Donna Arrington’s feet were a mess after she completed the Rock/Creek StumpJump 50k trail race on a wet day in Chattanooga in 2015.
"I think it rained the entire race," she said, noting that blisters covered her feet after she ran in soggy shoes for hours.
When Arrington later joined the Birmingham Ultra Trail Society, experienced runners in the club taught her the trick of protecting feet with Desitin, a salve designed to prevent diaper rash.
Arrington’s anecdote illustrates just one benefit of joining a running club: the expertise of fellow members. Whether you’re working up to running your first 5K or have your eye on qualifying for the Boston Marathon, "if you do it on your own, you learn everything the hard way," said Arrington.
When you’re part of a club, you’ll not only tap into sage advice from running experts, but you also gain a community of like-minded people who can provide camaraderie on training runs and help you reach your running goals. At the same time, you’ll expand your social circle and likely develop lasting friendships.
There’s also the volunteer component: Many running clubs participate in events that give back to local communities.
Throughout Alabama there are excellent running organizations in large and small communities, and we’ve highlighted five top clubs to give you an idea of the wide range of benefits they offer.
Birmingham Ultra Trail Society (BUTS)
Established in 2013, BUTS is dedicated to creating a welcoming, friendly, and supportive trail-running community in the Birmingham area. To support its mission, BUTS work with local parks to maintain trails, hosts a series of four running races each year, and volunteers to work aid stations during Southeastern Trail Series races.
Whether you’re a beginner or experienced runner, you’ll likely benefit most from the trail runs that BUTS hosts each Tuesday evening at Red Mountain Park. There are running groups for different ability levels, and each group includes volunteers who monitor the front, middle, and back of each group to keeps tabs on all runners.
Within BUTS there are also informal groups that meet regularly to run, such as the 35-member Oak Mountain Friday Crew. Typically, members of the offshoot groups become close friends and sometimes travel together throughout the country to participate in races.
In addition to hosting runs, BUTS holds monthly Trail Chat meetings where members can learn about training techniques, nutrition and gear.
To help members prevent injury, the club partners with a local yoga studio that offers a discount on classes. "The yoga helps with balance on the trail and prevents falling and injuries," said Arrington.
Because dedicated runners go through multiple pairs of shoes in a year, the club also partners with The Trak Shak, which offers BUTS members a 10-percent discount on running gear.
Auburn-Opelika Running and Track Association
Because it’s located in a college town, the Auburn-Opelika Running and Track Association serves a population that is constantly shifting. Each year, its sees an influx of new students and faculty as well as people migrating to the South for jobs. Plus, football game weekends bring in a healthy crowd of alumni who want to participate in group runs and other events.
As a result, the club has become an important hub where people from all walks of life and all parts of the country can find a sense of community. "With so many new faces rotating in and out, we’re very welcoming of newcomers," said president Mike Brown. “I’m friends with six people who moved into town in the last three years and didn’t know anybody when they moved here. Now they’re fully invested in the running community.”
The association’s group runs on Saturdays draw runners of all levels. One group will tackle 10 to 15 miles, while another will complete five or six; all groups have organized water stops. A group run provides a significant amount of motivation that can push runners to achieve more, Brown noted.
"Last weekend, I ran 11 miles and would have quit about halfway if I hadn’t been with a group," he said.
Birmingham Track Club
It’s true that there’s strength in numbers: With more than 1,000 members, the Birmingham Track Club has a healthy number of sub-groups and activities that serve runners of all ability levels.
On Saturday mornings at 6 am, the club hosts two long runs that cover about 10 miles and 15 miles. At the same time, there are two shorter run of 4 mile and 8 mile for moderate runners who keep a slower pace.
"We have Boston Marathon qualifiers, but we also understand there are people who aren’t like that, said Scott Wood, vice president of the Birmingham Track club. “We cater to those people just like we cater to the advanced runners."
One great aspect of the club is that members sometimes become great friends and form sub-communities, like the CCOGs (Cool Chicks and Old Guys), which includes about 50 people aged 25 to 63.
"We’re thick as thieves," said Wood. “We don’t exclude anyone, but we’re really good friends, and know each others’ spouses and friends. Those people are as close to me as some of my family members.”
The Birmingham Track Club also holds monthly social gatherings with an educational component. One recent gathering at Oak Mountain State Park focused on meeting with triathletes, including bike and swim coaches, to learn more about the sport.
You’ll also find loads of helpful information on training and nutrition in the club’s newsletter, The Vulcan Runner, which received an award for excellence from the Road Runners Club of America.
Port City Pacers
Established more than 40 years ago in Mobile, the Port City Pacers running club is most known for hosting the annual Azalea Trail Run, which draws runners from all over the world to participate in one of country’s most beautiful (and flattest) courses.
The group also strives to provide healthy and affordable activities for families.
"There aren’t a whole lot of sports that families can do together for a reasonable fee," said Peggy Olive, a longtime member of the Port City Pacers. To encourage families to run together, the group offers free memberships for kids 12 and under. In addition, the group keeps entry fees low (about $20) for each of the eight races it sponsors each year.
During group runs, veteran runners in the club make a special effort to help train kids and set their pace. According to Olive, this is especially helpful, because younger people who are new to the sport often don’t paces themselves well.
While the group caters to families, it also focuses on giving back to the community. Proceeds from group’s races go to local organizations, such as the Mobile Fire & Rescue Department and the local Children’s and Women’s Hospital.
To further benefit the community, the Port City Pacers makes it possible for members to get certified in CPR and the use of defibrillators for $25 rather than the normal $100 fee.
"Our mission is for as many people as possible to get those skills so they can be the person who steps up to say, ‘How can I help?’ instead of ‘What do I do?’ " Olive said.
Huntsville Track Club
If you’re interested in the growing sport of ultra-marathon running and you live in Huntsville, you’re in luck. You happen to be in a hotbed for the sport.
Each winter, the Huntsville Track Club sponsors the Mountain Mist, a 50K trail run on Monte Sano Mountain that attracts competitors from across the country. In addition, the club hosts two additional 50K races each year, and more than 45 members of the Huntsville Track Club have completed 100-mile races.
"There’s an abnormally large number of 100-mile runners in the area," said club president Eric Fritz.
If you join the Huntsville Track Club, you’ll meet plenty of mentors who can help you through your first ultra. If you’ve never attended an ultra-marathon, you can also join the club during its annual trip to work the mile-85 aid station for the Pinhoti 100 trail race.
"It gives you good insight into what a 100-mile race is like, because at mile 85 people are at their lowest," said Fritz.
As you train for your ultra, you’ll also get valuable information from the club newsletter, which features local doctors who provide advice columns on training, injury prevention, and physical therapy.
While the Huntsville Track Club is especially beneficial for long-distance runners, it also focuses on attracting and supporting new runners, including kids and families.
For example, an individual membership is $15, but a family membership is only an extra $5. Plus, the club hosts four free races each year, so it’s not a financial strain for kids to participate in competitions throughout the year.
In the summer, the club hosts cross-country runs every Tuesday afternoon, including 1-, 2- and 3-mile routes that are suitable for young kids and newcomers.
To get more kids interested in running, club members visit elementary schools each year to talk about race experiences and teach kids how to stretch. The club also sponsors the Autumn Chase, a 1-mile race in the fall that kids from all local elementary schools and middle schools participate in.
Originally written for BCBS of AL.