Running for their lives

By REBECCA SCHWAB

OBSERVER Staff Writer

It’s never too late to start keeping your promises.

New Year’s Eve has come and gone. Your hangover has been nursed, champagne glasses have been washed and put away, and ground-in pretzel crumbs have been vacuumed out of the carpet. You’re back at work, and with February inching ever closer, maybe you’ve forgotten about all those hopeful promises you made to yourself while looking in the mirror in late December 2012. What did you tell the face that stared earnestly back at you from the glass? How did you plan on becoming a better version of yourself in 2013?

A few of the 10 most popular New Year’s resolutions are to lose weight, spend less and save more money, enjoy life to the fullest, stay fit and keep healthy, learn or try something new, quit smoking, help others with their goals, and spend more time with friends and family. Many runners will say, directly or indirectly, running can help with all of those things.

“I run because I realize there are so many benefits,” Christine Beichner, a Fredonia resident and avid runner, says.

Running keeps you healthy in myriad ways. Physically, it tones your muscles and makes your heart and lungs stronger. Physical activity, like running (or walking, if that’s how you prefer to start), can help you lose the extra pounds you’re carrying around – pounds that can cause or exacerbate health complications like Type 2 diabetes, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, and gout. Making the healthy choice to start exercising can lead to other healthy choices, like eating more nutritious foods and quitting bad habits like smoking or drinking too much alcohol.

RUNNERS OF ALL AGES

Christine, her sister-in-law Jennifer Beichner, of Sinclairville, and their friend, Kristy Bly of Sheridan, are all in their early 30s. Both Beichner women teach at area schools, and Bly is in the United States Army. The three women started running around the same time – two years ago, and have since made the activity a permanent part of their lives.

Pat Szczerbacki, a resident of Sheridan and retired biology teacher, became a runner 38 years ago. She participates in several local races, and runs in the Buffalo Half Marathon every year.

Wayne Hotelling, a retired history teacher and track and basketball coach, is a local fixture in Silver Creek. At 75 years old, he can be seen most days walking or jogging around the down town area – if people are up and around at 6 a.m., that is. He is the founder and coordinator of Silver Creek’s well-known annual race, the Laurel Run. He’s been running since 1967, and shows no signs of slowing down anytime soon. He still sets an example for the students he coached at Silver Creek all those years ago, and sees many of them each summer at the Laurel Run.

“I started getting into (running) to stay in shape,” Jennifer explains. “My sister talked me into running a half marathon in 2011. It then became a challenge so I started training.”

“(Running) helps me keep in shape for work,” Bly says.

“I’ve always been involved in fitness, but I started running casually,” Hotelling says.

And even though running is great for your body, it’s not just your physical health that it will improve. It will also contribute significantly to your mental and emotional wellness. Exercise relieves stress and clears your head.

“There are so many benefits to running,” Christine says. “Most important to me was as a stress reliever. I was able to come home after a long day of work, that included teaching high school students and then musical practice, and I could turn off all the stresses of the day by running.”

Szczerbacki agrees.

“Running gives me an emotional high. If ever there’s a day that I’m feeling down, and I go out and run, the problem is solved out there on the road. It’s kind of an emotional release. It gives me that mental boost, those endorphins they talk about. You solve a lot of problems out there. You don’t even think about running, with everything else going through your head. After teaching, I’d always go running. It was just a way to let it out,” she says.

Setting and achieving goals, even small ones, can help improve self-esteem.

“Running is something that you do just for you!” Christine says. “I don’t race to win (although good for those who do!). I simply race to push myself and do better than I did the race before. I’m not fast, and can’t go as long as some, but to me it doesn’t matter. I’m my own cheerleader/best advocate when I run and that alone feels good.”

Jennifer explains that if you work through the difficulty, you’ll feel like you earned something.

“It can be challenging when running long distance,” she says. “You have to motivate yourself to get to the finish line, but once you get there, it’s a big rush and feeling of self accomplishment.

“Start out small and make goals for yourself,” Bly advises. “Even one mile is an accomplishment.”

DON’T GO IT ALONE

Scheduling exercise dates with a running or walking buddy is a great way to stay on task and also help a loved one. This person can be a friend, a spouse, or a family member. Sit down with this person and tell each other your goals, then create a plan together that will help you safely and realistically reach those goals. If you encourage each other and stay positive, you’re much more likely to make exercise a permanent part of your lives and have fun along the way.

Hotelling jogs and walks with friends and his wife, Elaine. Szczerbacki began running with her husband Stephen when they were newlyweds, and they still exercise several days a week together. The Beichner women and Bly often jog together for fun, and compete in area races together.

Every spring, Hotelling and his wife participate in the Cooper River Bridge Run in South Carolina, which is a 10K.

“We walk in that,” Hotelling says, “I used to run, but it’s too crowded. (My wife and I) can do it together if I walk. And we enjoy our time together. It’s a beautiful walk.”

Aside from training and running races with friends, Jennifer also exercises with her husband, Jason.

“I’m lucky to have a supporting and encouraging husband. We often go to the gym together and we have competed in a few runs together as well,” she says.

Bly has even involved her infant daughter, Libby, in her hobby, though it will be years before Libby can keep up with her mother.

“When it is warm out I run outside with Libby in her jogging stroller,” Bly says. “Usually around my house.”

Compared to many exercise plans and fitness regimens, running is very cost-effective. Monthly gym membership dues can be expensive, and in-home fitness equipment can run anywhere from hundreds to thousands of dollars.

“What does it cost to run?” Hotelling asks. “Nothing, unless you’re running races with entry fees, which can be high. But they’re usually for great causes.”

“Running doesn’t cost anything,” Szczerbacki agrees, “and it’s fun.”

But there is one piece of equipment that every runner simply could not do without: a good pair of running sneakers.

“Make sure you have the right shoes,” Hotelling advises. “They don’t have to be the most expensive, but make sure you have a decent pair of shoes. Make sure they’re running shoes. Go to a place where they’ll outfit you. They will tell you what you need and make sure you have shoes for what you want to do.”

Aside from running shoes, the only equipment required is a comfortable pair of sweat pants and an old T-shirt. And in this weather, of course, you may want to add an extra layer or two before heading outside.

GETTING STARTED

And what about that resolution to try new things and live life to the fullest? If you haven’t yet tried it, running could be a new aspect of your life. Sign up for your first 5K with a group of friends. Crossing that finish line, no matter how long it took you to get there, will give you a rush of exhilaration.

Szczerbacki only started running half marathons after she retired. Hotelling started the Laurel Run after he retired, as well. Giving yourself new challenges and projects will add excitement to your life, and being motivated, especially around this time of year, when people tend to get depressed due to shortened days and cold weather, is so important.

“Preparing for something you’ve never done before is so mental,” Szczerbacki says. “I’ve run a half-marathon every year since 2006, the same one. It’s kind of a tune-up after the long, dreary winter. It’s in May, so I’m already thinking about it. It’s something that’s a goal. You think, my gosh, I have to get ready for this!”

If you’re already a runner, try changing up your routine. Run in a new location, sign up for a longer race, or mentor someone new to running. When you’re outside running, breathing in fresh air, feeling your lungs and your heart working to keep you healthy, enjoying the scenery around you, you will be truly making the most of your day.

Hotelling describes how, for him, part of why he runs is so that he can be outside, enjoying his surroundings:

“Once spring breaks, or on a cool summer morning, I might run for an hour and a half. It’s just enjoying the environment. Enjoying the freshness of spring, or the first snow,” he says.

As with any new physical activity, the first step is consulting your doctor. After you’ve gotten his or her clearance, take the next literal steps: Get out there and do it! A great idea is to start by walking, and work up to jogging by alternating between the two; walk for several minutes, then jog for a couple, and go back to walking. Increase the time you spend jogging and decrease your walking time in consecutive exercise sessions. Getting started may seem like a daunting challenge, but you’ll never regret the day you finally took action to improve your health and your life. And like your first kiss, your first car and your first apartment, you’ll always remember getting started and the reasons that finally got you off the couch and into a pair of running sneakers.

Szczerbacki recalls the start of her running career:

“When I first got married, 38 years ago, my husband ran, and I used to sit and wait for him. We couldn’t do anything until he went out and did his run. I remember sitting on the back step, thinking, ‘This is crazy, I’ve got to join him or I’m gonna be alone.’ So one day I decided to got out and run. I almost died. I got about a half mile. I never thought it would be so hard, but I joined him. It was something we enjoyed to do together,” she says.

Christine’s first experience was similarly tough. She’d never thought of herself as “a runner.” Soon, though, she realized that there were no rules on who could and could not be a runner. A runner was someone, simply, who ran.

“I had never been an athlete,” she remembers. “As a matter of fact, I joked with people that my personal hell would be on a treadmill with a delicious meal in front of me (just out of reach) and the devil with a pitchfork making me run! But, I started out slowly because of my dogs. I would walk them almost every day and then that turned into me wanting to push myself, and before I knew it, I had started to run and I liked it.”

Hotelling says that one word explains why he kept running: “Laurel.” His daughter continues to motivate him, and each year, proceeds from the Laurel Run go directly to programs that help disabled members of our community to lead happy and active lives.

People who are thinking of running as a hobby should keep in mind that there will be setbacks along the way, and that it’s important to carefully and safely work through those setbacks in order to keep enjoying their new activity.

Because of age or accidents, injuries may occur. The important thing, Hotelling says, is to take your time and let the injury heal completely.

“Rehabbing is key,” he says. “One of the things that gets you, when you’re younger, is you feel like you’re ready to go back (after an injury) and you go back too soon. But with age, and hopefully wisdom, you learn to lay back and take it slow. Take care of yourself and do the right things to make sure you’re running correctly.”

While training for her first half marathon, Szczerbacki injured herself and made the mistake of not letting herself heal.

“When I started to train for the half marathon, I thought I should put in longer miles and not take days off. I ended up hurting myself, and never went through the rest period,” she says. “Your body’s got to recover. I had a leg problem; it was freezing up on me. After 5 miles (into the race) my leg froze up and I had to walk. I took aspirin and I ended up finishing it, but I had to walk part of it. It was just overuse. I was elated that I finished, but it hurt that I had to take time off after that – two to three weeks. I did follow up with the doctor. Like with anything, you can overdo it.”

These runners have plenty of good advice for those who are beginning to run, or for those who are relatively new to the activity.

“Listen to your body,” Szczerbacki warns. “It’s so important. Go out and try it, go to a track, have somebody take a car and measure something. If you need to walk it’s no big deal, walk and run. Even if it’s walking, it’s a beginning. Running isn’t the only exercise. I keep in shape with cross country skiing in the winter. That way you don’t overuse your muscles first thing in the spring.”

“Start slowly and don’t worry about speed,” Christine says. “Don’t worry about who you can beat or keeping up with your friends. Run for you, and every day try to push yourself a little more. I also found that music helps me immensely (especially at a race). I make a playlist with BPM (beats per minute) that help me keep a steady even pace! Worked wonders for my time!”

“Winning” is a relative term, one that should be defined personally for you, by you. Concentrate on yourself, improving your level of fitness, and reaching the goals you set for yourself, whether they’re large or small. If you put your mind to something, and in this case, your body, as well, and you accomplish it, you’ve won.

And remember this: If you are out there jogging or even walking, no matter how slow your pace is, you are still faster than the guy sitting on his couch.