Darlene Schilling, left, and Sandi Cornett tackle a final run on Nov. 3, at the end of 26 weeks of training with the FAB 50 group.
The FAB 50 team poses after a nine-mile dress rehearsal run in downtown St. Petersburg Oct. 13, trying out part of the course for the Lady Speed Stick Women’s Half Marathon on Sunday, Nov. 18.
LARGO – The women of FAB 50 are embracing their age and the community empowerment that comes from pushing each other past their own physical and mental limits.
About 70 women will tackle the Lady Speed Stick Women’s Half Marathon in St. Petersburg on Nov. 18, many of them running a half marathon for the very first time.
The group has met at Walsingham Park every Sunday for 26 weeks, transforming their bodies from “couch potato” to a long distance runner, ready to conquer 13.1 miles.
“It has been probably one of the best experiences of my life,” said soon-to-be half-marathoner Sandi Cornett. “There are so many people involved, and everybody is so tremendously supportive. It’s all about helping each other.”
Coach Pamela Paul of Largo had no idea what she was onto when she gathered the first FAB 50 Women on the Run more than a year and a half ago. In fact, the group began as an answer to Paul’s own half-marathon struggles.
Paul was turning 49 on the weekend of the Women’s Half Marathon in 2010. Though she had trained women to run 5K and 10K races, Paul decided to start challenging herself to longer distances, prompted by her own advancing years.
However, the weekend of the race did not turn out well.
“It was just a really rough run for me because I was emotionally dealing with the fallout from a shattered dream, and I was starting to go through menopause,” she said.
During the entire trying race, Paul said she kept coming back to the same thought: “I don’t want to be here at the same time next year when I turn 50.”
So she shifted gears. Six months prior to the 2011 race, she sent out a challenge: in exchange for joining with her in the race, Paul would provide free 26-week training to any woman who committed to running the 13.1 miles. The pseudo birthday invitation circulated among friends of friends and on Facebook.
“I had 24 women sign up, most of whom I didn’t even know,” Paul said.
What happened at the conclusion of the challenge surprised her.
“These women were telling me, ‘My life has been changed. Thank you so much,’ ” Paul said. “The impact it had on their life was incredible.”
She repeated the program for the Clearwater Athleta Iron Girl in April, this time charging participants at least enough to cover the specialty drinks she provided for them. When it came time to train for another Women’s Half Marathon this year, 76 women were signed up to participate.
“We’re just having too much fun,” Paul admitted. “It’s mostly us middle-aged women (who think) ‘You got to be kidding me, I can’t do a half marathon,’ before they know it, they’re running long distances, and they’re achieving milestones that they’ve never achieved in their life.”
That certainly has been the case for 55-year-old Largo resident Mary Bronk. When she was in her 20s, Bronk would run three to five miles a day as well as the occasional short race. But after a divorce, she became a single mother to three young children and her ability to run was limited. As a nurse, she understood the importance of preventive care, so she became an avid walker.
“Then, as I got older I just thought I could never do it,” Bronk said. “I never thought in my 50s that I would be running a half marathon.”
Now she’s back to thinking like a runner, reading running magazines and oogling over sneakers and running shorts in sports stores.
“I do tell Pam that it’s a blessing how she has brought this back into my life,” Bronk said. “I’ve already achieved goals that I never thought I would.”
Despite her previous running habits, Bronk had never run a half marathon before, or many of the longer distances she’s already checked off.
Recently, the FAB 50 tried out a portion of the actual Women’s Half Marathon course in downtown St. Petersburg for a nine-mile “dress rehearsal” run on Oct. 13. For Bronk, who had just injured her hip in an unrelated incident involving her overeager puppy, that morning was especially hard.
“I didn’t think I was going to make it because I was having sciatic pain down my left leg. And actually I was almost dragging my leg at the end,” she remembered.
Paul kept telling her that she didn’t have to continue if it hurt that bad.
“I said, ‘No. I’m doing it. I said I was going to do it. I’m doing it.’ Because I just felt that if I didn’t do, if I gave myself one excuse, then I’d give myself another excuse,” Bronk said.
It wasn’t pretty. FAB 50 runners that usually never catch up with her pace asked her what was wrong as they ran past. But Bronk finished the nine miles.
“It’s not going to stop once I have this marathon behind me,” she said. “I want to continue as much as my body will let me.”
Cornett, 54, of St. Petersburg said she felt the same way about continuing to run in races. Already, she and her 61-year-old running partner Darlene Schilling are planning to run in two other half marathons in January and February.
Cornett said that after discovering FAB 50 on YouTube “almost by accident” she was inspired to join because many of the runners looked like “just regular people.” It didn’t take long to get hooked.
“Even in the heat of July and August and September, I really looked forward to attending the group runs,” she said.
The running schedules were not difficult to follow, Cornett explained. Aside from the Saturday runs, FAB 50 trainees have to find time for only two other runs and a recovery walk each week.
Along with being a physical trainer, Paul is a psychotherapist and taking a last course in a doctoral program for holistic nutrition. Running isn’t the best way to lose weight, which is why she’s studying ways to add holistic nutrition to the FAB 50 training package. But running is a mood alleviator and de-stressor. Some of her psychotherapy clients join the FAB 50 and discover they don’t need therapy anymore.
“It’s been awesome for me to experience the change that this brings about in their life. That’s what my work is all about and has been about,” she said.
More than a running group, FAB 50 has taken on a life of its own as a community, with members exchanging ideas, interacting within a Facebook group and providing different support for each other, even without Paul’s involvement.
Now, only days away from her first half marathon, Cornett said she has a bit of nervous anticipation, but overall feels good about where training has brought her.
“The confidence that you gain from knowing that you can go out there and do it is so great,” she said.
And while the FAB 50 coach already has some half-marathon notches on her belt, she insists that FAB 50 has changed her life.
“It gave me a new direction … erased all that I had experienced,” Paul said. “It burst new life into me.”
The next FAB 50 training is called the Iron Girl baker’s dozen, a 13-week accelerated program for those who can already run a 5K run. It starts Jan. 12 and will prepare participants to run the Iron Girl half marathon in April.