- The Washington Times - Monday, October 3, 2005

Running is often a solitary pursuit, a chance to reflect quietly and relieve stress while burning calories and shaving seconds. For some, though, pounding the pavement all alone becomes, well, a little too lonely, particularly when training for a marathon.

“I think people join [running groups] for a couple of reasons. I think they want to become better runners, and I think they want support and encouragement,” says Jeremy Pietron, a member of Potomac Runners, a group that meets on the Mall and runs between six and nine miles two nights a week. The group also meets in Alexandria and runs up to 18 miles on weekends.

“The running group is a casual social group,” Mr. Pietron says. “We joke that it’s like the healthy version of the village pub. You enjoy seeing everyone, but there are no obligations.”

Some of the running clubs have membership fees, while others are less formal and free, including Potomac Runners and Fleet Feet Runners, based at the Adams Morgan Fleet Feet running-shoe store. Membership generally swells in the summer and fall as runners prepare for various local marathons, such as the Marine Corps Marathon in the District, the Baltimore Marathon and the Richmond Marathon, which all take place in late fall.

“We’ve been doing this for 21 years. We do it as part of our service to the community, and everyone is welcome,” says Phil Fenty, owner of Fleet Feet and running-group organizer.

It is true that everyone is welcome, but the minimum distance of the Fleet Feet Sunday fun runs is five miles, which can be a stretch for a beginner. On a recent Sunday the fun-run distance was closer to 6 miles.

“Well,” Mr. Fenty says and smiles, “it averages out to about five miles. They know what I mean by ‘five miles.’”

The route is decided by Mr. Fenty, who has run 54 marathons, and is given out just before the run, along with tips on hydration.

At this time of year, Mr. Fenty also offers free marathon training, and most of the 50 or so runners on a recent Sunday participated in the 16-mile marathon training run. Those training for the Marine Corps Marathon, which takes place Oct. 30, should be running about 60 miles a week now, Mr. Fenty says. A marathon is 26.2 miles.

“I’m running the Richmond Marathon in November, and I feel ready now,” says April Thompson, a District resident. “I ran for about four hours the other day, and it felt good.

“It’s comforting to know I can do it,” says Ms. Thompson, who participated in Fleet Feet’s recent 16-mile run. Ms. Thompson says running with groups — and she has tried several — is a good way of mixing it up, staving off boredom and loneliness.

It’s also about becoming faster and going farther, says Neil Hurwitz , a member of Potomac Runners.

“When I first started running with this group about six years ago, I really didn’t know what I was doing,” Mr. Hurwitz says.

He tells of arriving for his first run in cross-training shoes and Bermuda shorts and being told by Philip Davis, the group’s founder and organizer, that that just wouldn’t do.

“He basically said, ‘If you’re going to be serious about running, you need to get the right clothes and shoes,’” Mr. Hurwitz says.

Mr. Fenty says running shoes last between 200 and 300 miles, after which they should be replaced to ensure optimal performance and prevent injury.

Since his first run with Potomac Runners in 1999, Mr. Hurwitz has participated in four marathons, and he will be running the Oct. 15 Baltimore Marathon.

“He’s gone from being a recreational runner to being part of an elite group of runners,” says Mr. Davis, who also offers weekly track workouts for runners who want to build up strength and speed.

Mr. Hurwitz, who runs at least twice a week by himself, says the pressure of knowing other Potomac Runners expect him to show up next to the Reflecting Pool west of the Capitol at 6:15 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays also is a reason for his improvement.

“It’s a good kind of pressure,” Mr. Hurwitz says. “It helps me stay consistent.”

Mr. Hurwitz has improved his pace by about 1 minutes per mile in just six years. He now runs 7-minute miles.

Many running groups, while improving their own well-being, also are involved in improving the health or condition of others. Potomac Runners collects clothes for the District’s homeless, and Fleet Feet is raising money for Hurricane Katrina’s victims. One of the nation’s premier charity training programs is the National AIDS Marathon Program, which has raised $55 million to fight AIDS since 1998.

But runners would be quick to point out that they’re not just health fanatics and do-gooders, although that doesn’t sound like such a bad combination. They also know how to have fun, relax and socialize.

“After runs, a lot of them go to Tryst, the coffee shop on 18th Street,” says Mr. Fenty, who adds that many runners have gotten to be close friends through the years; some have even used the group for blind dates.

Daryn Crockett, who has four marathons under her belt and has been a frequent Fleet Feet runner since 1999, nods in agreement.

“The social aspect is really important,” Ms. Crockett says. “I’ve made very close friends here.”

But not quite as close as the friend Amy Morrill Bijeau made in 1999. She had been running with Fleet Feet for a few years and had done a couple of marathons when she bumped into Luc Bijeau during the marathon training program.

“We got to know each other pretty well during those long miles,” Ms. Morrill Bijeau says. “I ended up getting injured that year and was unable to do the marathon. But I got another prize: a husband.”

More info:

• Fleet Feet Runners, 1841 Columbia Road NW, Washington. Phone: 202/387-3888. Web site: www.fleetfeetdc.com. Offers marathon training July through October and five-mile fun runs year-round. Free.

• Potomac Runners, Alexandria. Phone: 703/578-1439. Web site: www.potomacrunners.org. Offers marathon training year-round. Some runs on the Mall, others in Alexandria. Free.

• National AIDS Marathon, 1015 18th St. NW, Washington. Phone: 202/543-2786. Web site: www.aidsmarathon.com. Participants are required to raise funds to fight AIDS.

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