Runners turn to groups for Louisiana Marathon training

With temperatures dipping into the high 50s and a steady rain overhead, the streets of Baton Rouge were empty for a time Tuesday night, but they wouldn’t remain that way for long.

About 40 people sought shelter from the elements under the overhang next to Happy’s Irish Pub on Third Street. Despite the miserable weather, most were engaged in jovial conversation.

Brandon Williams surveyed the crowd, most of whom were dressed in nothing more than short shorts and ultra-light T-shirts, and smiled.

“Sorry,” said Williams, who was leading the Happy’s Running Club. “We’ve got a light crowd tonight.”

He gave the group a short description of the route, which most had already memorized through sweat and small talk, and sent them on their way to disappear into the rain.

The Baton Rouge running boom is getting louder. Just a week before the city hosts the Louisiana Marathon, its residents are preparing to test to their mettle together.

Rain, shine or otherwise, running groups congregate at their usual places, stretch their limbs and take off down a pre-selected route like a flock of sneaker-clad birds.

“I wouldn’t miss it for a thunderstorm,” said Karen Edward, a Happy’s Running Club participant who will run the half marathon next weekend. “We ran in a hurricane.”

Local runners are dedicated to their group training sessions. The answers to why they train in a group are as varied as they are obvious to the group runner.

Accountability, structure, knowledge

Jenni Peters, who injected life into the Baton Rouge running community 12 years ago when she opened the Varsity Sports running store, said it boils down to two primary factors.

“It’s accountability and structure,” Peters said before gesturing to the steady downpour outside her office window. “Even on a day like today, people know there are going to be people in the rain at 5:30, and they’re going to be looking for them.

“Once they get there, they don’t even have to think about it. I’ve got a workout planned for them that is what they need to be doing a week from a half marathon or marathon.”

Lacey Witte, who serves as the head running coach for the Baton Rouge Fleet Feet running store, is familiar with what accountability can do for a running group.

Her pack meets every Wednesday for speed work, two words that are usually met with a groan from those in the running community. But the group mentality keeps people coming back for more, even if it’s a particularly hard workout.

Rather than deal with the playful taunts asking why they missed their midweek speed work, runners are finding a way to squeeze the group runs into their schedules.

“They meet friends at the group runs, and if they skip a run, everybody gives them a hard time,” Witte said.

Not only does the group mentality encourage accountability for the days the group meets, it keeps people honest outside the group as well.

Not wanting to fall behind those in the Fleet Feet group that match his pace, Jerry Falgoust uses his individual runs as a way to train for the group.

Falgoust is running the Louisiana Half Marathon next Sunday, his first half marathon, as part of his training for the Boston Marathon in April.

“Anything competitive is going to make me strive to do better,” Falgoust said. “You’ll hold yourself accountable for the runs you do on your own and make yourself goals, so the next time you’re running with the group you’re able to maintain your pace with the person that you want to run with.”

Intertwined with accountability is the structure the group provides. Varsity Sports and Fleet Feet both set up a 12-week training program with the Louisiana Marathon and Half Marathon in mind.

The schedule gives runners an opportunity to follow a tested method put together by those who’ve been there before.

“People all the time ask, ‘God, why didn’t I do this earlier? I was running by myself in the neighborhood, I really didn’t know what I was supposed to be doing in terms of distance or intensity,’ ” Peters said.

The schedule works. Ternisa Hutchinson, who is training for next weekend’s race with the Varsity Sports group, went from barely being able to run from one light pole to the next, to running a half marathon in 13 weeks.

But it’s a two-way street.

“Even if you are not at all athletic or anything, they can turn you into a runner — if you commit,” Hutchinson said. “You can’t just come out once and expect three months later to become a runner.”

Rhonda Brouillette joins Hutchinson for Varsity Sports’ weekly group runs. She completed two marathons a decade ago through her own training, but still felt lost on her own. She started tagging along Peters’ Varsity Sports group.

“After I met Jenni, I took an hour and a half off my marathon time,” Brouillette said.

Groups serve as the runner’s Internet message board for their list of ailments. But they’re the real-life version that doesn’t require a Wi-Fi password or inherent trust in something that can’t be seen or felt.

Odds are, someone somewhere in the group has experienced an injury and can give details on the right or wrong way to treat it.

“Everyone has an injury,” Brouillette said. “You can talk to everyone in this group and someone has a problem, whether it’s with the shin, knee or hip.”

With expertise in the form of people like Peters and Witte, runners can avoid injury all together by sticking to the plan.

“The way the program is set up, they try to do their best to make sure you don’t injure yourself,” Falgoust said. “It’s a positive of being in the group having someone tell you how hard to push yourself and how hard not to push yourself.”

The encyclopedic knowledge a running group claims isn’t limited to injuries.

If Peters were to guess, she’d say she’s run at least 50 marathons. Which means she’s prepared for at least 50 marathons. Which means she has a basic understanding of what works and what doesn’t.

“A person that was running her first marathon came up to me and said, ‘I just want something as simple as, ‘What do we eat the week before?’ ” Peters said. “So I can tell you what I would suggest, what’s worked for me.”

A social network

Next weekend, Mary Winnette is tackling her first full marathon. She started training with the group without the intention of running in the race, but encouragement along the way made a finish seem possible.

“People will tell you that you can do it, even though you think there is no way I can do this,” Winnette said. “And because they’ve done it, you know they’re telling you the truth.”

Perhaps nothing emphasizes the social aspect of group running better than Happy’s Running Club. The group meets every Tuesday night for a three-mile run, but that’s only part of the purpose.

After working up a sweat, the runners gather in the pub for some post-run merriment, usually in the form of beer, music and lively conversation.

“It’s kind of a night off without a night off,” Williams said. “A lot of people who come out to Happy’s are just looking for their casual run. They’re more so coming in to socialize and grab a drink after.”

It brings racers, too. Gene Edward uses the weekly meeting as part of his training for upcoming events, his next one being the Advocate Cypress 5K on Saturday.

Edward trains with Happy’s Running Club on Tuesdays, but he also uses the time to catch up with family.

“My daughter runs. My wife runs. My daughter’s boyfriend runs,” Edward said. “It’s just an opportunity for us to see them in the middle of the week doing something that we want to do.”

With that, Gene Edward moved with his daughter, Karen Edward, toward the edge of the overhang, getting ready to brave the elements with roughly 40 other like-minded people.

They ran out into the rain — to challenge each other, to chat and to eventually see the results in their upcoming races.

As Peters said about her group: “Misery loves company.”