AHealthyU Couch to 5K runners finish week eight of virtual training

AU faculty and staff members lace up for the final race in another semester of running

AHealthyU Couch to 5K runners finish week eight of virtual training
AU faculty Daniel Dehollander and Ashley Wallace completed a training run to Lake Needwood in Derwood, MD in fall 2020 for AHealthyU's Couch to 5K program.

What do you get when a record-breaking track and field athlete returns to American University to coach a training program? A team of happy and healthy runners from all walks of life.

That is exactly what Coach Bri Belo has achieved through AHealthyU’s faculty and staff Couch to 5K/10K virtual training program. With three previous semesters of coaching experience, Belo, who graduated with a bachelor’s degree from AU in 2018 and a master’s in 2019, knows how to get the AU community on their feet.

Belo and her team began their 10-week remote program on March 1. Normally, Couch to 5K is eight weeks long, but when the coronavirus pandemic closed down campus in spring 2020, AHealthyU decided to extend the program. 

Belo, who has been a coach for AHealthyU since fall 2019, is responsible for creating the virtual training plan, responding to participants’ emails and facilitating biweekly check-ins with the team over Zoom. 

The 10 weeks of training usually culminate in a race depending on ability level and preference. This year, since in-person races are not readily offered, participants hope to complete a “final race” independently in May.

A typical day for a Couch to 5K runner is a warm-up run — either walking or jogging — then an interval workout. 

“Right now, because there’s not access to a track, that looks like a fartlek run; alternating paces,” said Belo. “So if they’re not used to running for 10 minutes flat out, that means running for one or two minutes depending on what they’re comfortable with, and walking, then picking up and running again.”

Fartlek, a Swedish word for “speed play,” is a work-rest interval that helps runners build endurance. Alternating between fast segments and slow jogs, fartlek training is especially manageable for newer runners. 

Belo said that she hopes to encourage members who have less running experience since she had not run more than two miles consecutively before joining the AU track and field team.

“There’s a range of people who participate in this program: there’s people who’ve never run before and there’s people who have been running for years,” Belo said. “I don’t think there’s any criteria that you need to consider yourself a runner. The second you get yourself out there, you’re a runner.”

Belo said that one of her primary goals is to get participants to find an exercise routine that works for them.

“For me, being outside and moving has been key for my mental health,” Belo said.

Members of the Couch to 5K program, like Kogod Career Advisor Daniel Dehollander, agree. With the encouragement of Belo and the other Couch to 5K participants, Dehollander said he is more motivated than ever to stay active.

“[Running is] something that’s in my calendar; something I prioritize now,” Dehollander said. “Especially if the weather’s getting nicer, warmer and the days are getting longer, there’s no excuse not to be out there.”

Dehollander has participated in AHealthyU’s Couch to 5K program for the past four or five years but has been running since long before. He said that this semester of the training program has been one of progress compared to last fall.

“When I started, I could probably jog about three miles,” Dehollander said. “I’d usually slow down because of shin splints or my hips feeling sore, but … now I regularly go for six-mile runs and feel absolutely comfortable doing it.”

Dehollander said that he hopes to run a 10K in under one hour by the end of this training season, which he also achieved last year. He said another personal goal is to run a half marathon after the program ends for the semester.

Psychology professor Maria Gomez, who has participated in the Couch to 5K program for more than five years, said she benefits from the team dynamic.

“I am not a beginner runner, but I am a ‘lazy runner,’” Gomez said. “I need a push.”

That “push” to get outside and run comes in the form of Belo’s Sunday emails, the Couch to 5K Facebook group and the support of her fellow runners, Gomez said. 

Gomez said she hopes to complete a 5K — the equivalent of about 3.11 miles — in less than 28 minutes. But the training program, she said, goes beyond running; there is a community aspect, too.

“You meet all these people that you would never meet because we don’t cross paths often,” Gomez said. “You get out of your bubble and meet a diverse range of the community. I think it’s one of my favorite parts.”

Dehollander agrees. He said that he appreciates the casual setting where all of the various titles and labels associated with the University fall away.

“What I like about the program is you see staff and faculty from all backgrounds, all expertises, all levels, and we’re all just in our gym clothes,” said Dehollander. “It’s like an even playing field.”

Ashley Wallace, the assistant director for facility and event services, decided to join Couch to 5K in 2018, after Dehollander, her best friend, expressed interest in the program. However, Wallace did not consider herself a runner in any sense of the word.

“I used to say, when I started the program, that I don’t run,” Wallace said. “I was doing [the program] because ‘Why not?’ It definitely helped fuel a healthier lifestyle, so I continued with it.”

Now, Wallace runs three days a week and cross-trains the other days. She said her motivation also comes from Belo and the running community.

Unlike Dehollander and Gomez, Wallace does not have a time goal for an end-of-semester race.

“My goal this semester was … just to be a part of the program and stay active,” Wallace said.

Despite the coronavirus pandemic changing operations, that mentality persists. The Couch to 5K runners will continue to get outside and run, with the support of their colleagues. 


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