It’s a Saturday morning in the Valley. Members of the Lehigh Valley Trail Chasers are parking their cars and congregating at the entrance to the Trexler Nature Preserve. They greet each other with high-fives and good-natured ribbing. In Bethlehem, Team Vark is lacing up and limbering up on Main Street, in preparation for the journey ahead. And a few miles away, on the Plainfield Township Trail, the Breakfast Club Runners have just finished their weekly jaunt and are planning their forthcoming feast of eggs, coffee and bacon.
Running clubs are nothing new to the region, of course; the Lehigh Valley Road Runners, for example, have been encouraging members to get the lead out since 1993, and Girls on the Run, established in 1996 in North Carolina, has several local chapters with healthy followings. But the presence and popularity of these smaller and perhaps lesser-known clubs seem to be growing, and the explosion of social media has made it easier than ever before to find and encourage new recruits.
Kate Egging, 33, moved to Bethlehem in 2014. As she became more serious about running, she sought out tougher terrain and more challenging courses to test her mettle. She says she came up with the idea for the Lehigh Valley Trail Chasers while on a jog with her friend and running partner, Kristin Rutkowski, in December of 2015.
“I thought it would just be me and Kristin, making plans,” she says with a laugh. Instead, the group swelled to more than 220 members in just a few short months. A Facebook page serves as home base for runners to plan excursions, ask questions, post pictures and offer words of encouragement to their fellow athletes. A different member is profiled every week in the Runner’s Spotlight. “We didn’t have a home in the Lehigh Valley,” says Egging. “We needed a group to share.”
The Breakfast Club Runners
The Breakfast Club Runners also have a large following on Facebook—more than 1,300 members, and counting. “New people show up every week,” says one of the founders, Roger Barlow, 58, of Easton. The group was born in 2009, after Barlow ran the St. Luke’s marathon as part of a relay team. The BCR hit the road—or the trails—every Saturday morning, rain or shine. Gathering spots and routes are posted ahead of time on Facebook. Barlow says about 20 to 30 runners will turn out for any given session. “We love to run in blizzards because we can,” Barlow says.
While the location—and the weather—may change, the end result is always the same: Each run concludes with a shared breakfast at the nearest diner or restaurant. “You break bread with people every week, and you become friends,” says Barlow. And the best part is, Barlow will pick up the tab for newcomers.
Though both the Trail Chasers and the Breakfast Club Runners are relatively spontaneous in planning the distance and makeup of weekly group runs, Team Vark takes a more structured approach. Spearheaded by the staff at Aardvark Sports Shop in Bethlehem, Team Vark offers a free, 16-week training program for those who want to tackle the Runner’s World 10K or Half Marathon in October. For this reason, membership each year is capped at 60-70 members, but inclusion is not contingent on ability, or lack thereof, says Aardvark employee and marathoner Mark Hanna, 48, of Bethlehem, who has led Team Vark runs in the past. “We have people that ran Boston all the way to beginners,” he explains.
That seems to be the unifying thread that ties together these and other running clubs in the Lehigh Valley: All of them preach inclusion. In other words, bring your iPod, your Garmin and your HydroBak, but leave the ego at home. “It’s not just fancy, elite runners,” says Tim Nash, one of the original Trail Chasers. “I think it’s humbling for a lot of people when you lead them slowly.” Barlow echoes that sentiment: “We have people who can barely run a mile. I’m very encouraging of everyone.” Sometimes that means splitting one pack into several, with the more experienced runners hanging back with the slower ones, and that’s OK, says Barlow. “The goal [for the Breakfast Club Runners] is to finish by 8:30 a.m.,” he says. “The distance isn’t important.”
Lehigh Valley Trail Chasers
That’s not to say there isn’t running royalty in the ranks of these groups. Kristin Rutkowski kept a running streak alive for 1,000 days, leading up to her 40th birthday in August. She averages about six to seven miles a day. “[Running] is a necessity,” she says. “It keeps me sane and makes me a better parent.”
Mark Hanna has raced his way through nearly two dozen marathons in 12 different states. Mel Lancet, of Bethlehem, is closing in on his 60th birthday, but he runs farther and faster than men half his age. In July, 37-year-old Sean O’Conner, of Harmony Township, New Jersey completed a 100-mile (yes, 100-mile) endurance run in Vermont. He had to dig deep to make it to the finish line after he injured himself at mile 88. “I thought of my family and friends,” says O’Conner. “I didn’t want to let them down. They were part of this journey.”
While these and other runners do just fine as solo acts, they still seek out the friendship and camaraderie afforded to them by their respective groups. “People are looking for something to belong to,” says Barlow. Egging and Rutkowski became fast friends after meeting at a group run in the spring of 2015. “I was in awe of her because she had just run Boston,” Egging says. They teamed up to take first place among the female teams in the Superhero Half Marathon Relay in Morris Township, New Jersey in May. The following month, Rutkowski was the first female finisher in the Goat Butt 50K in Mendham. Egging was right behind her in second place. “It’s an honor to run with her and I consider it a privilege to take second to her any day,” says Egging.
And there’s a lot of overlap among the groups. Derek Wallen, 32, of Bethlehem, is a Trail Chaser, and also runs with the BCR and Team Vark. “I think they've made me create goals that I never even thought about,” he says. “I never thought I would run a marathon, and, already, I have pushed my longest distance race to 50 miles.”
Sometimes, these runners end up with more than just a new pack of friends; sometimes, in between the road races, the trail runs, the sprained ankles, the early starts and the personal records, love blooms. “We’ve had two or three couples meet [in the Breakfast Club Runners] over the years and get married,” Barlow says. “It doesn’t surprise me at all. When you have a group of beautiful, healthy, single people who have running, fun and bacon in common, that sounds like a recipe for starting new relationships.”
Looking to join in on the fun?
The Valley is filled with opportunities to get your run on—and some of them include wine, beer, rides and even some good causes! Mark your calendar for these upcoming races.
Women’s 5K Classic
Saturday, Oct. 1, 9 a.m. | Lehigh Parkway, Allentown
Dorney Park Run & Ride
Sunday, Oct. 2, 7 a.m. | Dorney Park & Wildwater Kingdom, Allentown
Yuengling Oktoberfest 5K
Sunday, Oct. 2, 10:30 a.m. | SteelStacks, Bethlehem
Dream Live Prosper Run
Sunday, Oct. 9, 7:30 a.m. | The Ice House, Bethlehem
Runner’s World Half & Festival
Friday, Oct. 14 to Sunday, Oct. 16 | ArtsQuest, Bethlehem
Run the Vineyards, Sips Tricks or Sweets 5K
Sunday, Oct. 30, 9 a.m. | Tolino Vineyards, Bangor