Walking the Walk

Walking the Walk

Having trouble getting motivated to exercise? Joining (or forming) a walking group might be the thing for you. Here are three groups that get together regularly to walk-and talk

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It’s not every day that runners clamor to join a walking club or members of the mainstream com-munity flock to a group set up for the disabled.

But that melding of disparate groups into a cohesive community is the essence of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club’s (MCRRC) walking group, which trains each year from April through October for the Rockville 5K in November. Roughly half of the walking group’s50 or so members are developmentally disabled adults.

Members of the Montgomery County Road Runners Club take a break in Rockville’s King Farm Park. They include: front row from left, Dihana da Costa, Lisa Daigle, Wanda Walters and JenniferWilhelm; seated from left, Jenny Wagner, Sharon Shaffer and Ryan Walters; back row from left, Aminata Diallo, Gretchen Cooper, Penelope Strickland, Lidia Vasquez, Liz Weightman, Darlene Smith, Tori Grubic, Sylvia Gannett, Elizabeth Oppong, Carolyn Muawwad, Bryan Vancavage, Jerry Dillon and Andy LaPlaca (not pictured).

The walking group’s unofficial start came in 1998,after Bethesda resident Wanda Walters went searching for an extracurricular activity for her developmentally disabled son, Ryan, who was attending Winston Churchill High School as an “inclusion” student––a special-needs student who attends classes with his or her non-disabled peers. When Walters discovered that cross-country running was a no-cut sport at Churchill, she and Ryan started running together so that he could join the team.

By 2003, the duo was training with MCRRC’s 5K running program through a partnership with The ARC, a national organization that provides support to people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. The group drew as many walkers as runners. As the walkers grew in number, Walters saw an opportunity for them to have a group of their own.

Other MCRRC members agreed, and in 2005, the running club created a training program just for walkers, with a primary goal of encouraging developmentally disabled adults to exercise.

To Walters’ pleasant surprise, many non-disabled community members joined as well.

“Usually, it’s the disabled working their way into the mainstream,” Walters says. “This was like reverse inclusion. It’s probably 50-50 disabled/non-disabled, and the attitude of the mainstream walkers is, ‘They’re disabled. So what?’”

Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday during training season, about 50 walkers trickle onto a track in Rockville or into King Farm Park in Rockville. For one hour, they walk in groups or alone, some breaking into a run for a lap before returning to a brisk walk, others content to stroll. Walters says this is the beauty of the group and of walking in general.

“You get to establish what success is,” Walters says.

Group coach Vicky Nathan of Germantown says some members have “graduated” to the 5K running program. But she says the group has also made walkers out of longtime runners. Nathan herself is a convert: She started coaching the program while on an injury-forced running hiatus.

“As a runner, it was amazing to see that you really can get in fantastic shape by walking,” Nathan says.

Members tout those fitness benefits and say that the group’s set schedule and supportive teammates keep them motivated.

“My mom and I walk in the morning, but it’s not the same,” says group member Debra Wimberly of Germantown. “You can put that off. If you know everyone’s meeting there every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, you’re going to be there, too.”

Wimberly says Nathan’s infectious enthusiasm makes the walks feel less like exercise and more like pep rallies, with participants exchanging cheers and words of encouragement as they pass one another.

Shirley Storms of Silver Spring, who describes herself as a “reluctant exerciser who never met an endorphin while working out,” says the support transcends fitness goals.

Storms joined the group in 2008, shortly after her husband’s sudden death in 2007. She says the group was integral to her healing process.

 “Even though the healing part wasn’t intended, the group meant a lot more to me than just exercise,” Storms says. “Everyone was so nice and so positive; it made it easy to make the commitment to keep going.”

Storms says the spirit of inclusion applies to all group members, disabled or not. “This is a real community thing,” she says.

Walters says her son has participated in the group every year, as have many of his developmentally disabled friends.

“It’s…what they do in the summer-time,” Walters says. “It’s like going back to camp, where everyone says, ‘Hi! I haven’t seen you all year!’ ” 

Ryan Walters, now 28, says he exercises at a gym on the days he doesn’t walk. He likes walking days much better.

“It does motivate me,” he says, grinning. “I walk with my friends.”

The Rockville 5K each year is “like graduation,” Wanda Walters says. Walkers with the group net louder cheers than the fastest runners, and each member gets a medal after crossing the finish line.

The 5K finish has proved a climactic moment for many non-disabled group members as well. Storms, who says she had no desire to complete the 5K when she started the program, says she was glowing when she finished with a time that placed her ahead of some of the slower runners.

“Without even thinking about it, I turned to my daughter and said, ‘That was fun!’” Storms says. “She said, ‘Did you hear what you just said?’”


Walking and Talking

Susan Karr of Potomac and Margo Stein of Gaithersburg wanted to set a regular date to chat and catch up, but didn’t want to just “meet and eat,” Karr says. So Karr, Stein and a third friend, Meri Picard of Potomac, decided to “walk and talk” instead, says Karr.

“Everyone’s time-pressured, so we wanted to be as efficient as possible,” Karr says. “We’ve been able to combine two very important things—keeping in touch with friends and exercise.”

After more than five years of Sunday-morning walks, Karr says their friendships and social networks have grown exponentially. Now, a group of 11 women gathers weekly for a four-mile walk on the paved path along Wootton Parkway in Potomac. The group maintains a 15-minute-mile pace and a steady stream of conversation. 

Some members have known each other since their now-grown children were in kindergarten. Others met through the walking group. They come from a variety of professions and backgrounds, but members say they have more in common than not.

“We’re all within the same age range, which means many of us are dealing with aging parents as well as [with] our kids becoming young adults,” Karr says. “There are a lot of lifecycle experiences we’ve shared."

That makes the walks a great place to share celebrations, such as when Potomac resident Barbra Goldberg’s daughter recently gave birth to twins. It also makes them an ideal forum for coping with heartache, such as the recent death of Picard’s father. But the topics of conversation aren’t always so serious. The women joke that they have exchanged enough recipes to write a cookbook.

“I have left our walks and gone right to Giant to buy ingredients for a recipe,” says Wendy Gross of Potomac.

The group has expanded its scope and mission, as well as its ranks, through the years. It recently set a goal of doing a walk to raise money for breast cancer or Alzheimer’s research.

But members say friendship remains its most important objective. “Knowing you’ll be seeing someone on a weekly basis allows you to maintain a friendship in a way you can’t otherwise,” Karr says. “We saw this as a way for us to stay connected.”


People and Dogs

Susanne Bard sometimes has to break up fights between members of her walking group.

Her year-old mixed-breed dog, Mango, and Lily, a 3-year-old dachshund, don’t always get along. But since Bard, of Washington, D.C., and Lily’s owner, Brittany Grayson of Silver Spring, walk together with the Rock Creek Rovers a few mornings a week, the dogs do their best to make nice.

“Brittany and I hit it off from the beginning, but we’re better friends than the dogs are,” Bard says. “Lily’s a little curmudgeon, and Mango’s a 1-year-old who likes to run up to other dogs and play. It’s funny to watch Lily put Mango in her place.”

Bard started the group in July 2008 to find companions for both herself and Mango for morning walks through Rock Creek Park. The group quickly amassed 20 members from Silver Spring, Bethesda, Takoma Park and the District on the online networking site meetup.com, though Bard says only a few people show up for any given walk.

The group walks the trails in Rock Creek Park for 45 minutes to an hour two or three mornings each week. Bard says the trails give humans and canines an invigorating start to the day.

“Rock Creek Park tends to have pretty solid walks, so you can count on it being good exercise,” Bard says. “And the more intense exercise [Mango] gets before I go to work, the more comfortable I am about leaving her.”

Grayson says the group helped her appreciate the area after moving here from Santa Cruz, Calif., in 2007.

“Rock Creek Park was part of what appealed to me about this neck of the woods, but not knowing the trails, going by yourself, can be a little dicey,” Grayson says. “Plus, it’s more fun to walk the dog when you find someone to chat with.”

Grayson says the dogs benefit from the social interaction, too.

“I like for her to be around other dogs, so she’s used to that,” Grayson says. “The walks help keep everyone involved a little more well-rounded.”


Amy Reinink is a Silver Spring-based freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post, Entrepreneur Media and Kickstand Magazine.

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