Runners prepare to compete in Dasche For The Stache hosted by Gadsden Runners Club. Photo courtesy of Gadsden Runners Club.
By Katie Bohannon, News Editor
Over the past decade, one small social running group raised and reinvested over $100,000 into the Etowah County community. As the Gadsden Runners Club celebrates its 10-year anniversary, members reflect on the unforgettable memories that forged its past and the incredible potential abounding in its future.
The Gadsden Runners Club branched from a collection of friends who frequented neighboring races hosted by the Anniston Runners Club. The small group that once gathered at the YMCA of Coosa Valley, beginning with less than 10 members, soon surged into an organization with hundreds of supporters, all united in their mutual passion for transforming lives for the better.
Of the handful of founding members, several joined for the same initial reason: improving and maintaining their health. Prior to his involvement with Gadsden Runners, 44-year-old Kevin Payne witnessed his father and brother experience heart issues, while his own cholesterol was borderline high. At 50, Glenn Ingram noticed he could not walk up a flight of stairs without shortness of breath. Will Mackey, who shifted from a physically-active job to more sedentary office work with The Chamber of Gadsden and Etowah County, sought a way to remain in shape and discovered the club as an effective outlet for exercise.
“When you first start, nobody shames you because you’re not as fast as everybody else,” said Payne, sharing that the group’s continuously cordial and reassuring atmosphere enhances people’s positive perceptions of themselves. “There’s always somebody that runs along with you and encourages you. That’s what keeps people going and motivates them.”
“I joined the Gadsden Runners Club not really knowing what to expect from a runner’s club,” said Ashville resident J.P. Stevens, who has been a member for the past several years. “Soon after joining, I started meeting other club members. This is when the true enjoyment of being a runner in a local community stepped up a level. Now when I go to local race, I have friends there to encourage me. This is where the fun begins in is getting to know other people that enjoy the sport.”
Numerous divisions huddle underneath the umbrella of Gadsden Runners Club, ensuring that all age groups and experience levels discover the best-suited niche for their lifestyle. With accessibility and inclusivity as core pillars of the club’s mantra, Gadsden Runners commit themselves to cultivating a warm, welcoming environment where all members feel comfortable to grow – not merely as runners, but as individuals.
“For me, I was the person who was just going to sit back and watch,” said current club president Eric Womack. “(Former club president) Kim McIntyre would give you a look and you’d say yes – that’s how I became equipment director. A year and a half ago, she told me she thought I needed to be president. (Before) I wouldn’t have wanted to be [very involved] or tried to be. When I started running, it brought me out of my shell, being around more people.”
“There are a lot of people who want to be involved, they just don’t know how to take that first step,” said Ingram. “They don’t know what’s out there. They’re content to sit at home and do nothing, not knowing everything that’s out there [like Gadsden Runners Club] that could change life for them. It’s about being inclusive for all fitness levels and all ages – that’s how you foster that same passion [you have] in other members. Everybody is welcome, and that takes the pressure off if somebody thinks, ‘I’m not that good of a runner.’”
From Rookie Runners that caters to beginners, to the reward-based Miles Club that motivates members to achieve personal goals, every person participating can unearth a specific group that aligns with his or her interests. The Trail Team trains for OCR events such as the Barbarian Challenge, focusing on trail runs and ruck runs, while the Women’s Group concentrates on women’s health practices and running methods, forging a supportive circle where women uplift one another to better themselves. The Women’s Group also hosts a quarterly Run4Love race, which benefits a local charity.
Ingram emphasized that when he and other members reminisce about the club’s origins, and their own personal journeys, the club’s transformative nature proves evident. He, Payne, Womack and Mackey all attested to the physical and mental endurance they garnered, remembering reaching those few first miles to frequenting 5k races, 10k runs and half marathons. Ingram shared that alongside their own development, those leading the Rookie Runners group were rookies themselves only a short while ago.
“You can find groups to run with based on your personal interest and comfort level,” said Stevens. “Whether you like trail running, long runs or just walking to improve your health, there is a place for you at the Gadsden Runners Club. It’s a club with a big heart, but its greatest asset is the quality of the members you can call your friend.”
While health improvements coincide with the activities the club endorses, aiding mental health emerges as another aspect of the plentiful benefits members gain from participation. In such an accepting environment enriched with playful competition and ceaseless support, Gadsden Runners form genuine friendships with likeminded members who share their same values and passion for the community. From accountability partners to enthusiastic cheerleaders, members inspire one another toward success, allowing for growth at each person’s individual pace, and never leaving anyone behind.
“It’s a confidence booster to a lot of people that come in and don’t feel like they belong,” said Payne. “After a while, they think, ‘I’m going to take this role on and do a group run myself.’ People come in and don’t feel adequate and they find their place.”
Stevens pointed out that although club members are competitive in regard to personal performances, they first and foremost function as a support group.
“I was able to get together with a group for regular training runs in no-pressure enjoyable atmosphere,” he said. “[GRC members] are not focused who is fastest or who is slowest; we just that enjoy being there.”
“For me, I don’t care about T-shirts or bags,” said Mackey. “[Participating in Gadsden Runners Club] is just another opportunity to socialize. Being together, going for runs on Saturday mornings, making friends – that’s my biggest thing, the social aspect of it and helping the community. I’ve seen [a member] go from being overweight to being in shape and fast, and it’s awesome to see that. The group changes people’s lives, just because they want to spend time with their friends.”
Gadsden Runners Club hosts several races throughout the year, partnering with countless non-profit organizations and entities that contribute to Etowah County to reinvest in the community. The Etowah Heroes 5k honors the Etowah County Sheriff’s Reserve Unit, which provide traffic control during local races, while the Spring Trail Run promotes Noccalula Falls. Designed entirely with children as its focus, the Kidz Superhero Bolt 5k & 1 Mile Run nurtures a love of running youth, from toddlers to teenagers. Dasche for the Stache benefits Man Up Gadsden, raising awareness for men’s health, and the City of Champions Half Marathon highlights the beauty of Gadsden, fostering an appreciation for the city in residents and tourists alike.
Likewise, the club features runners involved with Ainsley’s Angels, who run while pushing chairs with those who experience disabilities, raising awareness and advocating for the inclusion of all individuals in each facet of life. Ingram highlighted that while the club promotes running, those who do not wish to run are still welcome. Manning water stations, handing out T-shirts or helping with registration are all important tasks volunteers administer during each event, with no effort too minor to produce a grand impact.
“It took awhile to decide where we want our main focus to be, our main charity [for races],” said Womack. “For our races, it’s local; we know where everything is going. Another thing we’ve done, for the City of Champions race, we wanted a flag. [At that time] the City of Gadsden didn’t have flag, they were borrowing one from Rainbow City. We researched and bought them a flag. The club has camaraderie…it’s a support system.”
Payne discussed how other running groups will seek advice from Gadsden Runners Club, whose members happily assist however possible. Gadsden Runners proves instrumental in the organization of several little mom-and-pop races around town, sharing insight on sponsorship and registration alongside loaning clocks, arches and cones.
“We can help support the running community [by contributing to these events],” said Ingram. “Gadsden City Council gave us the best compliment. They said, ‘Gadsden Runners comes to us with an opportunity and an idea, the funding, goal and leadership [necessary] – all they ask is the partnership to make it happen.’ All of this started just by a couple people hanging out, wanting to do something different.”
Gadsden Runners Club arises as one portion of multiple likeminded assemblies operating within Etowah County. In addition, the county features strong climbing, mountain biking, fly fishing and water sports communities, forging a compatible coalition of persons striving to better themselves, their neighbors and their home. Ingram illustrated the club’s hope for a future partnership with Gadsden to create a non-profit incubator – a central location concurrent organizations utilize for development, organization and collaborative purposes.
As Gadsden Runners envision the next decade, they sprint toward success, knowing that with each milestone reached and every goal accomplished, their community flourishes more and more – and with every finish line crossed, a collection of supportive individuals remain present, cheering them on.
“None of us do this to make money, we’re just volunteers,” said Mackey, inviting people to come run with the club. “We do this because we want to better our community and it gives us the opportunity to give back.”
Chris McCarthy contributed to this article.