Training for a half marathon can be grueling and intense. The hobby isn’t glamorous, usually leading to blistered feet, sore joints and shin splints.
But local YMCA instructors April Heikkila and Franzine Potts have found a way to make the challenge a little easier. The two have proven that tackling long-distance running as a group instead of individually increases motivation, and is ultimately more fun.
“Training for a big race can be lonely,” Potts said. “Unlike a lot of other sports, running is something you do on your own and it’s easy to get discouraged.”
The coaching duo have assembled a mix-and-match group of local runners who are tackling next weekend’s Harbor Half Marathon together, meeting two or three times a week to prepare for the onerous 13-mile race.
For the second year in a row, Heikkila and Potts are teaching a half marathon class at the Grays Harbor YMCA. The class began in mid-April and is composed of 12 runners: men and women between the ages of 30 and 65.
Some of the runners are more experienced. A husband and wife completed the 10K class in the fall and joined Heikkila’s and Potts’ class this spring. One of the runners did the half marathon class last year.
Others have little to no running experience, like Diane Snell, the self-proclaimed mother of the group. For her, the class has been a way to get out, make friends and start enjoying life again.
“I’ve had a rough year, I lost my husband unexpectedly,” Snell. “And it’s been a lot harder for me because I’m a lot older than everyone else. But it’s really been great. It gets me out of my house instead of just sitting.”
She joined the class with her daughter, Molly Bold.
Snell said she’s noticed a large difference in her well-being — physically and mentally — since beginning training, and she’s determined to hold on to her healthy lifestyle change. She recently had a birthday and her children bought her a mountain bike.
Heikkila said it’s this kind of positive change that motivates her as an instructor, what pushes her to keep doing her job.
“I love the journey that the participants go through,” Heikkila said. “You see these great successes along the way. We’ve seen people get off of medications because they’ve participated. Everyone’s success is different and it’s measured differently.”
Jessica Liedtke and her husband Kris Liedtke said the class has been life-changing for them, too. The couple signed up for running classes last fall, running a 5K in October and a 10K in December. After meeting these challenges, they decided to sign up for the half marathon class.
“I’m really excited and really nervous for running the half marathon,” Jessica Leidtke said. “I’ve run 13 miles before in class, and that’s the farthest I’ve ever run. My goal is just to make it through the race without having to stop and walk.”
“The hardest part is getting started,” Kris Liedtke added. “Before that, we ran about zero miles.”
Rachael Rose is in the class a second year. She ran last year’s half marathon and a few 5Ks — but she didn’t keep up her training as much as she’s hoped to. Rose said training for races and keeping on track is much easier in a group.
“It’s so much easier when I have someone to push me,” Rose said. “(Potts and Heikkila) are tough, but it’s inspirational.”
All of the runners said they owe their success to Heikkila and Potts, who maintain a good balance in their teaching style. Potts is a life-long runner and Heikkila is a veteran coach. Potts understands how runners should pace themselves, while Heikkila knows how to motivate.
The instructors set up a training plan for all of the class participants. Some days are set aside for long runs, others are days off. There are also “alternative days” — days when the runners can choose to run or cross train. Beginners are required to run three days a week, the experienced runners do more.
“When you train for a race on your own, sometimes it’s hard to be accountable,” Potts said. “But, when you do it with a class, you’ve got someone who will ask you how you’re doing, someone who will email you daily and someone who will text you when you don’t come to class. And if they don’t know what to do, they can ask questions. Either April or I will know the answer right away or find the answer.”
The two instructors also motivate each other — Heikkila inspired Potts to start running again several years ago after taking time off from the sport. Potts signed up for a YMCA boot camp taught by Heikkila and fell back in love with running. Potts just reached one of her personal goals: this spring, she qualified for the Boston Marathon and will run in next year’s event.
“That’s cool — the class has pushed her to look at her goals, too,” Heikkila said.
The half marathon class stemmed from YMCA staff members pushing each other to run in different area events.
The group ran their first half marathon in support of Fitness Director Lisa Kless, who had recently recovered from breast cancer. They trained together and ran a race in Seattle.
“It was a really big deal to us,” Potts said. “And when you do something like that, you get so inspired. For me, it was overcoming a challenge of going that distance, but for Lisa it was something else.”
“You do it for different reasons — to lose weight, to boost self confidence or to raise money for something that means a lot to you,” she added. “You do it for different reasons, but, no matter what, you walk away feeling proud of yourself.”