Once a year, the running club I am fortunate enough to belong to, the Albany Running Exchange (ARE), has an annual Frun (TM, seriously) Day to celebrate our love of running, active lifestyles, and community. This year finds me sick on my couch with a glimmer of a hope of at least making it out to walk part of one of the many runs planned by club members today. This is, as a I mentioned in a previous post, a hard spot for me to be in: needing to sit still and rest. But, it is particularly hard on this day that I look forward to each year. So, here I sit in my ARE shirt blogging instead, and I thought I’d write a little bit about this club and why it, and supportive running clubs and communities in general, are so important, especially to us later-in-life runners.
I stumbled into ARE about 4 years ago. When I finally caught the running bug at age 36, I decided to do this thing called a Ragnar Relay, having only a few 5Ks under my belt at that point (because why not go from Couch-to-5K to captaining a team of 12 runners in completing a 200 mile overnight relay? It’s how I roll.) Anyway, I recruited my friend and former work colleague Matt to be on my team because he was a Big Time runner and super supportive of my beginning to run. He was the first person I got to sign up for my Ragnar team and we met up for a practice 3-miler at a local park to run some trails (I now know how excruciating this must have been for him as he is super speedy and I am, well, not, and even less so on trails). I had literally never run trails and declared to him that I “never” would do so again (spoiler alert: I love trail running now and prefer it to roads). He cheerfully talked to me as we run/walked about this running club he belonged to, the weirdly named Albany Running Exchange. He told me everyone was “weird,” but in the same way we were and that it was a group that was super supportive of all levels of athletes. He encouraged me to join. I quickly became a member of the club for the ridiculously affordable $10 per year (*hint, for our Club Prez Josh, we would all totally be OK with a slight uptick in the membership price). I signed up on-line, filled out my little profile, joined the Facebook group, and promptly forgot about it.
I did use the Facebook group to recruit some members for our Ragnar team, when, one week before the race, one of our stronger runners dropped out, leaving us with three unclaimed relay legs (captaining a Ragnar team really burns off those stress pounds, BTW).
But, other than that, I didn’t really do anything with the club. I figured it was for “real runners” and I wasn’t one of those yet, and doubted I ever would be. I was intimidated by the thought of running with others and weighing them down with my pace. Sometime in the fall of that year, after our Ragnar was successfully completed, Matt invited me to join him at a group run, including hill repeats, at “Coach Dick’s” down about an hour from Albany at a place called Olana. Since Matt and I live in the same apartment complex, he offered to drive, and I accepted, because I was pretty sure I wouldn’t go on my own as this prospect was terrifying to me. I now realize how ridiculously trial by fire this was. Running hill repeats at Olana is insanely hard. I knew no one except Matt and was surrounded by way speedier and way more fit people. I was completely intimidated, but I was there and had no choice but to muddle through. Everyone was supportive. As I was struggling down this hill that was bigger than any I’d ever run, they would pass me on the way up and tell me “good job” and it sounded like they meant it! Coach Dick was awesome. He gave me pointers about my breathing (I’ve always had way more issues with my lungs than legs) and was super supportive and said he hoped I’d come back (I will someday, Dick, I swear!) Still, I felt humbled and embarrassed. Maybe I didn’t belong in this club after all?
I continued to be a member of the club on-line only. But, in spring of the next year, I went to the club’s Dodge the Deer trail race – ARE’s kick off to the season. I brought my kids so they could run the kids’ races and a sitter so she could watch them while I ran the 5K. There were kids and parents everywhere, runners of all shapes and sizes. Everyone was having fun, club staff were dressed up in full deer, chipmunk, and bear costumes, there was loud dance music (I now know this to be standard for an ARE race thanks to Josh’s sometimes questionable taste in music), and a BBQ after. My eldest child, who has autism, was overwhelmed by all the sensory stuff happening so he chose not to run that year, opting for the playground instead (this year, having run multiple kids’ races in the years since, he will run the 5K with me at Dodge the Deer, although he’s still not a fan of “all the loud music.”). My littlest ran his first race ever, the Bully the Bear kid sprint, and got a ribbon. He was over the moon! This was the first time I started thinking “OK, maybe I belong?”
A few months later, I was planning my races for the summer and I really wanted to attend a yoga/running retreat. I didn’t know if there was such a thing, but I knew if there was, I could find it on the interwebs. While searching, an ad popped on the bottom of my screen. It was for the “Albany Running Exchange Trail Running Camp” in the Adirondack mountains. Hey! Wait! That’s that running club I belong to! It was only a few weeks away, but I checked and they had space available. I started to sign up and I got nervous, I’d only run trails that one not enjoyable time with Matt and I was still worried about being slow and embarrassed; what if this wasn’t where I belonged? I texted Matt and asked him if he thought I could “handle it.” He assured me I could and encouraged me to go, reminding me how supportive everyone in ARE is. So, I signed up. I remember being freaked out and excited, the way I am when I commit to something unknown and scary.
A few weeks later, I was headed up to the Dippikill Wilderness Retreat with a backpack, sleeping bag, glow sticks, brand new bright orange trail shoes (ah, the problems of having big feet), and butterflies in my stomach. I had no idea what I was getting into. I called my then-boyfriend in a panic on the drive up – I didn’t know anyone, what was I thinking? What if no one liked me? What if I was the worst runner there? He responded “since when have you had a problem making friends” and reminded me that the unknown has never stopped me in the past. True. I grabbed a 6 pack on the way up, even though I wasn’t sure we were allowed to bring alcohol. I hadn’t thought to ask, although I knew you had to be 21 to attend Camp (this is now a hilariously funny anecdote, since TRC is well-known as “adult sleep away camp” and I soon learned that one 6 pack wasn’t going to get me through one night, let alone 3!). I was going off the grid for 3+ days. I warned my ex-husband there would be no cell service and gave him the number for the Dippikill office in case something went down with the kids. This was the first time I would be largely out of touch with my kids, too. But, I felt like I needed this kind of adventure and disconnection from this crazy, non-stop world.
To say that weekend changed my life, is a bit dramatic, but it certainly changed my relationship to my running community and forged friendships that have lasted until today (so, maybe it’s not dramatic to say that). I became a “real” member of ARE that weekend at Camp. I learned a lot about myself out on the trails (trail running is such a different experience than road running), but more than that, I learned what this club with the funny name was all about: acceptance and support. You can read the history of ARE and its president Josh (hi Josh!) on the website, but what I experienced that weekend and in the years since, is that ARE continues to live up to Josh’s vision of being an all-inclusive community, supportive of any goals its members wish to achieve, and doing so by combining fun and hard work (fun+running=Frun, get it?). I’ve gone on to attend TRC for going on 4 years (it’s my non-negotiable “vacation,” because “vacation” to me encompasses a lot of running, yoga and core work, as well as swimming, relaxing, (optional) drinking, and a talent show. The weekend culminates in a very challenging 5 mile race up Dippikill Mountain, a race that almost always includes surprise appearances by people in frog costumes and one year, featured an unwelcome appearance by bees (the race is open to everyone, not just Camp participants, BTW).
The Club isn’t perfect, it has it’s tough spots and growing pains, like any community, but it is without a doubt, a huge contributing factor in my growth as a runner, an athlete, and as a person. It has also had a profound positive influence on my kids. Both of my children have learned not only how beneficial exercise is, but how important it is to support other runners during races. The feeling I get when I show up at a race and always know people, always get a few hugs before toeing the starting line and supportive words about whatever goal I am chasing, is indescribable. All of this happened because I was lucky enough that ARE exists and that I overcame my fears and self-doubts and showed up. I showed up and kept showing up, even when I knew no one, even when I was (and still am, at times) the slowest, even when it was uncomfortable. Never once has anyone from ARE made me feel I didn’t belong. And many of my adult friendships have been borne out of ARE events and group runs.
I’ve been lucky in that my only real experience with a running club (and ARE is so much more than that, really) is in this supportive little cocoon. I’ve had few brushes in other groups with those who put down us “turtles.” But, as my engagement in the running community at large has grown, I’ve heard stories from other runners across the country and seen how so many other running clubs can be elitist and non-inclusive. I’ve seen how they cut down, in subtle and not so subtle ways, those who don’t look like the stereotypical runner; are older, slower, not skinny, slow, a walker, etc. I’ve seen how it affects those who are criticized and excluded. Many times, they want to quit chasing their goals altogether, and come to these on-line groups I am a part of (Kelly Roberts’ #badassladygang, Skirt Sports #RealWomenMoveChallenge) for the support they should also be receiving IRL from their local running club. I now realize how rare and unique ARE is, and how lucky I am that I landed there. I don’t know if I would have continued running if I’d ended up in a club that was exclusionary. I don’t know, quite honestly, what my life would look like without my “ARE Fam.”
So, on Frun Day, we celebrate that family. We celebrate the commitment of each individual in our club to a life more fully lived, a life where we each set goals, and then help each other achieve them, a life where physical, mental and emotional health matter and where we value community. We celebrate and honor all shapes, sizes, ethnicities, and skill levels of athletes. We celebrate those who show up and we open our arms to those still sitting on the sidelines, who want to show up but are battling the fear that comes with doing so. Will you join us?
Postscript: I was able to make the Frun Day wine tasting run and it reaffirmed everything I already had written about ARE. It was a small group of varying abilities from walkers to Boston Qualifiers, but no one was left out or behind. When I showed up, still a bit ill, I told people they didn’t have to hug me and everyone waved me off and did anyway! We ran from our friends’ to the local wine store where they were doing a wine and whisky tasting. I may have succumbed to peer pressure and not only partook of the wine, but a shot of whisky. Our run back to the house may have been a little slower. All to say, I appreciate a group of people who work hard, support each other’s goals, and also know how to relax and have fun. There’s an instant ease with people who you know share the same general viewpoint about living life to its fullest. I also received another gentle reminder that pace is relative. My “turtle” pace is someone else’s fast and their pace allows me to remember what it’s like for the miles to fly by so much quicker because you’re able to chit-chat with some RBFs instead of fearing your lungs are going to explode out of your chest leaving you dead, but happy, on the side of the road.
*Thank you to Josh for giving this a preview read-through and thumbs up before publication and thanks to the friends’ whose pictures are here some with, some without their permission (if you are not OK with your picture being up, contact me and I will remove it!)