KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Birthdays are motivators. Last March, Tere Gathright was staring at 32. She had an unkind thought about herself.
“I’m overweight and bored,” the thought went. “I need a hobby. What better birthday present than to do something for me?”
She glanced back and forth between her 1-year-old and 5-year-old. As much as she loved her daughters, the “something” she had in mind would not involve small children tugging at her. She was intrigued by a flier she had seen about a six-week, walk-run training program.
The Merriam, Kan., woman had exercised and dieted off and on, but never stuck with anything. She tried to recruit friends to join her in the training session but had no takers.
She went anyway.
This story doesn’t end with Gathright transformed into an ultra-marathoner, at least not yet. But she finished the six-week session and alternately walked and ran through her first race, the Mother’s Day 5K in Overland Park, Kan.
Now she runs that three-mile distance several times a week, with longer runs on Saturdays. Plus, she has lost 20 pounds.
Plus, she found Annie Schroeder.
Schroeder was 21, single and with no children, and she had been diagnosed with fibromyalgia a year earlier. The two were not in the same place in life.
Doctors had advised Schroeder to steer clear of exercise that would aggravate her joints. She already had had surgery on both ankles. But the restriction didn’t sit well with her.
“I was sick of people telling me, ‘You can’t.’ ”
So Schroeder joined weekly group runs with KC Express, a women’s running and walking group, and fell into pace with Gathright, fresh off her Mother’s Day Run success.
They struck up conversations during longer runs — they both liked to bake, Schroeder was a nanny and preschool teacher — that led to a running partnership and a new friendship.
“You’re three miles out and have to run three miles back, and you feel like you can’t take another step,” Gathright said, recalling those early days. “It was a lot of fun trying to keep each other motivated.”
Gathright ran her first 10K last September, and Schroeder ran her first half-marathon, about 13 miles, last October.
“It’s amazing how much emotion comes out at the finish line,” said Schroeder, who admitted she cried and hugged folks she barely knew.
“Big hugs,” she said. “It was a blast.”
Kelly Pfannenstiel, past president of KC Express, which hosts the Mother’s Day 5K, said its relatively simple goal of the 5K has launched many a runner, and for good reasons. Some runners get fit with that distance and stick with it. Others want to try for 10Ks and beyond.
“It’s an ideal distance,” she said. “It’s doable for just about anyone, any age, any weight. That’s actually how I got into running.”
Five years ago, Pfannenstiel committed herself to make the four-mile Westport St. Patrick’s Day Run, an event that coincided with her turning 44. She was hooked on the sense of achievement.
Before then, she had struggled with the same roadblocks most people encounter: too many responsibilities at home, at work.
“You can come up with a million excuses,” she said. “But don’t think, just go. Don’t let life keep you from getting out the door.”
Especially for beginners, signing up for a training session is a good option, Pfannenstiel said.
And finding a person to run with can make a big difference.
“We call them BRFs, best running friends,” agreed Dimity McDowell, author with Sarah Bowen Shea of the just-published “Train Like a Mother.” “I think they’re as important as a supportive sports bra and a good pair of shoes.”
Three chief reasons: accountability, companionship and encouragement.
“If you know your running friend is waiting on the corner, you’re going to get out of bed for that run,” said McDowell, who lives in Denver. “Running provides that time for you to complain, to gossip, to catch up. You come home feeling so much better.”
Whether it’s three miles or 26, she said, there are highs and lows, and you will appreciate someone saying, “you got this” and “just a rough patch.”
The accomplishment of gearing up for and completing a race shouldn’t be downplayed, McDowell said. So few things in life are black and white: Where’s the finish line, she said, when it comes to laundry or keeping the house clean or, much of the time, at the workplace?
“A race is really crisp,” McDowell said. “When you cross that finish line, you’ve done it. And it’s so achievable.”
For Gathright, who wasn’t sure she could juggle family and a “hobby,” running is now part of the family dynamics. Her husband starting running in November, and her girls seem to sense when Mom has missed a workout: “They’ll say, ‘Are you going for a run?’ And I’ll say, ‘I guess I better.’
“You start out just wanting to do ‘something,’ and amazing things happen.”
TRAIN FOR A 5K
If you’re new to running, best to ease into it. Start by walking, then walk faster, then alternate walking and running.
Here’s a training plan suggested by KC Express, a running and walking club for women. Each week, perform the exercise on Days 1, 3 and 5. Have one complete rest day. The other two days can be rest days or, even better, days with other types of workouts.
Week 1: Walk 30 minutes.
Week 2: Run 30 seconds, walk 90 seconds. Repeat 20 times.
Week 3: Run 60 seconds, walk 60 seconds. Repeat 15 times.
Week 4: Run 90 seconds, walk 90 seconds. Repeat 10 times.
Week 5: Run two minutes, walk one minute. Repeat six times.
Week 6: Run four minutes, walk one minute. Repeat six times.
Week 7: Run six minutes, walk one minute. Repeat five times.
Week 8: Run eight minutes, walk one minute. Repeat four times.
Week 9: Run 10 minutes, walk one minute. Repeat three times.
Week 10: Run 12 minutes, walk one minute. Repeat two times.
Week 11: Run 15 minutes, walk one minute. Repeat two times.
Week 12: Run 30 minutes.