Four years ago, an Elkin student chose his senior project — a 5K walk/run — but it wasn’t until last year that the now-senior decided who would benefit from the proceeds of the run, which is scheduled for Nov. 14.
Long-time running coach and pastor Dan Merritt was diagnosed with prostate cancer in 2013, and as student athlete Jacob Parker was finalizing plans for who would benefit from his 5K, he chose his running coach — Merritt.
“It means a great dealt to me,” said Merritt of being honored in such a way by Parker. “It’s his senior project, and I’ve coached Jacob for four years. I just greatly appreciate it that he’d even think of me. I could think of a lot of other people who need it more than me.”
Parker raised more than $2,200 in sponsors for the Do it for Dan 5K and was still working on more.
“He’s taken real good care of me. He’s almost like a dad for me,” said Parker of Merritt. Parker runs both cross country and track for Elkin High School.
He said there is a lot of upfront cost for a 5K, from T-shirts to medals and trophies to a company to be official timers of the event. “It’s not an easy task,” he said.
Merritt, who lives in State Road, underwent 43 radiation treatments after his diagnosis, which ended in November 2013. “I go back for check ups every three months, and since then, all the check ups have been good. The doctors are pleased, and my health seems to be very good,” he said.
“I’m still at a loss for words that [Parker] wants to do this for me,” said Merritt. “When he first came to me his junior year, he said he wanted to do this for me and I said no. He was very persistent and kept asking me. Finally, he said, ‘You’ve helped people all your life. You’ve coached 40 years and helped others in the community, so now let someone do something for you.’”
Merritt couldn’t argue with Parker.
“I did step down from coaching at the end of last season,” said Merritt, who continues to run on a daily basis. “At the end of meet days, I was so exhausted I was literally sick, but I’m doing very well. I still get out and run every day, I can’t complain with that.”
Merritt will be at the 5K on Nov. 14, not running, but volunteering in any capacity Parker needs him.
After running in high school at Sanford Central High through 1970 and getting a track scholarship to Campbell University and graduating, Merritt was called to a church in Erwin. He wanted to continue to share his running with others, so he went to the high school and offered to help. That was in 1974, and until last season, he’s been coaching at high schools ever since.
He’s coached at Wake Forest-Rolesville High School, Forbush, Surry Central with Rex Mitchell, East Wilkes and then the last seven years at Elkin.
“I always enjoyed my ministry and looked at coaching as an extension of that … teaching them values they can use the rest of their life. I still have a passion and work with people who want to be a better runner,” Merritt said. “I had tremendous success at Elkin. I can’t say enough of the kids, how much they helped me and an inspiration they were to me as I started going through my treatments. I can’t be more thankful for a good group of young people.”
He said, “The secret to coaching is simple, you first of all love the people you coach and if you love them, they’ll respond and give you 100 percent. They always responded with performances that exceeded my expectations.”
Merritt just completed a three-year interim pastorship at Salem Fork Baptist Church in Dobson, and began Sunday as interim pastor at Ivy Green Baptist Church in Mount Airy.
Parker said he got to first know Merritt when he was coaching his sister. “He saw me running at the park and said, ‘What grade are you in?’” said Parker. “He told me when I was old enough I better come see him.”
Of his bills left from his cancer treatments, Parker said Merritt told him he owed “much more than a rich man’s salary.”
The 5K will be held on Elkin Municipal Park’s certified course with check in Nov. 14 at 7 a.m. and the race beginning at 8:30 a.m. Registration is $20 for adults and $10 for children younger than 12. Water will be provided at the turn-around and finish line, and trophies will be given to the top three finishers and the top three in each age group.
For more information, email [email protected] or call 336-835-2189.
Wendy Byerly Wood may be reached at 336-258-4035 or on Twitter @wendywoodeditor.