Running clinics provide community for women across Arkansas
May 28 - June 3, 2018
By Alyx VanNess
In 1997, Cheryl Potter looked around at the running clubs in Arkansas and one thing became very clear to her; while the state had a strong running community, there wasn’t a lot out there for women who were just beginning their journey in the sport.
Potter founded the first Women Can Run/Walk Clinic in Conway that year, enrolling 75 women from her community. Not only a running clinic, participants worked on their health, confidence, and self-esteem. At the end of the clinic, Potter celebrated her fellow women runners by hosting a 5K in partnership with AVON.
“When I started running, there were many more male runners than there were women and the majority of race participants were men. Many of my friends would question me saying why on earth are you running and going to races to participate,” says Linda Starr, one of the leaders in that first clinic in Conway.
Clinics were soon popping up across central Arkansas; Greenbrier, Russellville, and North Little Rock began hosting their own each year. But Potter realized that this now large network of women athletes didn’t have a home after the clinic was over—a place to stay connected to other women and to continue working on their running and fitness goals. In 2000, the Women Run Arkansas Run/Walk Club (WRA) was formed.
Twenty-one years later, WRA still hosts a free ten-week walk/run clinic in the spring for women of all ability levels. Since that first clinic in 1997, WRA has grown to over 40 location sites and 4,000 female participants across the state. Although Potter passed in 2005, her legacy lives on. In 2017, the graduation race saw almost 1,500 women who came out to celebrate their strength.
The clinics generally meet twice a week and are designed specifically to meet the needs of women’s fitness. Beginners have the opportunity to go from sedentary to completing 3.1 miles, while intermediate and advanced participants practice interval and speed training.
Rhonda Burgos, a group leader at the North Little Rock clinic, explains that women self-select their training groups based on their current abilities and fitness goals, with the opportunity to change groups until they find the right fit. Each group is led by a past clinic participant who wants to give back by volunteering their time and talent to other women.
“The ladies in my group were, for some reason, thanking me, and all I was doing was blowing the whistle,” says Burgos. “It made me feel good to help other people … I’m hoping I was a participant in changing their entire life.”
Regardless of ability levels, clinic leaders educate all participants on topics including proper fitness attire, race etiquette, hydration, nutrition, and stretching. North Little Rock Co-Director, Monica Ritchie, says the women-empowered approach to fitness is important, especially for women new to the sport.
“Eliminating the outside influence of the male competition helps women excel within their own limitations,” she says. “Women-centered groups also help create a supportive community where women are more likely to discuss issues such as injuries, apparel needs like bras and underwear, or gear centered on female needs than when there are men around.”
Little Rock resident Kayce Peirce says being in a setting surrounded by women helped her find confidence as she worked on running longer distances.
“It can be difficult for women to try to get the confidence they need to make a positive change in their life or find the motivation to do something like this. With all of these great women out here, it’s a lot easier to find your motivation, to find your team,” says Peirce.
WRA sees women at every stage of life; elite runners, teenagers, mothers, and more mature women all find a place within the clinic.
Ritchie says, “I see all kinds of women at clinic. I am fond of the young girls that come out with their moms and give it all they have. It opens a new world to them and we try to make it fun so they will be lifelong runners.”
The ten-week clinics conclude with the Women Run Arkansas 5k run/walk in Conway. Since 2003, the race has been scheduled during Mother’s Day weekend, making it a special day as mothers and daughters run together. The race is open to all women regardless of their attendance at one of the clinics. Over the years it has gained in popularity; during the 2018 race held recently on May 12, organizers had to place a registration cap for the first time in the race’s history.
Starr, who now serves as the WRA statewide clinic director, says watching women cross the finish line at the graduation race is more rewarding than winning a race herself.
“It is an experience that is hard to describe as you see these hundreds of ladies cross that finish line with tears of joy running down their face,” she explains. “Seeing the happy look on their faces and the many family members on the sidelines supporting them makes it all worthwhile to us organizers that have spent many days, months, and hours working with the clinics through race day.”
In addition to her role within WRA, Starr is owner and operator of The Sporty Runner in Conway. When the store first opened, it was specifically geared towards women, bearing the name The Sporty Lady.
“I had retired from Southwestern Bell and had more time to run, but found it difficult to find shoes, apparel and other items for female runners so I decided to open a ladies running store. Sometimes you would have to buy men’s shoes or apparel to find something comfortable to run in,” says Starr.
A runner for 30 years, she’s seen the world of running become more inclusive of women, but she says it remains important to create women-only spaces, especially for women new to the sport. The WRA clinic does just that.
After the graduation 5k race, most women say they stay motivated through the connections they’ve made with other runners and walkers in their area.
Ritchie, who is also President of The Hot Legs, an all-women running group in Central Arkansas, works hard to provide her members with information and motivation to stay active and involved with other women in the running community after clinic is over. She encourages them to interact with each other through social media or email groups, and recommends that her participants stick with a schedule to maintain consistency.
Countless women return year after year for the comradery and support they feel from other women participants. Conway resident, Lanette Gammage, has been attending for three years.
“The biggest reason I continue to attend the WRA clinic is for the accountability and encouragement. The first year I was extremely scared to attend alone … but everyone, from the leaders to the other participants, were so welcoming that I soon forgot why I was anxious,” Gammage says.
Gammage says what she enjoys most about clinic is the confidence it’s given her.
“I have gained the confidence to consider myself a runner … I had this idea in my head that to be considered a ‘runner’ you had to be able to actually run the entire distance of a race. I didn’t realize that many runners run intervals and they are still runners. I found my people.”
Maumelle resident Angela Matthews’ favorite part about the clinic is The Magic Mile—a timed, one mile run completed three times over the course of the clinic to measure each woman’s progress. In seeing her growth in this event, Matthews decided she wants to sign up for the Arkansas Runner 2 Mile held at the Clinton Presidential Library on June 9.
For a lot of women, the clinic and culminating graduation race can be life changing. Some women never envisioned themselves walking or running three miles, and some go on to lead clinics they participated in, run their first half or full marathons, or make lasting changes to their health.
Burgos says for her, it’s more than that.
“I don’t even think running is about running in the end. It’s about finding who you are, finding where your limitations are, finding what you can and can’t do. It’s a whole lot more than running.”
Runners from the North Little Rock Clinic participate in the Women Can Run Race this past Mother’s Day Weekend. (Photo courtesy of North Little Rock Women Can Run)