On a Saturday in late March, as a surprise snowstorm drenched the bike path in 8 inches of fresh powder, a group of dedicated men and women barreled through the flakes determined to push through the pain.
Each of the more than 30 runners that day had one thing in mind: the Sun Valley Half Marathon. In its eighth year of putting runners through its tough 13-mile course, the marathon takes place this Saturday, June 2.
The loneliness of the long-distance runner is an oft-scrutinized state. On the surface, running seems like the perfect form of exercise. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, whomever you are with, it's a simple thing to do to step outside and run. No equipment necessary, no special court needed—the open road is yours.
But running is a mental game, and you're playing against yourself. Therein, for many, lies the problem.
However, those snow-sprinkled runners think they have found the solution: camaraderie.
"Most people think running is boring," said Brad Mitchell, Sun Valley Half Marathon race director. "But that's where group dynamics come in to play. Knowing that on a Saturday morning 20 other people are waiting for you at the Y is a powerful motivator."
For the past three months, Mitchell has been found at various spots along the Sun Valley Half Marathon course leading a band of local runners through his grueling half marathon training program.
A three-time Boston marathon runner and 2010 USA Track and Field Trail Marathon Master Champion, Mitchell has clearly mastered the art of getting inside your own head and beating your doubts to a pulp. And his YMCA-based program aimed to help others do the same.
Tailored to the novice runner, a typical week in the program involved a gradually increasing long-distance run every Saturday (at week 9 it was 11 miles), Sunday a rest day, Monday a 3-mile run, Tuesday a 6-mile run, Wednesday 30-45 minutes of cross-training, Thursday a 3-mile run, finishing off on Friday with more cross-training.
"Typically by week six or seven people begin to get it," Mitchell said. "They click. They get past the pain and see it's about the joys of running. I can't put my finger on what exactly it is that clicks, but I think the group dynamics have a huge element.
"Getting out by yourself and having negative thoughts will instantly turn you around. But getting out with your co-runners helps push aside all the negativity and the aches and pains," he said. "And then one day the light bulb goes on and the run is effortless, they're pain free. And they say 'Oh, I get it!'"
Annie Vandenberg was one of those who got it.
"I've never been a runner," she said. "I bike and I swim, but I could never find the space for running. It always hurt."
But she jumped into Mitchell's program and determined to find a way through the pain.
"And it went away," she said, with wonder in her voice. "I worked through the negative headspace and I found a great place to be. It was amazing, and I did it!"
As evidence of her success, Vandenberg completed the Redfish Lake Lodge Memorial Run last weekend.
"It's not an easy run, not an easy course," she said. "But it was great. Here I am coming in last place and it didn't matter."
The experience has been one of huge magnitude for the St. Luke's Wood River pharmacist.
"I'm so proud of myself I gloat," she said in a voice thick with emotion.
While running with the pack is the answer for some, for others, it is exactly that long-distance loneliness that appeals.
Wood River High School teacher Michel Sewell embraces the solitude. Opting to pursue her own training program, the mother of two will be participating in her second half marathon this Saturday. Her first was the Sun Valley half in June 2009, shortly after the birth of her daughter, Alaska. This year, baby Wesley joined the family six months ago.
It was Sewell's expanding family that initially prompted her to pick up the running shoes, having not previously been a long-distance runner.
"The efficiency of running really appeals to me," she said. "I have so little time and it's the only thing I can just walk out my door and do and be done in half an hour or 45 minutes."
She also cherishes the alone time.
"I listen to podcasts like 'This American Life.' It's sort of an escape for me. It's my only time away from other human beings."
When Sewell ran her first half marathon the sun was shining.
"The weather was so beautiful that day, the blue sky and the early morning start and having my family on the route cheering me on really inspired me."
With 75 degrees in the forecast, and the possibility of a cooling rain shower, it looks like this Saturday's marathon could be the perfect event for Sewell all over again.
Sun Valley Half Marathon
Race day is Saturday, June 2, at 9 a.m. Bib pickup is Friday 2-6 p.m. at the YMCA, or Saturday 7-8:30 a.m. at the start. Runners can register at bib pickup ($80 for solo runners, $160 for the two-person relay team). Spectators are encouraged, and a MaraFun Kids Zone runs from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the start/finish line in Sun Valley Resort. Complete with a bouncy castle, dunk tank, face painting and little tikes races (ages 3-13), the YMCA-run event will keep the whole family entertained while Mom or Dad hits the asphalt. For more details visit www.sunvalleyhalfmarathon.com or call 720-3759.