It’s impossible to ignore the heat and humidity as a group of runners makes its way south down Vance Avenue toward The Oaks Trail on a recent Wednesday evening. Having just completed the first mile, the runners are drenched in sweat, less than halfway in three-plus-mile route.
Yet for many of the runners, the steamy run is but a small part of a weeks-long journey that will culminate with their first competitive trail running race on Aug. 26 at Camp Grier.
Vertical Runner Black Mountain, a running sports store, kicked off The Gateway to the 5K Beginner Training Program on June 12, offering beginners a chance to train for the first Gateway 5K & 10K, which will be held at the Old Fort camp. More than 20 people of varying fitness levels expressed interest in the free program, according to director Mindy Bayless.
Over halfway through the 11-week regimen, the aspiring trail runners are still going strong, she said.
“Everything is going really well with the group,” she said. “It’s been great to see the progress everyone is making and hear them say ‘I ran a mile for the first time’ or ‘I jogged eight straight minutes for the first time.’”
The group meets twice a week. On Wednesday evenings members run with The Posse, a collective of runners who have met for years at Vertical Runner Black Mountain on State Street. On Saturday mornings they gather to run various trails throughout the Swannanoa Valley.
“For the last five weeks we’ve met at different trails,” Bayless said. “People in the group are excited because they’re getting to see these trails that they’ve maybe heard of but haven’t been on.”
Shawn Fadoir signed up to return to running, something she had done in the past, and experience the natural settings of the area that are accessible by trail. Early on she received tips on her technique from Vertical Runner owner Shaun Pope, and since then she’s become more comfortable.
“Initially I worked on my running cadence, and that’s been a big change,” she said. “I haven’t had as many issues with running as I’ve had in the past.”
A two-minute run for Fadoir would’ve been difficult when she started in June, she said, but running with the group has helped keep her motivated. As a result, she’s noticing substantial improvements in her level of fitness.
“Now we’ll run for 15 minutes and rest for one,” she said. “The training has been really helpful. I’ve learned now that my muscles pretty much know what they’re doing. It’s my brain I have to get past.”
Fadoir will be running the 10K race at Camp Grier. She's cautiously optimistic.
"I know I'll finish it," she said. "But I'm really hoping to finish it in a decent time."
Lowry Reed had her own reasons for joining the Gateway to the 5K training program.
"One thing nobody would ever call me is athletic," she said. "When I heard about the group I had two reasons for being interested. First, I've never run a 5K and I thought that would be something I could try. Second, I have a teenage son who doesn't move and sits at home and plays video games all the time. And I thought 'how could I get him to get out and move if I'm not out doing something?'"
Reed said she felt encouraged by Bayless from the beginning.
"Mindy is such a wonderful coach and positive person," Reed said. "I had gone on a vacation and I was really tempted to not come back and continue the training, and I got an email from Mindy saying 'I'm so happy that you're coming back and I look forward to seeing you,' so I knew I had to come back."
The program has at times been more challenging than Reed anticipated, but she has made dietary changes and felt consistent improvement. Like the rest of the runners in the group, she receives homework form Bayless each week that is catered to her individual needs.
"This week I am supposed to warm up for 10 minutes, run for two, rest for four and then repeat that five times," she said.
A resident of Black Mountain for nearly seven years, Reed is exploring trails with the group she has never seen. And more importantly to her, she recently took her son to Mount Mitchell for a hike.
"I was really impressed with him. He felt good and enjoyed it,' she said. "He said we're going to have to go back next month to see if he can do better."
Often toward the front of the pack on any group run is where it's easiest to spot Charla Greene, who ran the Boston Marathon in April. Having recently moved to Black Mountain, Greene wanted to ease her way into trail running, which represented a considerable change in terrain for the longtime road runner.
"Training for road races I've always focused more on distance and pace, and a lot of times I've felt like 'OK, do I have to run today?'" she said. "With trail running I haven't focused as much on that. Part of it is that the terrain itself serves as a distraction because I'm running on a trail and focusing (on) the destination."
Greene, who plans to run the 10K race in August, said the running local trails has helped her get out of the monotony of running the same course, as she frequently does when preparing for a road race. It's also helped her get to know her new hometown.
"My husband and I were in the car a couple of weeks ago and I was telling him 'turn here' and 'this road comes out to so-and-so,'" she said. "He was asking me how I even knew these things and it's absolutely because of running."