By Brittany Vickers
Rays from the early morning sun waned through snow filled clouds. It was a chilly Saturday morning in January, a few leftover flurries from last night’s snowstorm drifted down. My car clock read 7:30 a.m. 19 degrees.
Cars crowded a shockingly full parking lot at Thomas Worthington High School. People bundled up in leggings, sweatpants and brightly colored jackets all shuffled in the same direction. Each person completed his or her look with running shoes.
I joined the flow towards the school’s entrance and suddenly I was surrounded by at least 200 bubbly, chatty people – ready to brave the weather for their weekend run.
According to the statistics, a possible 1,000 runners surrounded me. 67 percent female, 37 percent male, 46 percent of us were beginners, 45 percent experienced and nine percent advanced, all of us training for some type of marathon; 57 percent taking on the full 26.2 miles and the remaining 43 percent of us taking on 13.1 miles.
I was looking for Jeff, the head coach of Marathoners In Training (MIT).
“There is Jeff, he’s the tallest guy you’ll ever meet,” a fellow runner with dark hair and a headband pointed across the slew of bodies. Indeed, Jeff stood two or three heads taller than everyone else in the crowd. I later learned he is “unofficially the tallest runner in Columbus,” from his online biography.
I made my way over. “You must be Brittany!” he said.
I sized him up: runner’s leggings, Brooks shoes, tufts of brown hair poking up a bit here and there, a bright yellow jacket with letters advertising, “MIT” and a marathon sized smile. He was oozing passion.
A runner for life, Jeff began his career on the Thomas Worthington high school cross-country team. He continued his running at Otterbein University, and was determined to keep running post-college. So, in 2004 he signed on as Thomas Worthington’s head cross-country coach. Saturday morning meets meant the bus left early from the school, and Jeff and his team weren’t the only people standing outside in their running gear.
“I kept seeing all of these people getting together to run,” Jeff recalled. “I thought, ‘Man, I want to be a part of what they’re doing.’”
So what is MIT doing? That’s what I was there to find out. May 13, the day of my very first half-marathon, was looming close in my mind. I wanted to do well so badly! But whenever I mentioned it to my friends and family they all looked at me like I was crazy: “13 miles!?” “You’re insane.” “Good luck with that!” I turned to scouring the Internet, and stumbled across MIT’s website.
“Change your life. One mile at a time.”
A clickable slogan if I’ve ever seen one. The hyperlink lead me to a website full of testimonials, photos of smiling, fit people and lists of training program potentials for halfs, fulls and multi-sport races. All this in Columbus, Ohio? The same city listed in 2002 as the sixth-fattest city in America?
Yes, MIT is in Columbus, and has been since 2000, when it began with just 90 participants and 4 volunteer running coaches. Since 2001 the group has run approximately 2.7 million miles together, with it’s largest group the summer of 2012, totaling over 1,000 runners and 60 coaches.
The group runs together on Wednesday nights and Saturday mornings, does core and cross training workouts Tuesday and Sunday mornings and attends a myriad of clinics on today’s relevant health and wellness topics.
The program options include the Full Marathon package, the Half Marathon package, the Multi Sport package or the Year Long membership.
The Full Marathon package is a 20-25 week program, depending on the date of your marathon, at $120 for new members and $100 for alumni.
The Half Marathon package consists of a four-month program, costing $100 for newbies and $80 for alums.
The Multi Sport Package comes in full or half options and is offered at the same price. It includes the addition of multi-sport specific clinics.
Finally, you could join for the year, which allows you to train for multiple races all year, for a fee of $200 or $160 depending on your previous member status.
So, I read the website, and on my first trip to Thomas Worthington I thought there was no way in hell anyone else was braving the 19-degree temperatures to go for an 8 a.m. run.
“Our 10:30 group is awesome!” Jeff parted the sea of runners to introduce me to my pace coach for the day, Randy.
Randy grinned back at me, held up his 10:30 pacer sign and led our group to the door. Spry on his feet, greying hair covered by a hat, Randy’s wiry strength gave him a sturdy and reliable look, and he engaged me in friendly conversation.
“How long have you been with MIT?” I ask.
“Oh, I’ve been coaching for probably seven years, but running since 2000.”
“How many marathons have you run?”
“Somewhere over 28…”
I think my jaw may have dropped on the spot. He just grinned, “I trained for the first few myself, but then I found this group. It’s something special. And then I found my running partner, Jill!”
He pulled in a tiny blonde woman in a pink “coach” vest. She laughed; her shy smile and spindly legs shouldn’t be mistaken for weakness, though – she had a look of steely determination about her as she led the other half of the 10:30 group.
As we made our way outside I couldn’t help but notice Randy’s conversation with almost every runner we passed, “Hey, how ya doin’ there, Dave?” “Tim! How’s the knee?” “It’s great to see you out again Sarah!”
And, although Randy spoke to a remarkable nine out of every ten, it wasn’t just him. I made a 360-degree turn: hugs, high fives, waves and cheery greetings. Everyone knew each other, more than that – everyone seemed to really like each other.
“This is where all my friends are!” 5’2”, her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Mikea’s face peered out from between her furry head band and high collared jacket. She started MIT because she had baby weight to lose and she couldn’t make it past the three-mile hump (today we were running six).
Now she runs with a close knit group of MIT women, at what she jokingly calls the 10:36 minute pace due to occasional injuries, 4 or 5 times a week.
“MIT changes your life,” she told me, “I’ve met my best friends here, lost my baby weight and run a marathon. I love coming every time, these are seriously the best people.”
MIT is run out of the Fleet Feet store in Polaris, a franchise operation with a small town feel. I went to see the shoes, Jeff in his natural habitat and what Fleet Feet was all about.
Shiny storefront windows glimmered in the winter sun. I walked in and immediately focused on the back wall, which featured a rainbow of shoes – every color, style and type you could imagine. Jeff and I sat next to the glorious wall of shoes and chatted.
He told me stories of his mom and dad rediscovering running through MIT; how out of his 60 volunteer coaches just two of them would consider themselves lifelong runners – the rest had found their passion later in life through MIT; how the passing of a group member led to a funeral procession of running jackets in every color.
He gave me story after story, person after person, life after life, that MIT had changed, one mile at a time. If he can get just half of the “bucket list” people, as he called them, to stay with MIT as an existence and not just a checklist, he was making a difference.
This group isn’t just a workout. It’s a lifestyle. Every person I spoke to at MIT said, “Yes, we’re crazy, but I’m so glad to be a part of this.” Jeff, Randy, Doug, Mikea, Tim, Anne, Jill and so many others who were friendly enough to let me pester them as we ran – not one of them had a negative word to say.
No matter where they started or where they were headed in their life, Saturday mornings were the release, the escape, and the best way to start their weekend.
They don’t come just to run; they stay after and catch up, they meet up at local restaurants for a weekly breakfast gathering and they join book clubs together. Those are just a few examples from the people I had a chance to talk to.
In the short span of time I was attending, I was invited to several of these activities and immediately accepted without a second thought. If I was crazy enough to join them on their Saturday run, I was crazy enough to join them in the rest of their endeavors.
Bodies warm, steamy breaths and spirits high – the final half-mile felt like flying. I ran in next to Dave, who’s making a comeback with the group after taking some time off. We chatted for a while about his stepdaughter’s volleyball career and college decisions.
It felt like we were already fast friends, we exchanged numbers and I offered my advice to his stepdaughter regarding collegiate volleyball decisions. He smiled and told me how proud he is I’m taking on the half in May.
I walked to my car feeling completely exhilarated. One run and I was hooked.
On my last visit to MIT, Jeff gave me an offer I can’t refuse, “Come back and train with us. We would love to have you!” And I will be back, college student or not – my foreseeable future on Friday nights revolves around my Saturday morning run. The crazy in MIT is contagious; but if you ask me, it’s worth catching.