Competitor Magazine :: September 2006
A Sense of Belonging
Cheryl Kruse Shwe is on her cell phone, volubly pouring forth her love of the Impala Racing Team, while also doling out loving admonishments to her 5-year-old son, Alexander, Alexander honey, she doesnt like that. You need to find another way to play.
Sorry, where was I?
Shwe was in the middle of recounting the myriad" almost endless"benefits of belonging. Because belonging"to a club, team, group or gaggle"is the new face of athletics. Back in the day, team sports connoted a locker room and a ball of some sort.
Now, most every sport is a team sport, most specifically so in endurance activities like running and triathlon. One of the largest, most professional-run clubs in the country is the LA Tri Club. Founded in 2000, the multisport megalith now counts nearly 1,400 members"a cadre so large that it is split into four regions: Westside, Central, South Bay and Valley, with up to six training opportunities in each region per day.
Liz Oakes, the clubs co-managing director, says that members are spread as far away as London and South America, and that running the endeavor is a nearly full-time job during the tri season.
It is easily a 40-hour-per-week commitment during the season, says Oakes, who also holds down a demanding job in investment banking in addition to managing her own training and racing.
The club counts Powerbar and Arrowhead Spring Water as Title Sponsors, while National Sponsors such as Rudy Project, KinEsys and Louis Garneau provide yet more schwag. In fact, each REGION also has regional sponsors and the organization hosts a parade of marquee guest speakers such as Dave Allen, Joanna Zeiger, Mike Pigg and Wendy Ingraham.
This being Los Angeles, the club is also a hot source for Hollywood casting calls"a group of members recently appeared on the television show Scrubs, and Oakes is one of four club members being profiled for a proposed television series called, Pushing the Limits, an examination of the rigors of preparing for an Ironman.
While significantly smaller, a Northern California club addresses one very specific barrier to the enjoyment of endurance sports. Lorrie Lee Lown is the founder of Velo Girls, a bicycling club started in 2002 to provide a safe, fun environment to help women navigate what has traditionally been a male-oriented industry.
Lown, a full-time cycling coach who also works at Summit Bicycles in Burlingame, says that there are significant differences between men and women in how they communicate, learn, compete and motivate.
My graduate work was in gender relations and that's been the primary influence on how I developed Velo Girls, says Lown. I think what makes Velo Girls special is we educate women, empower them, challenge them, welcome them and make them feel good about themselves"no matter who they are.
The group has fostered a powerful constituency, garnering a host of awards in the CitySports Best of the Bay survey and directing more than 200 members on as many as five club rides per weekend day all over the Bay Area.
Sometimes, though, club membership bestows gifts that transcend the emotional and practical and delve into the spiritual realm.
Richard Hopkins of Atlanta, Georgia, set out to launch a club that allowed people to experience a collective running environment that enhanced fellowship in their Christian faith. Members of Christianrunners.org train seriously, for marathons and half marathons, but also take time before their runs to pray and give thanks.
We welcome anyone with open arms, says Hopkins. Depending on the size of the group we may take prayer requests and pray about whatever may be troubling someone. When you think about it, getting out at the crack of dawn and experiencing nature is a great gift from God, so showing gratitude for all that He has given us seems to make so much sense.
The boom in online communities has naturally benefited the growth of workout-oriented clubs. In fact, the great majority of club communications now take place on the net, as message boards and e-mail chains offer instantaneous access to like-minded clubsters.
SCARABS (Southern California Adventure Racing Buddies) is, like many endurance groups, organized through Yahoo Groups. On a recent day, SCARABS message board heralded a local night run, announced an adventure racing seminar for beginners, queried about the fate of an industry magazine, delivered news of a gear sale, established a new race calendar for 2006 and sought out coaching advice for a newbie.
David Silverman, who started the club in January 2000 because of his difficulty in finding teammates, says the club wouldnt be where it is today (with over 1,000 members) without the advent of Internet technology.
Technology was absolutely critical to the growth of the club, particularly with a niche sport like adventure racing, says Silverman. Im no programmer"I created the site using Homestead.com, an easy Web site creation site for non-html programmers"and the primary way the club has grown has been through the Web and e-mail.
Many clubs, though, pre-date the Internet. In the case of the Dolphin Club and South End Rowing Club (SERC), they also pre-date the automobile.
South End, founded in 1873, and the Dolphin Club (the new kid on the block, founded in 1877) sit cheek by jowl at Aquatic Park on the northern shore of San Francisco. The competition between the two old-line clubs is evidenced by an open message from the SERC president on the Dolphin Club Web site announcing a softball challenge: Teams consist of five men and five women. Use of knives and small arms on the field of play will be strictly prohibited.
While SERC has a robust running presence in the City, staging innumerable short races along San Francisco Bay, both clubs place greater importance in the water that surrounds them. SERC boasts an array of more than 30 different watercraft, from paddleboards to kayaks; from ancient wharries to Viking boats. The pride of their fleet is The South Ender, a 1915 six-man coxed racing barge that might be the oldest competition craft in the Bay.
Open-water swimming is the central activity for both clubs, but the clubhouses themselves have amenities that rival upscale health clubs. The Dolphin Club alone has locker rooms, showers and saunas, two lounge areas, a dock, weight room and cardio machines.
Frequently, it is not the amenities that provide the biggest benefits in belonging; it is providing the simple motivating force that endurance sports demand.
I get pushed way harder than I would ever push myself, says Susan Cronk of San Anselmo, regarding Dirt Girls, which isnt a club at all but rather a hard-core group of roughly 20 women who pay for the privilege of following instructor Lisa Escobar all over the mountains of Marin County.
While assaulting several miles of trail running per workout, Escobar also leads her charges through a series of lunges, push-ups and resistance exercises"all the while exhorting them to, well, get dirty.
It doesnt take a coach like Escobar to fulfill the role of cheerleader; your fellow club members can do that all on their own. Chris Phipps, a highly ranked USA Track & Field (Pacific Association) runner, belongs to both the New Balance Excelsior Running Club and the Tamalpa Running Club. He says that it is the smaller, overlooked qualities of club membership that he values most.
It is great having teammates to carpool and cheer on and talk about the race with, says Phipps. Though he is one of the very few athletes in the region who lists the possibility of prize money as a compelling club benefit, Phipps also lauds one of the central larks of belonging: schwag. In the case of Excelsior, this munificence largely centers around giant deals on New Balance products.
But Jim McCann, president of the Triathlon Club of San Diego (TCSD), points out that a club as large as his offers more benefits than one could reasonably cash in.
Joining the Triathlon Club of San Diego is one of the best things a person could do, says McCann. While roughly the same size as their northern neighbor, the Tri Club of San Diego may be a bit more laid back, and at $60 per year for membership is also a screaming deal.
Here is a short list of what TCSD has to offer: discounts on race entry fees and at local suppliers of bikes and accessories, along with discounted nutrition products, apparel, running shoes, club wear, swim gear and restaurants. The group even has a quiver of wetsuits that are free to borrow, and loads all of the goodies into a comprehensive set of coaching clinics, speaking engagements (including famous names like Dave Scott, Scott Tinley, Peter Reid, Tim DeBoom, Steve Scott, Paula Newby-Fraser, Natascha Badmann and Lori Bowden"just to name a few) and group training rides and runs.
While the goodies may be appealing, perhaps the benefit most often cited that compels membership is the sense of community it fosters. McCann says that if you want to meet new people who tend to be active, well-educated and who share similar interests, a club like TCSD is a no-brainer.
The opportunities for social interaction just at TCSD alone is enough to fill a socialites calendar: swim potlucks, a Tour de France viewing party, moonlight hikes, moonlight ocean swims, movies, dinner and dancing outings, community efforts and especially, the annual Pool Party and Barbeque. Even busy moms like Shwe are finding a sense of community that has never before been available.
The Impala Racing Team is one of Northern Californias first clubs devoted to womens competitive running. Its success has been remarkable"ranging from winning its division in the Boston Marathon this year to placing dozens of teammates in the Olympic Trials.
We have NCAA champions on the team, says Shwe, but the biggest benefit is the personal aspect. Running is a big part of all our lives; but I also know that if I need to find a pre-school or a babysitter or even sell a call or get a job, I can turn to my club first.