Trailblazing runner Kathrine Switzer, the first woman to compete in the Boston Marathon, once said, “If you are losing faith in human nature, go out and watch a marathon.”
Harrisburg-area residents can do exactly that this month when the 44th Annual Harrisburg Marathon winds through the city. Behind every one of Harrisburg’s 1,300 to 1,400 runners there’s a story—a motivation, a goal, perseverance in the form of months of training equaling hundreds of miles. It’s all done in pursuit of the one race that matters—the 26.2-mile marathon.
To understand the dedication and motivation propelling runners to the starting line, I joined the marathon-training program offered by Fleet Feet Mechanicsburg and owner/coach Fred Joslyn, which launched in June. Twice a week for the past five months, about 100 runners—50 in the marathon program, combined with 50 in the half-marathon program—gathered and ran under Joslyn’s guidance.
“One of the biggest things is camaraderie, being around people with like-minded goals,” said Joslyn. “They want to achieve something, you want to achieve something—that is contagious and motivates people in a positive way.”
From a home base of City Island, the Fleet Feet Running Club (FFRC) met at 7 a.m. every Sunday for long runs—starting at distances around eight miles and gradually working up to distances of 18 and 20 miles, usually winding around the Capital Area Greenbelt.
Wednesday evenings, meeting at Fleet Feet, runners launched into speedwork, drills and hill work—yes, that would be repeatedly running up hills. And yes, sometimes runners questioned their sanity.
Additionally, everyone ran on their own several days a week, following Joslyn’s spreadsheet training plan. As part of the training, Joslyn provided weekly tips on topics like endurance, hydration, fueling (eating) while running, positivity and more.
“My goal, when writing training plans, is to make it unique and engaging for people who have done it before and consistent enough that it will work,” said Joslyn, 34, of Mount Holly Springs.
The former college coach is an accomplished runner himself, winning the Harrisburg Marathon as recently as 2015 and numerous other races. He even represented the United States as part of the six-man World Championship-winning 50K team in 2016.
“He helps people whether they are brand new to running, giving them the regiment and training, or if someone is already advanced and wants to beat their PR (personal record),” said Tom Gifford, race director for the Harrisburg Marathon, which is organized by the Harrisburg Area YMCA. “He has the expertise.”
Most runners don’t win the first marathon they enter, but that’s exactly what happened to Greg Johnson of Dillsburg.
The 26-year-old (he’ll turn 27 the day of the Harrisburg Marathon) is a Fleet Feet employee and FFRC coach, former high school teacher and cross-country coach who won the Harrisburg Marathon in 2016 (his first) and again in 2017.
His 2018 goal is to win once more, possibly breaking his PR of 2:26:18. That’s two hours, 26 minutes and 18 seconds, which means he averaged a 5:59 pace—just under six minutes per mile.
Joslyn and Johnson have similar personalities—they are both accomplished runners yet very humble, which meant that some of their achievements had to be dragged out of them.
“There are many misconceptions about running—lots of people say they can’t do it but they probably could,” said Johnson. “People would surprise themselves.”
Michelle Howe, 51, of Dillsburg, started running 12 years ago in order to be fit at the age of 40. She lost about 60 pounds in the process and gained hundreds of running friends.
Howe, along with runner Mike Percherke, founded the informal, social group River Runners.
“Basically, so that nobody would have to run alone,” said Howe.
The Facebook group now includes a community of nearly 2,000 area runners.
Howe has completed four marathons, but that was before FFRC came to the area.
“I got injured in 2013 using a marathon training program pulled off the computer—not with a coach,” she said. “I don’t want to get injured again, and I want direction.”
This fall will mark her first marathon training cycle since her injury.
On a warm, humid morning, Howe and FFRC runners increased their “long run” distance to 16 miles along the Greenbelt.
“It was my longest run in five years, and I feel very positive,” Howe said.
Her Harrisburg Marathon goals?
“I would like to get a PR under 4:45, because I think I’ve gotten stronger,” Howe said. “But beyond that, I just want to finish and feel good.”
John Adams, 49, of Mechanicsburg, began running three years ago to lose weight, keep up with his growing sons, and get back to a healthier lifestyle. Now, 50 pounds lighter, he’s one of FFRC’s first-time marathoners.
“If I’m going to do a marathon before I’m 50, it’s now or never,” said Adams.
He makes a similar joke about his marathon goal.
“Because the time limit is six hours, I joke that 5:59 is my goal,” he said. “But, honestly, I’ll just be happy to finish.”
He admitted that much of the FFRC training was tough, especially considering the heat and humidity through the summer into the fall.
“I wouldn’t have the discipline or motivation to train on my own, but if anybody can want to make you run 18 miles, it’s Fred,” said Adams. “I mean the guy has won every local marathon, and he still makes himself available to everyday runners like us, to help and answer our questions.”
Being a part of FFRC goes far beyond the technical training, he said.
“With running, you compete against each other, but yet everybody is supportive of each other,” he said. “In what other sport does that happen?”
The Enders Harrisburg Marathon takes place on Nov. 11. For more information, visit www.ymcarun.com.