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"I don't do well in a gym lifting weights, so this has been good for me," says Crary, a consulting dietitian. "I like the scenery and fresh air, being outside. For me, it's more motivating than being in a gym."
Crary says the first few workouts with Colby were "really hard," but "he allows you to move at your own pace." She says she's felt an increase in stamina and energy since starting the group classes in late November, and "I'm definitely toned up." She recommends signing up with a friend for group exercise because "that way you're accountable."
Outdoor workouts seem to engender camaraderie. Last November, corporate researcher Katie Gilkinson Chaumont, 28, joined a friend in one of the Running 101 classes offered by Run On!, the athletic apparel stores that cater to runners. In twice-weekly sessions, Chaumont and dozens of other runners were grouped by experience and coached by mentors. "I can't believe it," Chaumont says. "Every week is the farthest and longest I've ever run. I was a first-time runner, and now I'm regularly running eight or nine miles every time I go out. We didn't know anyone when we started this. We didn't even tell our families we were doing it. Now we know all these other runners, and we're planning on doing a half-marathon in two months. It's amazing."
Getting out of the gym was just what she needed to amp up her workout regime, Chaumont says. "Being outside, you're doing your own thing. You don't feel conspicuous or that people are watching you. There are no mirrors. You're not waiting for a machine. You don't have to wipe something down. You don't have to wear makeup. Time seems to go faster when you're working out outdoors. You're not watching the minutes tick by on a treadmill."
Among the benefits Chaumont says she's experienced since joining the running class: weight loss, increased endurance and mental toughness. "When you are out there and you want to stop and tell yourself not to, that's mentally empowering," she says.
Chaumont's coach is Rebecca Wallace, who with husband Bob co-owns the four Run On! stores. Wallace usually takes her training runners from the Mockingbird Lane store on a loop that might include the Katy Trail or wind through the M Streets toward White Rock Lake.
Besides the six-week group classes, which cost between $90 and $250 and attract more than 1,500 runners every year, Run On! also hosts free "social runs" at 6 p.m. every Wednesday at all four store locations. These draw dozens of runners, including beginner run-walkers still trudging through 13-minute miles and elite marathon veterans, all moving at their own pace in small groups.
"For a lot of runners this is how they socialize with each other," Wallace says. "When it starts getting lighter in the evenings in March, we'll get 50 or 60 runners at each store on a Wednesday night. It's a great way to get to know people."
She also likes to make up games to play with her runners. "We play 'Guess the house price' when we run through Lakewood. Social runs are great for getting to know your neighborhood. We get ideas for landscaping. You can meet more of your neighbors. You see who's out walking their dogs. It's just fun."
Rebecca Wallace offers one important bit of advice for making the transition to outdoor exercise, whether it's walking, running or bicycle riding: Do it with a friend. "I'm a safety freak, so I wouldn't recommend that anyone go out alone, especially after dark," Wallace says. And forget the iPod if you're on city streets, she advises. Loud music blocks out oncoming traffic, sirens or dangers such as unleashed dogs or unfriendly strangers. She also thinks there's value in making the commitment to a class. "If you've paid to be in a group, you're more likely to show up," she says. And more likely to keep heading outside to work out.
"I want to spread the message to more people that they can find real joy exercising outside a gym," Scott Colby says. "I have a vision of driving past playgrounds and seeing people of all ages working out. I'd love to see parks get as crowded as gyms."