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Flying (Almost)

For the new faces of running, time is relative.


Thirty years ago, that drowning point was reached mostly by the mythic, bearded men with short shorts and tall socks, roaming the earth in pursuit of competition. If you were running a marathon in the years after Frank Shorter put the United States on the map with his gold medal in the 1972 Munich Olympics, or after running icon Jim Fixx dropped dead, thus becoming the sport's first martyr, chances are you were running to compete. You were running against the stopwatch at the finish line.

In a few days, 17,237 men, women and children will fill the streets for the Ukrop's Monument Avenue 10K, an event which since its start in 2000 has grown from a 2,500-person fun-run to the sixth largest 10K in the nation. Who are these people? Where are the socks? The beards? People are still running to compete, of course, but there's a growing number of people whose reasons for pushing beyond their drowning point are not dominated by the ticking of a timepiece.

Perhaps the sport is more accessible. Organizations like the Richmond Sports Backers, run clubs like the Richmond Roadrunners and charities like the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training have organized training programs and fun runs designed to appeal to those who want to run for health, for a sense of community or to save the world, one step at a time.

"Sports Backers caters to runners," says Tracey Russell, the organization's director of events. Since 1991, the sports commission has worked to make Richmond a city that appeals to runners at all levels with its ever-growing 10K, the 27-year-old SunTrust Marathon (taken over from the Richmond Times-Dispatch in 1998), and the off-road XTERRA and X-Country Festival at Maymont Park. The support Sports Backers has given the city has begun to attract runners from outside Richmond. "Someone comes in from out of town and sees that the Richmond community supports runners," Russell says.

Sports Backers works hand in hand with the venerable Richmond Road Runners, which for almost 30 years has been playing host and organizer to all sorts of races. With a membership of about 1,900, the club sponsors or supports a run almost every weekend. The combination of Sports Backers and Road Runners pounding the pavement creates a fertile soil for the sport to grow here. Add to that a fickle, but generally pleasant, climate, good trails and roads, and the new face of running appears on every corner, wearing socks of many lengths.

Who are these runners? How does a race like the 10K practically double in size every year? And whatever happened to The Jogger?

Don Garber has a few answers. As head coach for the Sports Backers' YMCA marathon training teams and the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society's Team in Training, as well as a member of the Richmond Road Runners, he represents one of the bridges between the experience of the first wave of runners and the new breed. "The type of person that you get is very similar in both groups," Garber says of the two training teams. "The basic demographic is the same: They want guidance. They don't want to do it alone."

Garber says the runners coming through the programs aren't the wiry greyhounds of yesteryear, for whom running was a calling. "The standouts aren't the people who are naturals," he says. "They aren't necessarily natural runners, but they become runners; the fact that it takes them two hours longer doesn't bother them. It's getting done."

That's quite a shift in thinking from the time-awareness that dictated a runner's success three decades ago. And as for the other, he says, "You look at a serious runner and call him a 'jogger,' and you'll get a dirty look."

The competitive runners of the jogging era have shaved their beards, hit their peaks and quietly retired, increased their distances, or done as Garber has, which is to say, teach. He points to his fellow trainer, Danny Shea, the head coach for the YMCA 10K team and a man well suited to the task of making what comes naturally to him sensible for folks more accustomed to the couch.

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