Meghan Kita has been running for 14 years, ever since joining her high school track team. She's got 17 marathons under her belt and a gig as a senior editor at Runner's World magazine. So it was kind of a big deal last month when Kita decided to try something she'd never wanted to do at a race before.
It's not that she has anything against people who take it slow, Kita is quick to point out. It's that for her, personally, walking had always felt like giving up. "It meant I made a tactical error," she says.
"When I've walked, it's been because I couldn't run anymore. It was something I had to do rather than chose to do."
This time, for the Runner's World Half Marathon in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, Kita actually planned to walk for a minute after each mile - a strategy based on Olympian and coach Jeff Galloway's 40-year-old "Run Walk Run" method. The idea of switching between the two wasn't exactly new to Kita, who has edited Galloway's column for the magazine for three years. She just didn't think it applied to her.
"I knew I could run the whole way," she says. But after a string of unsatisfactory races, Kita decided she'd give it a go.
At that first mile marker, she said she felt a little silly when she pulled over to the side of the course for a walk break. "Don't worry about me! It's all part of the plan," she reassured a group of volunteers standing nearby. As the race went on, Kita realized she also felt good. Her finicky stomach welcomed a gel, her mood was better than normal, and she was still able to keep up with the 1:45 pace group.
Kita's takeaway on walking? She wants to experiment with it more.
That's not a bad idea for other runners of all abilities. Just ask Krista Bradley, 52, who joins friends every Thanksgiving for the Trot for Hunger 5K in the District. Her group has done the event for 10 years now, and she's tried it at various speeds.
"Running past the finish line was memorable," Bradley says. What she has enjoyed more, however, are the times she's gone slowly enough to chat with old friends, meet new ones and pose for photos with a guy in a turkey costume. "Whatever pace you decide to keep, it's a meaningful event. But with walking, I feel more connected to the community," she says.
One of her favorite parts of the trot is cheering on runners at the front of the pack, who are already sprinting back by the time her group is getting started. Their speed is impressive, but Bradley can't help but feel sorry for them: "I think they're missing out."
Of course, some runners think it's walkers getting the raw deal. Julia Jones, coach for the online program Up & Running, was frustrated at a recent - and not-so-well organized - 5K, where she found herself stuck behind participants strolling with dogs.
"For me, that was less fun," says Jones, whose goal with clients is usually to help them run farther and faster during races. But many of them start by walking or run-walking, and she thinks that's a smart strategy to avoid injury, especially for anyone carrying around extra weight.
Some folks may find that the slower speed is the right pace for them, and that's no reason to avoid a race, she says: "If you run and you hate it, then you should walk." Just remember that there's usually a maximum time allowed on a course, Jones adds, and stragglers may wind up on a bus.
That's one reason committed walkers may want to skip traditional 5Ks and 10-milers and instead try something like Avon 39. Over the course of the two-day event held in seven U.S. cities, including Washington, participants cover 39.3 miles.
All of them are walkers - or what they call "39ers" - says Jill Surdyka, director of community engagement, who notes that their motivation usually comes from the mission, which is to raise money and awareness to fight breast cancer.
"Some of the things people find appealing is that we're not a race. There is no winner," Surdyka says. "The majority do walk the full 39 miles, but if they decide not to, it's okay."
However many miles they go, participants spend that time with a group of a few thousand other people, "hearing their stories and learning what's moving them," Surdyka adds. There's an emphasis on doing it together, so anyone signing up without friends or family is encouraged to join the "Solo Strutters" team.
"It's not an easy event," Surdyka says. "But if you're looking to a run a marathon, this isn't what you sign up for."
Avon 39 is what helped Leigh Helberg, 44, get comfortable with becoming a walker. The Los Angeleno got into running a bit later in life - she was in her 30s when she went for her first jog. Within a few months, however, she had crossed the finish line of the L.A. Marathon. She soon was signing up for races of all distances and often ending up on the winner's podium. She bought books about running, redesigned her diet to improve her times, and put stickers that said "26.2" and "Marathon Mom" on the bumper of her car.
And then she was diagnosed with cancer at the age of 39. Helberg instead was racing through surgeries, including a bilateral mastectomy and a hysterectomy.
At first, Helberg tried to keep up her old habits in her new reality. She remembers being so determined to get a good time at a breast cancer 5K that she didn't care about anything else.
"As people were walking hand in hand, I was pissed off and shoving them. All I could think in that moment was, 'Get out of my way,' " she says. She says it's embarrassing for her now, but Helberg knows why she acted the way she did: "I felt this need to be who I was. So much had changed so quickly."
But all of the pounding on her body hurt, and Helberg gradually had to cut back. Her running group continued without her. "It's been a mourning period," she says.
So when she heard about the Avon 39 event in Santa Barbara, Calif., Helberg was intrigued, and she showed up last year. The job on Day 1 was to walk 26.2 miles, which she found out takes much, much longer if she's not running. She went with a friend with Stage 4 ovarian cancer, and they made it in 12 hours.
Back when she ran marathons, "everything that was stressful seemed to fall off, mile after mile," she says. The walk was different, especially because she spent that time discussing life and death. "Those things aren't shedding," she says. But it fulfilled Helberg's need to push herself, and it gave her a way to sort through her thoughts.
It also gave her a new identity: She's a walker now.
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