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Going Clubbing...Sports-Style

Written by Richard A. Lovett
Posted Jan 16, 2008
I'm don't remember exactly when I joined my first running club, but I have vivid memories of the club itself. It was the Ann Arbor (Michigan) Track Club, and someone I'd met at a race must have persuaded me to attend a track workout. 

The workouts weren't super formal -- the emphasis was on fun -- but they were just what I needed to step up my training another notch. More importantly, I was now part of a group. We were the ones who, after pushing ourselves in the midsummer humidity, would adjourn to a pub where we were known as the odd group who wanted one pitcher of beer and two of water. 

Within two summers, I'd shaved 1:40 off my 10K time, knew the best places for lunch after a Saturday workout (including one that featured what a teammate called "nine-mile pie" -- rich enough to negate that many miles of effort), and, with various clubmates, had done outings ranging from barbeques and sailing to a weeklong backpacking trek.

A good club, I'd discovered, is family. One of my training partners was a national-class marathoner named Ann. We only ran together for a couple of seasons, but afterward we exchanged Christmas cards as I wandered West and she raised a family. Then one day, she showed up in Portland, my present home. Her oldest child was now a high school senior, checking out West Coast colleges. We went for a 14-mile run, and, other than the fact we were nearly two decades slower, it was as though the previous years had never existed.The best training partners are friends forever. And where better to find them than a club, chock-full of kindred spirits?

Runners aren't the only ones to have discovered this. "Camaraderie makes all the difference," says Drew Puckett, a member of the Portland Triathlon Club.Coaches agree. "Clubs offer companionship," says Bob Williams, a Portland, Oregon, coach whose clients range from national-class contenders to recreational racers. "That's invaluable, particularly during the winter months when it's so hard to train." 

Charlotte Richardson, coach of Team Athena, a 65-member women's-only club in Portland, adds: "It's so easy to say, 'Oh, I'll do that hard workout tomorrow.' But the fact that people are waiting for you is a great motivator."

If you're into serious racing, clubs offer a sense of "team" that most people never get unless they raced in high school or college. My current club once challenged a club from a neighboring city to turn a road race into a dual meet. And each fall, we gear up for a cross-country running series sponsored by a local shoe store. Our men's and women's teams both have rivals, and a great deal of scheming goes into how to (sometimes) beat them.

You don't have to partake in team races to enjoy being part of a club. Sometimes it's fun just to cheer. But the difference between a club and the type of hand-picked elite racing squad fielded by some corporate sponsors is that club teams are open to athletes of all abilities. If you've paid your dues and you show up, you're on the team.

"It's a 'no-cut' policy," Williams says. "You don't have to be fast. Everybody's welcome. People see their friends getting better and they get a lot of emotional energy from it. That's special."

There are, of course, practical limits. While most clubs are open to anyone with the will to compete, you do at least need to be able to run (or pedal) around the bock. For running clubs, the shortest training runs are usually 3 miles, sometimes longer. For cycling clubs, the limiting factor is pace. If the best you can do (or want to do) is to amble along at 10-12 miles per hour, in most clubs you're going to get dumped.

It's also important to realize that while you can get faster by working out with faster people, there's a distinction between that and turning every workout into a race. Pushing too hard, too often, not only isn't the optimal training formula, it can get you hurt. "You have to know your limits and not let your adrenaline get ahead of you," says Williams. "Some people don't realize just how competitive they are." 


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