COLUMBIA — When the alarm clock issues a resounding wail at 4:30 a.m., it takes a huge amount of willpower not to groan, roll over and press snooze.
For the members of Columbia’s chapter of Team in Training, a group that trains for marathons and triathlons while raising money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the reasons to get out of bed and go on that run are many: the faces of loved ones who have had cancer, the motivating words of their friends and family, and the disappointment of their coaches if they fail to show up.
In Columbia, two women, Cindy Fotti and Dana Hughes, have taken over as coaches of the Columbia TNT chapter. While struggling with the limited resources of a small chapter, they have taken runners to marathons across the United States, from Alaska to Florida, and raised thousands of dollars for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.
“The Columbia team is smaller … but it is a very steady team where participants get more individual attention from coaches and fundraising mentors,” Hughes said.
Hughes, who moved to Columbia from Palo Alto, Calif., took over for Cindy Fotti as TNT’s coach this season. Fotti had coached the Columbia chapter for the past three and a half years until this season, when she handed over her duties to Hughes. The women have agreed that in the future they will share the coaching duties, and the increased staff has definitely benefitted the program.
Fotti said that many larger TNT chapters, like the one in St. Louis, have enough participants and resources that they can hire multiple coaches for the different ability levels. In Columbia, however, there are usually only about six to eight participants each season, and the coaches must work with athletes of varying capabilities and backgrounds.
“It is impossible to balance focusing on the faster runners who are doing seven-minute miles and the people who are walking 16-minute miles,” Fotti said.
Since Hughes and Fotti cannot run alongside every participant during training sessions and races, they focus on providing Gatorade and water to the runners when they are tired and helping the runners to mentally prepare. They also have many administrative duties. Not only do they design workout plans and recommend running gear, the coaches also send out motivational emails and organize the twice-monthly Saturday morning training runs.
“I love my coaches,” said Marie Kerl, a long-time TNT participant. “They both work full time and do this as a labor of love, and it is really boring to follow runners around with water and Gatorade on a nice weekend day when you could be doing something else.”
Despite not having as much one-on-one time as they wish with trainees, the coaches acknowledged how close they have become with many of the runners. Fotti said that some of the most rewarding experiences she has had with the program have been when participants share their motivations for participating. Though Fotti and Hughes said they joined the group only to get in shape and complete a marathon, meeting so many individuals with touching stories has inspired them to continue participating.
“Many participants have personal connections to people who have had leukemia or lymphoma,” Hughes said. “Those are the people who keep participants motivated. Knowing the money raised will go to benefit research and patients … keeps our participants motivated.”
Fotti said that committing to TNT is a challenge, but she said that participants, once they realize the benefits of the program, usually manage to overcome the challenges, both mental and physical.
“Not everybody sticks it out,” she said. “As long as we can get them hooked, though, they get motivated to stick it out and persevere.”
Despite many participants having such personal reasons for participating, often a runner will only train with TNT for one season. Fotti said the fundraising requirements often impede participants from completing more than one race. Thus, there is a high level of turnover among participants, and the coaches must start off each season with a fresh group of trainees. Everyone starts off from the same point, going on one-mile runs and building from there.
“Regardless of where you start you eventually have to complete the long training runs and walks before the event,” Hughes said.
Keeping participants in shape and motivated, despite their varying levels of ability and determination, is the biggest challenge that the coaches face, Fotti said. Despite the inherent challenges of transforming many middle-aged, out of shape, aspiring runners into people capable of finishing a marathon or triathlon, the coaches agree that the rewards far outweigh the costs.
“I usually end my team emails with the statement ‘Remember the reason,’” Fotti said. “If people just stop to think about what they are doing and the fact that they are making a difference not only in their lives but the lives of people with leukemia and lymphoma, that is reason enough to keep anyone going for one more mile.”