How are You Training for the AFM Distance Challenge Series?

By Leah – October 4, 2011

The first race in the 2011 Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge Series (DCS), the IBM Uptown Classic, is just around the corner on October 2. Many folks will toe the start line of that flat, fast 10K and cross the finish line having set the DCS firmly in their sights. There’s still time to sign up for the DCS and it’s possible to get ready for the next run, the hilly and challenging Run for the Water 10-miler on October 30. Many general online programs exist for the runner who is fine with going it alone, but what’s out there for the runner who would like training help and company here locally? Here’s a sampling of what’s available for Austin-area runners.

It’s hard to beat a free training program (even harder to beat a free, quality program), but that’s just what the Austin Runners Club (ARC) has to offer. If you’re not already an ARC member, you can simply sign up online and, for a $30 yearly membership, you have access to the “Run Less Run Faster” program led by Al Cummings and Vance Taylor, managing director of the Austin Distance Challenge.

Cummings is a long-time fixture of the Austin running community, and his training group, known as “Al’s Ship of Fools,” has been serving Austin runners for years. Cummings is self-deprecating (see group name), funny (“Can you work in that I’m handsome?”), and a stickler for details (“I’m not a coach but a group leader/facilitator”).

“I’m just a runner like everyone else,” he says. “Where I have something of value to add is I’m an encourager, if you will. I like to give positive affirmations.” And positive affirmations are important, especially to those new folks; Cummings estimated that the majority of his current half-marathon folks were newbies. Even though this is essentially a free program, customized training is offered; Taylor, Cummings’ partner, crunches numbers to provide training group members with individualized pacing guidelines. Cummings himself took advantage of the training program last year to qualify for his second Boston marathon, though often you will find him on the sidelines assisting rather than participating. The groups range from newbies angling for that first half marathon to experienced marathoners hoping for a PR and/or a BQ, and the atmosphere is welcoming and encouraging. “It should be fun,” Cummings stated. “Sure, some people are intense, but they’re fun also…. People support one another but there’s a competition, too.”

While not specifically oriented towards training for the DCS, RunTex University, the training arm of Austin’s original running store, RunTex, offers free base training year ‘round. Owner Paul Carrozza says that RunTex University’s training groups enable runners to build their mileage for the DCS in a group setting. He recommends that runners get “road ready,” meaning that they make sure to acclimate their bodies to the punishing pounding of long distance running on hard road surfaces. “So many folks use Lady Bird Lake trail, and they need to get miles in on a road and build up gradually,” he stresses. His advice for the DCS: “Be progressive, start slow; this is an endurance test.” Carrozza also emphasizes how crucial it is for runners to get needed rest and recovery during training in order to avoid injury and performance disappointment: “Injuries can ruin the series, so no risky training. Stay focused on finishing each race healthy.” And he points out that it’s important not to lose the unique sense of each individual event within the bigger competition: “These races are a challenge of their own. Enjoy them as they come through.”

For a more substantial fee, several groups around town provide formally coached run training with an eye to DCS success. One is the Gazelles, founded by Gilbert Tuhabonye, noted runner and author. The Gazelles offer year-round training for a variety of distances, and the Gazelle Foundation sponsors the second DCS race, the Run for the Water 10-miler, a much more difficult run than the flat first 10K.

“I’m a big believer in the Distance Challenge because it helps give confidence to runners while they increase mileage,” Tuhabonye said. He undertook the DCS several years ago as a way to “learn how to test myself.” His recommendation for getting ready for the Run for the Water 10-miler is to work on strength through hill training (once, even two times a week, if possible) and core strength. “To run here in Austin, “ he points out, “you have to be really strong.” Tuhabonye recommends runners estimate their finish time for the 10-miler and plan a run for that length of time approximately two weeks out (he’s not advocating a 10-mile practice run; rather, use your 10K time to extrapolate that 10-mile finish time and then spend an equal amount of clock time on your feet during a long run).

Rogue Training Systems, led by co-founder Ruth England, has seen many runners of all abilities through years of DCS. “We actually work those races into the schedule,” Ruth says. “We tell our runners that the goal is to complete the races and to use them as a ‘testing ground’ for whichever race is their goal race—they can practice logistics, paces, goals, clothing, you name it.” England likes the different nature of the three half marathons, pointing out that Decker is a unique exploratory opportunity to practice process, 3M provides a wonderful target for speed, and the Austin Half is an excellent hilly challenge to cap off the three. “I’ve always liked the DCS because it keeps people motivated, “ she said, “so we’re happy to use it as a checklist for our runners throughout their training.”

USA Fit’s Austin branch, called Austin Fit (no relationship to Austin Fit Magazine) accounts for many of the folks out on Lady Bird Lake trail during the fall months. This year, the program is sponsored and managed by a running store, Luke’s Locker. Jennifer Harney, past DCS winner and Training Program Manager for Luke’s Locker and the winter USA Fit group, is very excited about the relationship.

“I’m a big fan because my mom, a local runner and current Austin Fit coach, encouraged me to do the DCS,” she said, “and, for the first time, we’ve worked the DCS races into the training calendar.” In her opinion, what sets Austin Fit apart from the other groups is that, with more than 60 coaches, no runner is out on a long run without access to a leader. Her pride is obvious: “Our coaches are all USA Fit certified, and head coaches have both CPR and First Aid certification as well. Most have come up through the ranks, and many have been with the program for years.” For example, Pat Burch, who coaches the “Yellow” group (pace groups are given color names), has built up a loyal following in the Northwest Hills area over 12+ years. Harney welcomes folks to sign up after running IBM and points out that they will work with runners to set goals and find success in the DCS. And there’s a new track for those faster runners who are focused on time called “ATP”—“Advanced Training Program,” a clever play on adenosine triphosphate, the chemical which powers your running muscles.

Austin is a running town, and the DCS gives plenty of races to test one’s mettle, whether you do them all or pick a few…and there’s a training program out there for everyone. Find your fit and get started on your own personal distance challenge!

The Races
The five races in the 2011-2012 Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge are listed here, with links to online registration and information. To participate in the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge, you must register for each race individually and register for the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge.

IBM Uptown Classic 10k – Oct. 2, 2011 
Luke’s Locker is proud to present the 2011 IBM Uptown Classic 10K. Through the years, the Uptown Classic has benefitted many local non-profits. The 2011 event will benefit the YMCA of Austin. The Uptown Classic is considered to be one of the fastest race courses in Austin and is the kickoff event for the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge race series. For information and to register,

Gazelle Foundation Run for the Water 10 Miler – Oct. 30, 2011 
The Run for the Water 10-Miler, 5K, and Kids Presented By Keller Williams is produced by and benefits the Gazelle Foundation, a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. Thanks to participation over the last four years we have been able to provide access to clean water for life to more than 8,000 citizens of Burundi, Africa, through the implementation of sustainable water systems. Whether you choose to walk, run, or donate, you’re helping to make a life-changing impact. For information and to register, visit

ARC Decker Challenge Half Marathon – Dec. 11, 2011 
The first Decker Challenge race was organized by the Austin Runners Club 33 years ago. The challenging race of rolling hills, unpredictable weather, and beautiful running in the country around Decker Lake began because the University of Texas cross-country team trained on these roads. The actual race distance has varied over the years, but is now a 13.1 mile half-marathon course or a full marathon with 2 loops of the course (known as the Double Decker). This has always been, and remains, a true race “for runners, by runners.” For information and to register, visit

3M Half Marathon & Relay – Jan. 29, 2012 
A perennial favorite with runners, the 3M Half Marathon & Relay is the capital city’s second-largest distance road racing event. Scheduled for Jan. 29, 2012, it is one of the fastest USATF-certified half marathon courses in the country. The event has been conducted annually since the early 1990s. 3M has sponsored and owned the event since 1995. For information and to register, visit

Livestrong Austin Marathon & Half Marathon – Feb. 19, 2012 
The Austin Marathon started in 1992 and while the course has changed over the years, its place in the hearts of Austin runners hasn’t. Run as a large loop that starts and ends in downtown Austin, the course provides a scenic view of the Austin area. Participants include elite runners and novices, marathoners and half marathoners. This course has fast flats, challenging climbs, and quick down hills. Set aside Feb. 19, 2012, on your running schedule and join in the fun. For information and to register, visit

For information and to register for the Austin Fit Magazine Distance Challenge,


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