Running is simple and free. Running marathons is hard and often expensive. Getting from simple, free running to a marathon finish line is accomplished more easily with the help of other runners, either as “coaches,” mentors, or running buddies. That help does not have to be expensive. Indeed, help is very inexpensive—and even free for first-time women marathoners each year—when it comes from a group of dedicated marathoners in Austin.
Twenty-Six Two (TST) is a nonprofit club of about 250 marathon finishers who dedicate their time to bringing passion for the marathon to other runners in Austin. The club’s philosophy—“You don’t make a living off your running, so we don’t make a living off of you”—goes back to the group’s origins.
In September of 2004, five Austin runners formed a nonprofit running club that focused on marathon training, especially for first-time women marathoners. All five of the founding members had run at least one marathon, and the group decided on the name “Twenty-Six Two” because it has significant meaning for marathoners. Although the words are simple, the meaning behind the words—the distance—is what makes the marathon special.
This new marathon club differed from other running groups around Austin in a number of ways. First, membership in the club was, and still is, limited to individuals who have completed at least one marathon. Second, membership fees were ridiculously cheap, with one-time dues of $26.20 (another nod to the marathon distance). Third, the club’s central mission was to train first-time women marathoners every year for FREE. Finally, although the club now offers free half-marathon training to anyone (member or non-member), the club was to be committed to one central focus: the marathon.
Today, in the fall of 2012, TST is training its ninth group of first-time women marathoners (still at no charge). Since 2005 the club has trained dozens of first-time women marathoners and boasts a 100 percent finisher rate for those first-timers who completed the training program and made it to the starting line.
Meanwhile, Twenty-Six Two has seen a dramatic change in the size and focus of the group since its founding in 2004. The original membership of five has grown to 250, adding 15-25 members each year. The one-time dues are still only $26.20, but the club now trains marathoners year-round for races across the country. Although the club charges a modest fee for training plans, the primary focus of the club is not dues, fees, or large groups. In fact, much like the intimate group that first trained in 2005 (ten trainees, one coach), the training groups remain remarkably small.
The typical TST member is not a “serial marathoner,” a record-holder in any athletic event, or a semi-professional athlete of any kind. In fact, a number of members run one marathon, join the club, train for maybe one marathon per year, and still show up to run with the group every week. On the other hand, the club does have its share of Boston Qualifiers and other extremely accomplished runners. One member was the recent overall female winner of the Austin Distance Challenge; there are a handful of “sub-3” marathoners; one member was on the cover of Runners World in 2012; another has run over 100 marathons; one has run 13 Boston Marathons in a row; and the list goes on. But again, the typical club member is someone who simply loves to run, occasionally trains for a marathon, and regularly shows up for the workouts just for the simple pleasure of running.
There is definitely a “family” feel to the club among its “regulars,” where everybody knows your name and your running experience. More importantly, no one has to be a veteran or long-time member to fit into the TST family. It is common for a runner to show up for the first time at a Saturday run, meet other TST members, and, within a week, end up on various e-mail, text, or online lists for weekly runs. Some members gather every Monday evening for track or hill workouts. Others meet on Tuesday and Thursday mornings at 5:30 a.m., Thursday evenings for a tempo run, or Sunday mornings for an easy run around Lady Bird Lake.
Throughout its growth, Twenty-Six Two has remained committed to the stated mission of the club, which is “to support marathoners of all experience levels—from first-time marathoners to advanced marathoners—and to promote the sport in and around Austin, Texas.” In keeping with that mission, the club provides management of the finish line operations of the Austin Marathon, something TST has done since the 2006 Austin Marathon. Every year, roughly 20 club members serve as managers and captains for everything from medals to water to bag drop at the finish line, and oversee approximately 600 volunteers on race day. For the last several years, Twenty-Six Two members have also served as the official pace team leaders at the 3M Half-Marathon and Relay.
Throughout all of its activities—formal training, social running, the Austin Marathon finish line, and the 3M Half Marathon—everything is member driven and member led. Even the long run water stops are a group effort; about a dozen members share duties to provide water and Gatorade on the routes. To cover operating expenses, TST charges a moderate fee for marathon training, but literally gives away half-marathon training, and invites all runners—members or not—to run with TST every Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, or Thursday. Those who pay the training fee receive personal, formal training plans. But all runners—beginners and veteran marathoners alike—are welcome to run with TST at any time.