Dare the Pear: Week 1

Seconds before sunrise on Tuesday, a dozen self-professed couch potatoes showed up at the Ashland Family YMCA lobby and made confessions.

Eleanor Ponomareff of Talent is about to turn 50 and she'd like to be in better shape.

Kelle Lovett of Ashland said she wants to get motivated, but the 35-year-old may need someone to help her.

And Kim Levy, 25, of Ashland, hopes to train to run a 5K, but her 30-year-old sister, Lisa, thinks three miles of running "sounds terrifying."

One by one, 10 women and two men enrolled in the YMCA's Sofa to 5K Fitness Class announced their dream: To spend the next six weeks learning how to run, stretch and wear layers of the right clothing to keep as comfortable as possible while sweating and pushing physical boundaries.

The strangers range in age from 16 to 71 but are united in their quest to become race-ready for the Pear Blossom 5K run on April 14. They are committing to twice-weekly meetings, runs, strength training and advice from seasoned athletes.

Single mom Brieann Wilson was one of the people to pay $25 to enroll in the fitness class led by YMCA Health and Wellness Director Chip Layton and runner Sloan Dorr.

"I put my kids in sports," says Wilson, 27, who lives in White City and works in Ashland. "Giving myself this time could help me balance my life."

The group looked a little sleepy at the first meeting, which began at 6:45 a.m. Although the energy level was low, the trainees peppered Layton and Dorr with questions while seated in cushy chairs in the YMCA lobby.

Should shoelaces be loose or tight?

"I'm a barefoot-type of guy," said Layton. "I like mine loose."

Dorr added: "Friction causes blisters."

What if I get a side ache? Should I stop? Layton shook his head no. Dorr said, "Put your arms up in the air and keep moving."

How do I avoid shin splints? Layton said the injury can be prevented with proper warm-ups and stretches, then he demonstrated walking on his heels to build up the front part of his legs.

"Afterward, you can massage your legs with ice," he said, explaining that he freezes water in paper cups then rips the paper away when he needs them. "It's better than an ice pack."

Should I eat before class? A little caffeine and quick-digesting fruit wouldn't hurt, said Layton. Dorr said she got up an hour earlier so she could eat oatmeal and an egg. Yogurt doesn't work for her before a run.

"Know your body," she said. "That happens only through trial and error."

She then advised not to drink more than a cup of water before running or "you may have that sloshing feeling."

Layton promised to get their hearts racing. "We will start with a mile today," he said. "You can jog or run, but no walking."

Dorr explained that the difference between a walk and a run is the gait. "You always have one foot on the ground when you walk," she said. "In jogging or running, there is a floating stage."

Layton warned them not to get too ahead of themselves. "Don't sprint," he said. "You should be able to carry on a conversation. Work those muscles and keep the pace. If you feel like walking, don't. Just slow down."

Layton, in a knit cap and T-shirt although the air temperature was 32 degrees, said he'd prefer to hold all the running sessions outside, "unless there is a blustery wind."

Dorr, in her carefully layered, high-tech, polyester clothes designed to wick away moisture, looked over the crowd of sweatshirt wearers and said, "Cotton will become wet and heavy when you sweat."

With that, she segued into tips about breathing from the belly. Don't hold your breath. The more relaxed you are, the easier it is to breathe. "If it's cold, breathe air in through cloth," said Dorr, pulling her collar over her mouth.

Another question: Are we coming back to the YMCA? "We will always have a warm-up first and a cool-down afterward here," said Layton. "And a little ab work. I'm a firm believer in core strength."

A few facts were not covered. At last year's Pear Blossom 5K run, there were close to 2,000 people running, jogging, walking and stopping along the route, which starts outside Medford City Hall, at Eighth Street and South Oakdale Avenue. Participants go east on Eighth, north onto Fir Street, west on Main Street then turn around. "No one is ever far away from where they started," says race co-director Steven Buxton.

The Ashland YMCA trainees moved outside but still looked a little stiff. Layton tried to loosen them up with "easy" jumping jacks. With their arms over their heads and while jumping like bunnies up and down the parking lot, Layton told them that they were increasing their circulation. "But spread out, so you're not hitting each other," he called to the group.

To warm up their lower backs and ankles, he had them do sidesteps, rotating their hips, then marching with their arms stretched out and touching their fingers to their lifted toes. "I got you breathing hard already," he said.

There was no precision in their lines, but they were smiling. Clouds of hot breath fogged their faces.

And then they were off, briskly walking two by two, arms swinging at their sides, down Tolman Creek Road, over to East Main Street and up Clay Street, then finally downhill on Ashland Street to YMCA Way.

Layton mentioned missing the warmth of Florida. Dorr said she runs on her toes, "but that's not what most people do. Do what makes you feel comfortable."

It was so early that houses were quiet and snow still dusted the rooftops. A lone contractor stood outside a Tyvek-clad building. A few cars drove by, and then an almost-empty school bus.

"Run against traffic," said Dorr, slowly passing a traffic sign that stated 25 mph.

Tucker Whitson, 67, of Ashland mentioned between steps that he usually gets up around 5:30 a.m. "This is late for me," he said.

His wife, Cheryl, 61, said she is recovering from a broken ankle and is trying to see whether she can tolerate running. "It's a challenge," she said, turning a corner, "a good challenge."

"So far, so good," shouted Layton, encouragingly.

When the group arrived under the YMCA sign over the entrance of the building, they were told they had covered a mile in 20 minutes.

Last year's Pear Blossom 5K winner clocked in at under 18 minutes after three times the distance. But timing isn't important. The motto of the race is "Everyone's a Winner."

"Nice job, guys," Layton said in the yoga room as he led them through cool-down stretches. "Pick a point on the floor and kick your foot forward to work your hip flexors and hamstrings, and improve your balance, knee and ankle stability. Start low and move like a pendulum, nice and easy, arms opposite the direction of the legs."

Sweatshirts were peeled off. Then the group dropped to the floor to relax tight hamstrings with stretches.

After the hourlong class, Layton was optimistic. "They are all first-time runners, which I expected," he said. "But they are motivated. From what I saw, I think everyone will finish the race."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.

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