Apr. 17—The April sunshine flickered through the tall trees hovering over the parking lot at Deming Park on a Tuesday evening.
Debbie Johnson, Mary Auten and two friends prepared to walk around the park to Ohio Boulevard and on to Woodrow Wilson Middle School. The 1.5-mile trek and the return trip are part of their workouts for the Trained in Terre Haute program, operated by the Wabash Valley Road Runners club. This is Johnson's 18th consecutive year in the program, and Auten's 19th.
The last two seasons have come with a twist, though.
Typically, the 16-week Trained in Terre Haute program — commonly known as TNT — culminates with participants walking or running in Indianapolis' popular One America 500 Festival Mini Marathon. The sea of 35,000 people moving in waves through the Circle City's streets, and taking a lap around the famed Indianapolis Motor Speedway track, is unforgettable for most entrants.
COVID-19 has altered that tradition, though, like many others. Last May, the coronavirus pandemic forced the first cancellation of the Indy Mini, since its debut in 1977. This year, organizers decided on March 1 to cancel an in-person running of the Indy Mini, once again because of concerns that COVID-19 could spread through the tens of thousands of participants, workers and fans.
A virtual race will take its place, as it did in 2020, with runners and walkers participating on their own and keeping track of their times and progress through an digital app.
Folks in the TNT program will be able to participate in an actual spring half-marathon in Terre Haute, organized by the Road Runners club. Its distance will also be 13.1 miles, just like the Indy Mini, but without the vast concentration of competitors, fans, volunteers and race officials. The members-only event is scheduled for May 8, beginning at Dixie Bee Elementary School and winding south through the countryside around Ivy Tech Community College.
TNT participants, no doubt, miss the festivity of the Indy Mini — one of the nation's largest half-marathons — but still enjoy the benefits of training alongside fellow Wabash Valley Road Runners club members.
"It's just fun to go over there [to Indianapolis] with lots of people from all over," Auten said, just before the club's Tuesday evening workout at Deming.
"The whole atmosphere just encourages you," added Johnson.
Auten, 74, and Johnson, 67, participate in the TNT program's fitness walkers — one of five groups, based on a person's experience and goals. Other groups are for runners at the beginner (newcomers), intermediate (those who've run at least a 10-kilometer race), advanced-intermediate (folks aiming to get faster and finish a half-marathon in 2 hours or less), and advanced (aiming for a finish under 1 hour and 40 minutes) levels.
The Road Runners club began training people for the Indy Mini through TNT in 1999, guided by veteran member Buddy Green and Alan Ley, a former Terre Haute fitness instructor. They ordered 40 program guides to hand out for that year's first meeting. Instead, 156 people showed up. The numbers soon topped 200 and then 300.
"It's been huge," said Green, who's now 73 and no longer oversees TNT but helps the club with its events.
The absence of the Indy Mini is significant, but the benefits and larger motivation remains the same for walkers and runners, Green explained.
"Running will get you fit," he said. "And once you begin to feel fit, you like that feeling. It's a feel-good thing. You walk around the block, and you're not getting tired. You pick something up, and it doesn't hurt. You just get used to that feel good.
"That and the camaraderie," he added. Green still runs in 5- to 10-mile stretches with friends three days a week.
The bonds with fellow Road Runners inspire others, too.
"It's the friends, the people you walk with. You build relationships over the years walking together," said Johnson, as her group paused their workout for a moment. "It's somebody to support and encourage you."
"I feel accepted, even though I'm not a star runner," added Auten.
Their Tuesday-night walk followed other TNT groups, including the beginning runners. Instructor Scott Isles, a 16-year Road Runners veteran, snapped a photo of the group before their workout. The group was fresh off its first 13-mile training run. Isles photographs his group each year, after the runners reach that plateau.
Isles asked them, "So, who made it all 13 miles?" Several hands popped up. One guy quipped, "And who still feels it?" More hands rose, followed by chuckles.
"We're the fun group," one woman said as a reporter interviewed Isles.
The motivations can vary, amid the fun.
"Everybody has a different reason for doing it," said the 66-year-old Isles. "I do it to be healthy. I'm close to 70, and I ran 16 miles on Saturday."
Jerry Huxford started running in the TNT program in 2003. Since then, he's run half-marathons in all 50 states and he's still going at age 71.
"Runners are a different breed of people," Huxford said. "You may be running beside three other people, but you're pulling for each other."
By contrast, 38-year-old Allison Steiner began training in TNT last year. Though she'll miss the in-person Indy Mini for the second straight May, Steiner enjoys the program and is anxious for the May 8 local half-marathon.
"It's a disappointment because you spend all that time training and then you don't get to do the [Indy Mini]," she said, before the beginners group took off. "But even though it's been canceled two years in a row, we're making due. And I'm looking forward to doing our race in Terre Haute."
She, too, enjoys the camaraderie and the "pleasant break" outdoors.
Mark Bennett can be reached at 812-231-4377 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
To be a Road Runner
—Memberships remain open all year long for the Wabash Valley Road Runners club. The basic membership fee of $35 includes a WVRR decal and shirt; family membership of $50 includes two WVRR decals and two shirts; and youth memberships are free. Membership also includes the TNT half-marathon training program, as well as race discounts, club newsletter, weekly club runs, merchandise and services discounts, social events and membership in the Road Runners Club of America.