dr. Anne Nicotera.

“Relationships should promote your well-being,” Nicotera said. “Nonviolence in a relationship is important, but just having a nonviolent relationship is not good enough. People need to see that double-pronged approach, and Karen brings that.”

Bontrager aims her activism particularly at the 16- to 24-year-old age group. This group reports the highest percentage of dating violence, according to Department of Justice statistics.

By teaching teens and young adults about healthy dating practices, Bontrager said she hopes to start them on a better relationship trajectory than her own. She continues to work as a relationship coach and researcher at George Mason, and she plans on making this her life’s work.

“For me, this is more than the physical event,” Bontrager said. “This is more than running shoes. This is about championing these teens and young adults. This is about standing for anyone who could experience dating violence.”

Individuals can register for the No Fear in Love Race at the event’s website, nofearinloverace.org, for $25, or can register for $30 the day of the run.

Funds raised by the race will go toward a scholarship to George Mason for a teen who has experienced dating violence. With this, Bontrager hopes she can help one more person become a “thriver.”

“I’m not a victim,” Bontrager said. “A victim is powerless. A survivor just gets by. But a thriver turns her experience into success. That’s what I hope I have done.”



kyanchulis@fairfaxtimes.com