COLUMBIA — As Bill Stolz crossed the finish line with his friends during their weekly run, a calmness slowly came over his body. Half of his workout now completed, he quickly regained his breath as air seeped back into his lungs. A blank look spread over his face. It was a look of complete serenity.
Running is not just a passion for him. It's a calming force.
"Running, for me, is a great way to relax and get out and enjoy life," Stolz said.
Five times a week, Stolz runs five to six miles. However, one day of the week means more to Stolz than the rest.
For a small group of friends, Wednesday night has become a night of exercise and camaraderie. Led by Stolz, a handful of runners meets every Wednesday night at the Hickman High School track to run and push each other to stay in shape. Their ages are diverse, ranging from early 20s to late 40s.
"Our track night crew is a lot of fun," Stolz said. "We joke and chat but we also push each other to go faster. Running has that magical ability to bring people together with a common bond."
All of the runners are members of the Columbia Track Club. Founded in 1968, it is a not-for-profit organization that is now a year-round program for runners. The club sponsors Wednesday night runs for children during the summer and races such as Columbia's Nut Race 5K, and even gives out scholarships to graduating club members who attend Columbia high schools.
Each member shares a love for running, but they all are passionate about it for different reasons.
Stolz, who recently became president of the club, began running for fun as a young child. He continued to do it through high school, and the itch to get out and run has never left him.
"I didn't learn to ride a bike until I was seven or eight," Stolz said. "I enjoyed running too much."
For club member Tony Rigdon, it all began 10 years ago.
"I was 27, living in my parents' basement, and a good 40 pounds heavier than I am now," Rigdon said.
A friend convinced Rigdon to run a 5K race, which is 3.1 miles. He ended up getting third place in his age group, and his life changed. Rigdon began training for races and lost 40 pounds in the process. He now competes regularly.
"I do anything from 5Ks to half marathons, to sprint triathlons, to half-Ironmans," Rigdon said. "I've done one Ironman triathlon. I do about 40 events throughout the year. Why I really get out running is that I thrive on the competition."
Club member Marc Keys said he joined simply for friendship.
"Friendships form quite easily when you're doing this kind of thing," Keys said.
Keys and his wife needed running partners when they moved to Columbia years ago. He ran cross country in high school and ran competitively at Kansas State. Keys saw the club as a chance to meet new people who share his passion.
"It's such an active group," Keys said. "They have a lot of events throughout the year, and it's real easy to integrate in with it."
Consistent exercise has enabled Keys to stay healthy at age 49.
"It's the new 30," Keys said with a grin.
With break time coming to a close, Stolz looked around at his friends as they prepared to finish their workout. They took off together down the track, determined to push one another all the way until the end.