Despite Snow and Cold, Local ‘Gangsta Wrapper’ Cruises to Victory in Ugly Christmas Sweater 5K

Dec 13, 2017
Photo by: David Biggy Manahawkin’s Jeff Roma wins the Ugly Christmas Sweater 5K to benefit All Saints Regional Catholic School on Dec. 9.

Jeff Roma is a serious runner, and regardless of how much snow might have been on the ground at the start of the Ugly Christmas Sweater 5K on Dec. 9, he was planning on trekking through it.

“I run in all kinds of weather,” said the 37-year-old Manahawkin resident who battled some light snow, just-above-freezing temperatures and a wet pavement to win the race in 19 minutes, 47 seconds. “Snow, rain, wind, cold, hot, humid ... it doesn’t really matter. It was snowy and cold today, and I felt as good as I was going to feel in these conditions. It wasn’t too bad going east on East Bay Avenue, but then when I made the turn onto Hilliard Drive it was a bit rough because the snow was blowing in my face.”

Still, with no accumulation on the ground to that point, Roma managed to grab the lead early and stay there, winning by more than a minute over Beachwood’s Kyle Morrison, who crossed the line in 21:01.7.

“Running 5Ks are kind of hard because you don’t really develop a pace,” Roma said. “You just go out hard and try to establish a position and stay there, and try to move your way up as you go. Fortunately, today I didn’t have anybody in the race faster than me.”

He also didn’t have any competition with regard to his simple getup – a red-and-white, long-sleeved T-shirt with the words “Gangsta Wrapper” scrawled on it.

“The past few times, I’ve run in a sweater and I just got too overheated. So this time I went with the Christmas shirt,” said Roma, who had some added pressure trying to live up to Stafford Township police officer Chris Fritz’s prediction that Roma would win the race. “And I’m not good at wrapping. I’m a wannabe gangsta wrapper.”

Interestingly, the woman who has won the ugliest getup award the past few years opted to ditch another attempt at swiping the top prize in one of the judged categories and instead snag the top women’s spot in the race.

“I figured when you told me that I wasn’t as ugly as normal, then I better run faster,” said 38-year-old Carrie Merritt of Ocean City, who still sported a hideous blue sweater with a tinsel-bearded cat on it. “So I was going for the win today.”

Winning wasn’t as easy for Merritt as it was for Roma, particularly because Jeff’s sister, Ginny, was not far off her tail for most of the race. Merritt crossed the line in 21:07.5, while Roma followed about 34 seconds later.

“She went out fast, but I put the pedal to the metal early and hoped for the best that I could hold her off,” Merritt said. “I knew she was back there the whole time, though.”

Roma said she wasn’t sure how she ended up behind Merritt, that she was trying her best to keep her sights on her slightly older brother “but just couldn’t keep up with his pace.” Still, she enjoyed the race, particularly because it benefited All Saints Regional Catholic School, where her niece and nephew attend school.

“I don’t think I’ve ever run in a race while it was snowing,” said Roma, who won the women’s division last year. “It was fun, though. It made for a great atmosphere, and I had a blast. I’m glad Jeff won, because he wasn’t able to finish last year.”

Merritt was glad not only that she won the overall women’s title, but also that her dad, 69-year-old Greg Merritt, took the top spot in his age group as well.

“We look forward to this race, and where do you find a run with this kind of theme? It’s unique and fun for this time of year,” said Greg, who finished in 33:50. “I’m not much into dressing up in costumes, but for this race it’s OK to dress up a little and run in an ugly sweater.”

The fifth-place finisher was Gavin D’Adamo of Waretown, who came in at 22:06.1. Long Beach Township’s Pat Pietredesa was sixth overall with a time of 22:29.5. Forked River’s Casey Collins, Bayville’s Jim Welshman, Forked River’s Lisa Collins and Manahawkin’s Mary Blais rounded out the top 10 in the 5K.

As for the 1-Mile Jolly Jog, it was no contest, as Brody Reynolds made winning the race look easy, finishing in just about nine minutes.

“I’m training for the 5K next year,” said the 10-year-old, who plays soccer with the Stafford Bulldogs and sported an ugly green sweater with a pair of gingerbread men on it. “It felt good to run the mile pretty fast. I like running. It’s fun.”

— David Biggy

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