If you’ve never tried running before, it’s easy to wonder why people seem to like it so much. You might think it looks like a good way to get outside and get some exercise, and all of those people you see doing it seem like they are having a good time. But when you think about giving it a try it just seems like torture, and you’re not sure where to start or how to know what to wear or which shoes to buy.
Those are exactly the types of people the Mat-Su Running Club is looking for, said head coach Rhonda Knopp, a longtime Valley runner who helped found the club in the mid-1990s. Formerly known as the Valley Women’s Running Team, the club has welcomed both men and women since 2016, with a special eye towards helping runners of any level break into and grow to love the sport.
“We don’t want to intimidate, we want to accept,” Knopp said. “So we want members to know when they join we’re going to meet them where they are at, and we really cater to any age and any ability.”
The nonprofit club kicks-off its annual regular season at the Colony High School track in late April. But past and new members can hear all about the plans for the year at an information meeting at the Teeland Middle School library on April 6 at 6 p.m., and Knopp hosts a special class just for beginner runners April 13 and 15 to help answer questions like how to buy shoes and learn how to do track workouts.
The club annually has about 80 members, plus a separate group just for kids ages 10 and up. Members meet weekly at the Colony High track for a coached warm-up and workout designed by Knopp and her co-coach and brother, Norm Rousey. The club also organizes weekly guided trail runs in the area, plus an extended season session focused on trails from mid-August through early fall.
For Heidi Nealy, president of the club’s board, getting involved, joining the club and attending the weekly workouts is about a combination of friendship and instruction.
“I always come back to the community of finding other people in your area to run with, connect with and push you out of your comfort zone a little bit to challenge yourself,” she said. “I think we’re all coming off of this being at home for a long time and having nothing to motivate yourself with — it’s always better to have people to encourage you.”
Nealy said that while providing a welcoming place for beginners is important to the club, the workouts have something for every level.
“It’s basic coaching and, for more advanced runners, being able to run with people in your pace group,” said.
Runners familiar with the club will find several important changes this year, Nealy said. In addition to starting the season a few weeks later than in the past to avoid conflicts with soccer games on the Colony High School field, the club has also eliminated the rule relegating co-ed workouts to Wednesdays-only. Instead, they will offer only one workout night each week, with a coed group Tuesday. Teen runners will also be newly invited to join the adult group at 6 p.m. To facilitate the extra runners and add expertise specific to that age group, the club is also bringing on Tracen Knopp, Rhonda Knopp’s son, who is well-known in the Alaska mountain running and Nordic ski communities.
Condensing the workouts to one evening and adding an instructor will hopefully also encourage members to take advantage of the expertise and training, she said.
“We’re trying to just help people feel a little more invested in their own training rather than just come one night a week and say OK that was my week,” Nealy said. “We’re trying to make our coaches more accessible, too ... we want our coaches to really know each of the runners and what’s going on there.”
The club is also hosting its annual Who Let the Runners Out 5k in Palmer on the evening of April 23, a run typically done in conjunction with the Who Let the Girls Out shopping event. They are also hoping to add a second 5k event to the calendar for the end of the training season, perhaps in conjunction with the State Fair, to give runners a way to gauge their progress over the summer, she said.
Club membership is $140, a fee which helps cover coaching time, insurance and other group costs. Community members looking to learn more should attend the information session April 6 at Teeland where they can be entered into a raffle to win a free season membership and other prizes, including a massage donated by Altitude Chiropractic or items donated by Aktive Soles. The regular season starts April 20. For more information or to join the club, visit MatSuRunningClub.org.