For nearly five decades, Mark Buciak has been running in some way or another. A competitor of 62 marathons (including 39 consecutive Boston Marathons), he has also been a member of various running clubs, including The Road to Boston, which he founded in 2005.
In that time, Buciak has noticed a considerable improvement in running clubs. In fact, he believes their popularity has risen to the point in which they’re almost (the key word is almost) as popular in the United States as they are in Europe, which is renowned for its running club system.
“The bottom line is this: running clubs are offering a lot more than just running now—mainly social and charity aspects,” he says.
Currently, The Road to Boston has members of all ages (from 21 to 71 years old) and abilities. Some are training for the Boston Marathon, while others are either training for a BQ (Boston Qualifying time) to be eligible for the marathon, or simply running to exercise, meet new people and have fun in a healthy, social environment.
This social aspect of the club is crucial, whether members are marathoners or non-marathoners. After all, running is one of the most social sports of all, and Buciak has recognized his members’ desire for socialization since he first developed the club.
“Everyone can run by themselves. But to have a more enjoyable time and become a better runner at any level, a club is very important,” he adds.
Creating Lifelong Bonds
As the founder of Libertyville Running Club, Mike Brunette completely agrees, stressing that socialization has always been the key ingredient to his club’s success, as it “put the club on the map.” Since creating the club in 2014, Brunette has had one primary goal: to offer social activities to different types of runners.
Throughout the year, members (usually anywhere from 30 to more than 100, depending on the season) will meet up at bars or breweries after Wednesday night runs and local coffee shops after Saturday long runs—to the point in which Brunette often has difficulty finding locations that can host so many people at a time.
“Focusing on fun is what helps build a community of runners,” Brunette states. “I never wanted this to become a marathon-training club, a road-running club or an ultra-running club. Libertyville Running Club appeals to all types of runners.”
By offering variety without pace groups, Brunette has seen runners become great friends with other runners they may not have normally been associated with—from seven-minute milers talking to 12-minute milers at coffee shops, to hopeful 10K runners learning from accomplished ultra-runners over a beer at a local brewery.
Nick Bensen, president of Oak Park Runners Club, strives to offer his members similar opportunities by providing a wide array of events, including special theme runs every month. He hosts events such as a pre-Super Bowl run (in which members wear their favorite team’s colors and gear, and then enjoy beer and wings afterwards), a Thanksgiving morning run (with coffee at Starbucks afterwards) and a Christmas Eve morning run (as members wear Christmas themed running gear and Santa hats).
“The social aspect of Busse Woods Running Club is what makes it so special,” president Jimmy Kowalski stresses. “It’s about getting to know people that are bound by a common thread—running.”
During his time as president, Kowalski has noticed that conversations not only occur on runs, but also at local establishments like bars and restaurants where they often become deeper and even more meaningful. Busse Woods Running Club’s social events have become so popular, in fact, that Kowalski believes they’ve helped form a “running family.”
This similar influence of socialization has been noticed by John Avila, board member and communications director of Frontrunners, a running club for the LGBTQ community. Thanks to Frontrunners, members now have an entirely different social venue (aside from typical nightlife) to meet a diverse group of people.
“It’s a good introduction for individuals still coming out at all ages, so they can make new friends in the community,” he explains. “And we welcome runners and walkers of all levels, as we not only run, but also have meals at nearby restaurants after our runs, often brunches on Saturday mornings and dinners on Tuesday evenings.”
There’s nothing quite like the camaraderie of running clubs either, from going to races together and cheering for one another, to warming up (and cooling down) together. People from all walks of life become friends and enjoy each other’s company even when they’re not running. Sometimes club members introduce their fellow members to future spouses, or even ultimately marry a fellow member themselves.
“I’ve seen many long-lasting relationships begin in running clubs. Complete strangers have met, run a bit together and started dating. Several couples have even married,” says Brendan Cournane, owner and head running coach at Coach Brendan Running. “It’s easy to learn about a potential partner when you share stories and life experiences on long runs each week.”
Often times, running club members will also meet traveling buddies that they’ll not only run around the United States with, but the entire world. After all, most runners love to travel and explore new places.
“We usually extend to neighboring countries or tour the country in which we race,” Cournane adds. “These trips are often a topic of discussion on many runs.”
The Power of the Pack
Everyone has days in which they simply don’t feel like running. Or they may be uncertain about certain aspects of their runs or lack confidence about their recent performances. Running clubs can change runners’ outlooks entirely though—quicker than they may have ever imagined.
“Participants in running clubs find that there are others who share the same feelings, fears and joys as they do,” says Cournane. “They’re happy to find out that ‘I’m not alone and my thoughts are pretty common. I can do this.’”
Dan Walters, co-owner and head coach at DWRunning, agrees with Cournane’s sentiment, adding, “Whenever the weather’s crummy, you’re having a bad day or you’re struggling with a workout, having teammates around to share the work and push you makes all the difference.”
Cournane also believes that whenever it’s difficult to start a run, knowing that other runners are waiting for you and depending on you to show up provides more than enough motivation to leave your home and run to the best of your ability.
“My running buddies have saved me from many skipped runs that I wouldn’t have done if not for them,” he explains. “I didn’t want to let them down by not showing up—and that helped me get out the door for my run.”
“Similarly, on runs where you feel good, you can be the one empowering your teammates and making a difference in their workout,” Walters says. “There is power in the pack!”
Group running also allows runners to maintain a certain pace; during long distance runs, Cournane advises runners to consider the “talk test”; they should be able to run at a pace in which they can comfortably talk in complete sentences. This test also allows runners to monitor their effort level and determine whether they need to run slower or faster.
In addition, group running allows runners to maintain different training paces on different days, depending on weather conditions and overall energy levels. “For example, a runner trying to improve her pace may run with some faster runners to lead her to pick up her pace,” Cournane says. “And on other days, she may want to run slow and easy and pick some different friends in the club to run with.”
He continues, “She now becomes the ‘fast runner’ who helps the slower runner pick up the pace. In this way, the individual runner benefits and gives back—a healthy reciprocal arrangement that pays dividends.”
An Opportunity to Give Back
Aside from socialization, another key benefit of running clubs is the opportunity to become involved with local charities and fundraisers.
In addition to serving as the head coach of The Road to Boston, Buciak is also an official coach for several charities that have Bank of America Chicago Marathon charity teams. Due to his experiences with charities, Buciak encourages his club members to run for charities as much as possible, as their running experiences will become even more meaningful while they help others through their running.
“It’s a natural fit to have runners run for a charity,” he says. “Club members’ race and training experiences are so much fuller than they would be if they just ran for themselves.”
More often than not, charity teams don’t have enough runners to help train members of various experience levels. But, by joining a running club, charity runners can find other people who train at their pace, thereby easing their training regimens considerably. Not to mention, they’ll also likely receive support and donations from various members of whichever club they join.
“Many runners I know have been independent (not running on behalf of a charity), but, while running, they learned about a particular charity,” Cournane states. “A year later, these independent runners joined a charity team and raised money for a charity of choice. The information they learned from charity runners definitely sowed results.”
Currently, the Chicago Area Runners Association (CARA) partners with 50 different charities to support their marathon and half-marathon fundraising teams. Through these partnerships, CARA can train charity runners for their race goals, while also providing resources for the runners and their charities.
“In 2018 approximately 800 CARA members ran the Bank of America Chicago Marathon for charity,” says Greg Hipp, executive director of CARA. “Running for charity makes miles more meaningful and helps runners stay motivated towards their goals when training gets tough.”
Each of Oak Park Runners Club’s charity opportunities is associated with the annual Good Life Race, which it manages, plans and directs. Nearly 1,700 people participate in the race, an all-volunteer, non-profit event. Featuring a flat, fast 5K race course, the race attracts quality runners of all ages, as prizes and age group awards are provided to every top runner.
“Over the past five years, we have raised more than $125,000 for our charitable partners,” Nick Bensen explains.
Frontrunners also hosts its own fundraising run: PROUD TO RUN. The run supports LGBTQ beneficiaries, as Frontrunners also forms teams for other fundraising runs, including an AIDS run.
“The benefit is two-fold: not only the personal achievement of finishing a race, but also raising money for an important cause,” states Avila.
Due to these charity and fundraising opportunities, along with the countless socialization benefits that can occur, Hipp believes every Chicago-based runner should consider joining running clubs.
“There are so many great clubs in Chicagoland,” Hipp concludes. “Runners shouldn’t feel like they have to choose one. The more they become involved, the more they’ll enjoy their runs and improve their lives.”