Twelve years ago, Pat Brighton was looking for a challenge. So the St. Petersburg resident headed west to climb 14,411-foot Mount Rainier.
"It was cold, windy . . . we never made the summit," she said. "So I came back home and decided that I needed to do something, a major accomplishment, for myself."
Brighton had heard about a local program designed to help beginning runners achieve their fitness goals.
"At 50, I had never run before," said Brighton, now 61. "But I wanted to do a marathon."
So Brighton joined USA Fit, which advertised that it could take any couch potato, and in just six months, get them across the finish line of a 26.2-mile road race.
"It sounds unbelievable," she said. "But that is exactly what they did."
New Year's plans
Jan. 1 is a day when many people set fitness goals for the coming year. But many of those exercise plans are quickly abandoned as soon as the grim reality of a daily fitness routine kicks in. Working out every day is hard, especially when you're going it alone.
So it's smart to look for support, whether at a gym, through exercise classes, with a personal trainer, or even by starting a neighborhood walking group.
Another way of making your resolution stick is a specific goal that gets you excited. If you're taking on the challenge of a marathon, programs like USA Fit Tampa Bay that offer expert coaching are essential to avoiding injury and increasing endurance so you can reach your goal. (See sidebar at right to find a running group that's a good fit for you.)
Plus, as Brighton notes, you can't underestimate the power of teamwork. "You always have friends there to help you along,'' she said.
USA Fit Tampa Bay is a 26-week running program, one of more than 50 held each year nationwide. The season typically begins in July and finishes with a marathon in January. This year, the runners trained for the Disney Marathon, which is on Jan. 9.
The program provides registered runners with a weekly training plan that is based on time, not miles. Then on the weekends, the group run follows a planned route complete with rest/water stops, like a regular road race.
"It takes a lot of the guesswork out of it," Brighton said. "You know exactly what to do and when to do it to be successful."
Jennifer Lounsberry likes to show her 5-year-old daughter, who is legally blind, that anything is possible.
"I just started running seriously a year ago," the 33-year-old said. "I had done a few triathlons, and loved the swim and bike but hated the run."
To overcome that issue, Lounsberry decided to join a running club, but found that some were too tough for her. "All the workouts were set up in terms of miles," she said. "It was too much for me." USA Fit made it "much easier for me to keep track of minutes instead of miles," she said. "A year ago I couldn't run 3 miles without stopping. Now I can run a half marathon, no problem."
Next weekend, Lounsberry and dozens of other runners from the local chapter will compete in the Disney Marathon, one of the largest races in the country.
"This has been one of the best decisions that I ever made in my life," she said. "It has given me a real sense of pride in myself."
Veterans and beginners
Ray Bailey has run more than 10 marathons and half marathons in the past decade, thanks to USA Fit Tampa Bay. "When I started, I couldn't even run to answer the phone," said the 51-year-old budget analyst for the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs.
Looking at photos of himself jolted him into realizing he had put on weight — about 60 pounds. "I knew I had to do something," said the Clearwater resident. "So I started walking, then jogging."
He signed up for Fit Tampa Bay and on the first day, saw the other runners and thought he could never look like them. "But I stuck with the program," he said. "My goal was to finish a marathon on my own two feet and I did it."
He enjoyed the experience so much that he keeps coming back year after year. "Next week at Disney I will run the Goofy Challenge," he said. "I'll do the half marathon on Saturday and the full marathon on Sunday."
Brighton has since become a coach and now helps beginning runners. In the past decade, she has run several marathons as well as two Ironman distance triathlons.
"That first marathon was the hardest," she said. "I had a lot of problems, but I finished."
She tells new recruits that their attitude is the key.
"If you want," she tells them, "you can do it."
JOIN THE TEAM
The Tampa Bay area has lots of programs to help beginners and experienced runners reach their goals. Your local running-shoe store is a great place to look for recommendations, and so are local gyms. Check each program's website to make sure it's appropriate to your current fitness level and your long-term goals. You may need to try more than one to get the right fit.
USA Fit Tampa Bay: For both beginners and more advanced runners who want to complete a marathon. Training runs are in St. Petersburg starting in July. www.tampabayfit.com.
Take . . . the First Step: Carrollwood area
running coach (and Personal Best columnist)
Lynn Gray emphasizes overall fitness in her training programs suitable for all fitness levels. www.firststepprograms.com.
Tampa Bay Runners: Has been operating for more than 25 years and has programs for all levels in running, biking and swimming, weekly runs in Temple Terrace and Carrollwood, and social events. www.tampabayrunners.com.
Tampa Progressive Training Team: Geared for serious runners and triathletes, this group holds practices at the University of Tampa and the Clearwater High School track. www.runprogressive.com.
St. Pete Road Runners: For runners and walkers at all levels, the group offers programs in St. Pete Beach and St. Petersburg, including boot camp training. www.sprr.org.
Fishhawk Road Runners Club: This East Hillsborough group offers "something for everyone,'' from 1-mile runs to marathons, and emphasizes trail races as well. Its 14th Annual FishHawk Road Race is Feb. 5. www.fishhawkrunning.com.
SCHEDULE YOUR MOTIVATION
We've looked at the year ahead and found some road races to raise your heart rate, and in some cases, raise money for a good cause at the same time.
Gasparilla Distance Classic, Feb. 26 in downtown Tampa: One of Tampa's best-known road races attracts elite runners and first-timers alike because runners can participate in several events: the 15K, the 5K run or walk and a Stroller Roll (9:50 a.m.). There are also combo challenges like the 15K and 5K, and the half marathon and 5+3K. The Beck's Light Challenge lets you enter all but the 8K. See www.tampabayrun.com.
Zoo Zoom, March 5 (or Zoo Run Run in September) at Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa: This early morning 5K run/walk winds through the zoo and along the Hillsborough River. In addition to a terrific view, you get admission to the zoo that day, a T-shirt and postrace refreshments. It's $25 advance, $27 after Feb. 20. Visit the zoo's website to download a registration form at www.lowryparkzoo.com. (813) 935-8552.
Trout Creek Trail Run, March 6: This is a one-of-a-kind trail run in the countryside of Trout Creek Wilderness Park in Thonotosassa. You get gorgeous scenery for a challenging 5K and 15K trail run that winds through the pines, oak hammocks and lakes using single and double track trails in Trout Creek. For details, see www.tamparaces.com/TroutCreek.
Fight for Air Climb, March 26, Bank of America building in downtown Tampa: This American Lung Association fundraiser has racers climb from the basement to the 42nd floor of Tampa's tallest building. That's 914 stairs, but you go at your own pace, resting at every landing if you want, with water stations strategically located in the building. The winning time last year was 4 minutes 55 seconds, but the average is about 15 minutes. Each participate raises a minimum of $100. Don't have any stairs to climb? The bank building is open for training on Saturdays from 7 a.m. to 11 a.m. and Tuesdays and Thursdays from 7 a.m. to 5 p.m. for registered participants. See www.altavistasports.com for event details.
2011 Relay For Life: The American Cancer Society holds this relay around the globe at schools, parks or stadiums where teams camp out and have one team member walking or running a track for 24 hours "because cancer never sleeps." In the Tampa Bay area, it is held at various times and locations, such as the big gathering April 29-30 at Safety Harbor Middle School or Gulf High School on April 8 in New Port Richey. There's a kickoff party Jan. 19 at the Safety Harbor library for teams to learn more about that relay, but there are dozens of them around the region. To find a local relay, see www.relayforlife.org/relay.
Squiggy Classic Inline Weekend, March 11-13: The second weekend in March, wheels take over Flatwoods Wilderness Park in Wesley Chapel. The 7-mile paved loop road has always been popular with inline skaters, bicyclists and runners. The Squiggy events include a skate in the dark Friday night, time trials Saturday, a half marathon and a marathon 26.2-mile skate on Sunday. See www.squiggyclassicinline.com for details.
Sunset at the Pier Series: Fridays in June, July and August, a very popular summer race series draws a crowd of runners on Clearwater Beach. There's a 5K run at 7 p.m. and even a kids' 1-mile run for free. Do it every Friday and you accumulate series points to earn awards. See the West Florida Y Runners Club for details at www.wfyrc.com.
Times Turkey Trot: As traditional as stuffing on Thanksgiving Day, this annual run from Clearwater High School to the surrounding neighborhood is a hoot, with bands around every corner and lots of goodies when you finish in the stadium. It's one of the area's largest road races, with some 10,000 runners and walkers ranging from kids to competitive runners.
Sharon Kennedy Wynne, Times staff