Coach Todd Rose (right) reminds AREC members of the day's course before they leave for their training run. Photo: Jason Ruiz, others courtesy of AREC.
The thought of running 26.2 miles for fun is not a common, dare I say sane, thing for a person to contemplate. Add in the fact that according to Greek prose, the race derives from the ill-fated trip of a courier named Pheidippides, delivering news of victory at the Battle of Marathon—he died—and it’s understandable that on average only half of one percent of the United States population has undertaken this challenge before.
But, if you’re a glutton for chafing in places you didn’t know could chafe, or you laugh in the face of double-digit mile training runs, there’s a club for you in Long Beach. Founded in 1982, A Running Experience Club (AREC) has been prepping first-time marathoners for the Long Beach course and providing a safe-haven for those who just can’t kick the pounding of the pavement for nearly 30 years.
AREC Coach Todd Rose joined the group in 1996, three years after running his first marathon, and served as president of the non-profit from 1999-2011. He’s curated a regimen for runners looking to train for their first full- or half-marathons, one that he can tweak based on individual abilities. Having trained for his first three marathons on his own, Rose knows the pitfalls of going it alone.
“I wish I knew then what I know now. I knew I had to put some long runs in but I didn’t really understand progression training and doing different kinds of speed work and tempo runs,” Rose said. “I knew I could run, I knew I had ability but I never really had structure.”
Rose’s plan may contradict conventional wisdom that in order to run 26.2 miles, one just needs to gradually increase the length of one's training runs. He incorporates a variety of tools into his program including speed drills, Fartlek method training and one often overlooked but equally important aspect of distance training; rest.
He sends out weekly newsletters reminding runners of the importance of keeping on course with the workout plan, but also to reinforce that they shouldn’t run through injuries. He explains what every seasoned distance runner knows to be true; that while there are mental barriers your body can push through, one of the hardest lessons to learn is the difference between pain and injury.
“Listen to your coach,” a laughing Rose said of the number one tip he gives to his runners before correcting himself. “Listen to your body, actually, is the best thing you can do. Your body tells you things all the time, good and bad—listen to it.”
The club provides the structure that Rose and other runners who set out on their own training path lack. A schedule of how many miles a person should be logging weekly as race day approaches helps keep runners on a healthy incline of activity that can help prevent injuries. The social structure of running in a group also offers a kind of built-in accountability and motivation. And the earned wisdom of how invaluable a $20 pair of socks can be, as well as a few strategically placed Band-Aids.
However, training as a first-timer also has its benefits.
“They don’t know what they don’t know; I think that’s an advantage,” Rose said. “You don’t know that it’s that hard—you’re just out there doing it. I think the second one is the hardest because you think you’ve figured it out now and maybe you’ve gotten a little complacent in your training and say ‘well, I’ve done this before.’
AREC’s training program is mainly geared toward getting participants primed and ready for the Long Beach course, but it operates year-round for those running the Orange County courses, and for locals training for New York (November), Boston (April) or other domestic and international runs.
Training with a pack of about 100 other runners on Saturday mornings, the day the club hosts its long-haul trainings, also provides natural pace groups as runners of similar paces flock together. Jeffrey McKinney, the group’s vice president of public relations, says this not only keeps people interested, but limits the mental toll of training alone.
“I think that the struggle for many people, especially those new to running, is the fact that running can be a very lonely endeavor,” McKinney said. “A running club like AREC not only fills that void, but also provides a unique support system where its members are surrounded by a passionate group of enthusiasts who are a constant source of encouragement and inspiration.”
McKinnney would fall into the upper echelon of the experience and ability that is present in the club. He recently volunteered to help pace a friend during a 100-mile run and has completed several marathons with a personal best that’s well under the three hour mark. One would think a person like McKinney has got this marathon training thing down and could forego the program, but he keeps coming back.
He shares that with David Kuntz, the club’s former president who’s completed over 40 marathons. In 2002 when he came on board, Kuntz said that the club’s Wednesday night runs averaged about five people per run and the club’s overall membership hovered around 150.
It doesn’t hurt that the club’s annual fee of $25—a fraction of what some other area running clubs charge, which is usually upward of $100—gets runners an AREC shirt and includes the marathon training program as well as the necessary water and snack stations that are vital during the Saturday morning runs, the latter made possible by donations from Long Beach Run Racing, an official partner of the Long Beach marathon.
Since Kuntz came aboard, the club has undergone an organic explosion in terms of growth, with the club’s membership swelling to about 550 runners and the Wednesday night run turnouts averaging several dozen people. Kuntz said the growth of the club has been largely due to word of mouth and the experience of attending a run locking runners in.
“You meet new people every week,” Kuntz said. “You can imagine with 500 people there are so many stories out there.”
And the stories are as varied as the runners’ abilities.
Keith Mason found the group when researching where and how to train for his first and only full marathon to date, back in 2009. He said that “killing himself” with long runs on the weekend by himself was always a tough endeavor, but since joining the club it’s become more bearable. The runners’ shame, that feeling runners might get when they have to break their stride and there are others around to notice, has also pushed him to become a better runner.
“The social aspect really helps because there’s a whole group of people and it kind of gets you motivated,” Mason said. “You don’t wan’t people passing you when you’re walking. There’s a little bit of social pressure to keep you going.”
Kevin Loper and his wife, Jackie, are among the newest AREC members. The San Pedro residents joined the club about two months ago to train for this year’s Long Beach half marathon. While his wife has completed a full marathon before, Kevin, who had predominantly stuck to tennis before taking up running, is optimistic that if he sticks with AREC he can push himself to eventually run 26.2.
“Maybe next year,” Loper said. “If we can stay healthy.”
For Amy Furuyama, next year is this year. The 30-year-old from Orange County made herself a promise that she’d run a full marathon before her 31st birthday, which is just weeks after this year’s Long Beach course. She said she’s been trusting the process by which Rose has subscribed, taking one run at a time and trying to keep up on her mid-week runs before she shows up for group training on Saturdays.
She’s gleaned tips from fellow runners and guest speakers that AREC scheduled for appearances Saturday runs—tips such as choosing English muffins over bagels, because they’re lighter, as well as how to partition the run into multiple 5Ks—that she hopes will help her when race day finally comes around. As for when she finally crosses the finish line near Alamitos Beach, Furuyama said she’s not quite sure what to expect.
“I think I’ll feel exhilarated that I’ve finally accomplished this great feat,” Furuyama said. “I’ll feel very proud of myself. Maybe I’ll have some tears in my eyes, I don’t know.”
Though knee surgery has all but ended Rose’s career as a runner, he remembers his first marathon like it was yesterday, as well as the lessons he’s learned in between. He hopes to participate in this year’s 5K/20 mile bike ride event, and to be finished in time to greet his runners at the finish line. Because as their coach, especially the first timers, seeing their faces when they complete the transformation from non-runner to marathon finisher is priceless, he said.
“This is why I love doing this, to watch them cross the finish line, it’s indescribable,” Rose said. “A lot of people will cry when they finish. They just break down, they can’t believe they did it and it’s a hell of an accomplishment and they should feel proud and happy.”