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Going Clubbing...Sports-Style

Written by Richard A. Lovett
Posted Jan 16, 2008

Picking a club isn't quite like a marriage -- dues are generally less than the cost of dinner and a movie, so it's easy to walk away -- but it's not a decision to be entered into too lightly. Some clubs have only a few members; others have thousands. Some cater to one age group, some to another. Some are multi-generational. Some are once-a-week-groups; some have activities 365 days a year. They can be laid back, or cater primarily to hammerheads.

Some clubs are easy places to be more-or-less anonymous; others offer social calendars capable of consuming as much of your life as you wish. In my club, there's always a group that gets together for Thanksgiving dinner, and there are lots of other parties. I like that, but I have a very flexible schedule. People whose lives are more cluttered may prefer clubs catering to those who merely want training partners. 

But even the largest, most anonymous-seeming clubs generally have core groups that behave like clubs-within-a-club. They aren't cliques; they're simply people who want more than the average member has time for. My second club was the Minnesota Distance Running Association. At the time, only a handful of us did the midwinter Saturday runs: a half-dozen miles around plowed bike paths in sub-zero weather. I only discovered those runs on my last winter before leaving the state, but those icicles-in-your-beard workouts were among my fondest memories of Minnesota. We were only a tiny fraction of the club, but we had fun together, and a few weeks later, when the weather warmed up (by Minnesota standards), I ran my lifetime best 5K. 

A lot of groups are also heavily involved in "giving back" to their communities. Richardson's Athenas and my own Team Red Lizard may be rivals on the roads, but we think alike on this. Between us, we've helped the Special Olympics, the Livestrong program, and the Portland Marathon. We've served meals to the homeless and helped various other charities, running-related and otherwise. 

Other groups give back by volunteering at races or putting on their own events. Because clubs differ so widely, Richardson encourages people to test-drive them before joining. "Come and ask the others what they think of the club and find out what their running values are," she says. "See if this is a group you want to be part of." 

What are running values? "Things," she says, "like, 'I want to compete,' or, 'I just want to run for fun." Someone who simply wants to get fit isn't going to do well in a coached club whose emphasis is on performance. And a performance-oriented athlete won't be a good fit in a group in which nobody cares about speed.How long you can test-drive a club varies. "We give people an opportunity to come to two workouts without joining," Richardson says. 

Other groups allow people to visit as many times as they want. The presumption is that if you fit, you'll eventually join -- and even if you never do, your company is still appreciated. When you've found the right group, though, there are often substantial incentives to join. The list varies but often includes T-shirts, low-priced racing uniforms, Internet message boards, and discounts at sports stores or other sponsors. Coaching may also be available. 

Also popular are race series, in which club members accumulate points by participating in designated races. Typically, scoring is set up so that prizes don’t necessarily go to the swiftest. In my club's summer series, simply showing up for five races is equivalent to winning one.  But ultimately, in many clubs, as Lance Armstrong famously wrote, "It's Not About the Bike." Or the running shoes. Or the wetsuit. Or at least, that's not all that it's about.

"When you train and compete," Williams says, "you're at the soul level of your being, because you have to be able to dig down into your soul to get that. "What this means is that a club can be a lot more than simply a training group. "It becomes an opportunity to share your life," Williams says. When a member of my club was stricken with cancer, dozens of people rallied round. It's the same with lesser crises, from broken bones to a bad race. A lot of clubs behave similarly. When the magic happens, training friendships not only last forever, they run deep.

Finding Your (Club) Match

Even a casual web search reveals dozens of clubs in Washington and Oregon. There is no way to list them all, but check out our resources page for running clubs near you.

Richard A. Lovett is the co-author of Alberto Salazar's Guide to Road Racing, and coaches Portland's Team Read Lizard.

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