Mentor/coach helps other women tackle the 26.2-mile challenge

Credit: Chris Stanford/Allsport
CARROLLWOOD, Fla. Although she was nearing 60 and had never been physically active, Velma Radloff decided about five years ago to start running.

Back then, she could barely do a mile. Now she competes in marathons.

Her first was in February, the Disney Marathon in Orlando. She finished in 6 hours and 21 minutes.

On Nov. 4, a day after her 64th birthday, Radloff was one of 30,000 people running in the New York Marathon, finishing in 6:04:25.

Radloff is one of about 30 women who meet weekly at Ben Hill Middle School to channel their minds and toughen their bodies on the running track.

They come from all walks of life, some well into middle age. They're homemakers, single mothers who bring their children to the track, professionals and ordinary women with an extraordinary desire to achieve the ultimate long-distance running goal.

Along with shedding doubts and insecurities, some had to shed excess pounds when they joined this group called "Take ... the First Step."

"I had never run a marathon before and that was my goal before I got too old," said Marilyn Collins, 45. She finished the Hops Marathon last year after joining the group.

"I cried. I was so ecstatic," she said. "I'll never forget that. It's just such an accomplishment. I've heard people talk about it, but nothing compares to living it. That feeling of being down to the last mile."

Collins and other members say they have emerged from the 26.2-mile race feeling better, looking fitter, and with a new confidence that has improved other areas of their lives.

"It helps you in the physical aspect, but mentally as well," said Collins, an open-heart nurse at St. Joseph's Hospital. "It makes you tougher. You accomplish the goals you set out to achieve, and it affects everything in your life."

The group owes its start three years ago to schoolteacher Lynn Gray.

Gray, 49, has run in more than 60 marathons. She finds it is personally gratifying when her students succeed in their goals, and it's frustrating when they quit, either because of injuries or because they lose the desire to run.

In some cases their success also depends on support from family and friends, especially for mothers who must depend on others to watch their children while they run.

"They know that the running is important to me so they are willing to watch my son when I go running," said Christina McGlinchey, 33, the single mother of a preschooler. "On Sundays when I do my long run, I'll have someone spend the night because I leave early."

During the week, McGlinchey runs right after she leaves her teaching job at Young Middle Magnet School while her son is still with his babysitter. She brings the child with her to Ben Hill for the Wednesday training sessions.

As this group practiced speed drills on a windy October day, the women swapped jokes and good-natured comments with Gray. Affectionately, they called her a taskmaster and a slave driver.

"I love being their trainer. It makes me better," Gray said. "It increases my discipline seeing how hard they work. I appreciate that. I work just as hard or harder. It makes me more committed to my own running."

Most times, Gray attends her students' races. In 5K and 10K events, she said she'll run beside those who are struggling and encourage them to finish. In marathons, she has stood at the finish line for hours, waiting for all her runners to come in.

"A lot of them want to prove something to themselves," Gray said. "They want to own that success which is theirs alone, which they won through their own efforts and self-discipline."

Gray started running 32 years ago at Florida State University. She was dating a football player back then, and she would run a mile on the track while she waited for him.

As a fifth-grade teacher at Claywell Elementary School, she led students in the 5K race in the Gasparilla Distance Classic.

Gray now teaches American history at Jesuit High School and runs about 50 miles a week in her personal regimen. She said it never gets easier because she's continually pushing her body past its comfort zone.

With marathon runners, injuries occur more often, according to Gray. She estimated that people who run an average of 40 miles a week suffer about one injury every three years that stops them from running while they recover.

"You're testing yourself," she said. "You are daring yourself, because this is dangerous if you're not in good shape or not trained correctly. You've got to go into this sport very gradually and make it a lifestyle."

The marathon commemorates the legendary feat of a Greek soldier who, in 490 BC, is supposed to have run from Marathon to Athens, a distance of about 25 miles, to bring news of the Athenian victory over the Persians.

Today about half a million people each year participate in dozens of marathons in several states.

Michelle Gregory will carry the Olympic torch for Tampa this year. She will be one of 11,000 torch bearers nationwide who will take it from Atlanta to Salt Lake City in early December.

She started running with Gray a year ago after seeing an article about the group. Gregory has been running for about 10 years, but she appreciates the social aspect of training with a club.

Gregory, 50, lives in Lake Magdalene and is principal of Thonotosassa Elementary School. She has run several marathons including the Disney Marathon, New York Marathon and Marine Corps Marathon in Washington.

She knows all too well the danger of not being properly conditioned for the sport.

"You have to work up to it," she said. "I wouldn't suggest it if you haven't run before. I've run in three marathons where people died at the finish line."

To train, she gets up at 4 a.m. each morning and running about 40 miles a week.

"It's a commitment," she said. "I think you just have to be committed to doing it if you want to improve your time or even finish some of these races. I hope to run as long as I can. I get so inspired by people I've known throughout the years who are still running in their 70s."

While the running group has never been advertised "for women only," Gray said some men who have visited for workouts have felt uncomfortable running with them. One exception is Ralph Fortson, 47. He's been Gray's running mate for about 10 years, and the two have run marathons together.

"I try not to interfere with the women," Fortson said. "Lynn encourages women who might be afraid or shy of running. She has brought more people into running than anyone else I know. These are people who've never run before."

Terry Bischoff suffered a knee injury recently and cannot run. But she still comes to the practice field on Wednesdays, partly for camaraderie.

"What's good is everyone encourages each other," Bischoff said.

They travel together and try staying together during races. Every month, the club hosts speakers who talk about issues affecting runners. They hold socials, celebrate each other's birthdays and have group runs in the hills of San Antonio on weekends.

"I'm addicted to running, but the camaraderie of this group makes me keep coming," said Karen Schilit, 42, an AT&T manager. "Also, running is something I learned I can achieve. I can't play baseball, but I can run.

"I find this gives me a lot of energy and it's a way to relieve stress. If you set a goal like finishing a marathon and achieve it, then you certainly build confidence, which will help you in other areas of your work and life.

"It hurts, but it's exhilarating to know you've done something so few achieve. Not everyone can do a marathon. It's a long ways."

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