When Nancy Thomas meets with her group of protégés every Tuesday afternoon, the scene resembles a high school track practice.
"How low should my heart rate go during the cool-downs?" one runner asks.
"Do you really expect me to run that fast during a 5-kilometer race?" another inquires.
And Thomas, a former track coach for Juneau-Douglas High School, answers like a coach should. She gives them tips on running form, reminds them to relax, tells them how fast to run and for how long, leads them on stretches, then sends them off on their run.
But her runners aren't high school students, and they aren't preparing for any sort of track meet. They're "Fast Women" - women of all ages, running for a variety of reasons, and with better attitudes than some of Thomas' former students.
"They all want to be here and they tell better jokes," she said.
Thomas started the Fast Women running group in 1995, when she retired from coaching high school track.
"All kinds of my women friends would come and ask me questions about running," Thomas said. "I read an article in Runner's World about a similar group, and I though 'I could do that.' "
So she got together a group of women to meet every Tuesday afternoon from April to September - alternating between the track and a trail or road every other week. They differ from an average running group in that they work specifically to increase speed by running "intervals," during which a runner sprints a certain distance, recovers at a slower speed, then sprints again.
The group includes women only because "most men think they know everything anyway," Thomas said. Also, "a lot of women are intimidated by running on the track, or running with men."
About 20 of the original Fast Women still run with Thomas.
"It's a passion for us," she said.
Sue Scott, one of the original Fast Women, was once a competitive race runner. She now runs to keep in shape, and to keep in touch with her friends.
"It makes me enjoy running a lot more," she said.
The running group is part serious fitness program and part social hour. Conversations focus on running - an upcoming 5-kilometer race, half- and full marathons they will run at the end of the season, what heart-rate monitor they're using and how it's working for them. But updates on kids, work, vacations and life in general work their way into the conversations.
"We usually do a one-mile slow warm-up. That's when you get caught up on your gossip and get to know each other," Scott said. "Then we do stretches and gossip some more. Then we run and then at the end you can socialize again."
Mary Tonsmeire began running with the group seven or eight years ago to increase her distance and complete a 7-mile run. Since then she's run a marathon - "thanks to Nancy," she said - and several half-marathons, "all thanks to Nancy.
"I never would have thought that I'd do a marathon. That wasn't how I viewed myself at all."
Cathy Tide, who joined the group in April, said she viewed herself as a "plodder" when she joined Fast Women. Now, she's on her way to becoming a "jogger."
"This is the first time I've ever done speed work, so I'm seeing that I can go faster than my normal plod, which is a little shocking," Tide said.
The improvement has motivated her to run more on other days of the week, and the group has provided her with new running buddies.
"This Thursday I have a running date," she said.
Helping women become better runners is one of the biggest benefits to organizing the group, Thomas said.
"I love seeing ... the women progress, and get better and more confident and feel better about themselves," she said.
Another benefit for Thomas is slightly more selfish.
"The best part is that I have people to run intervals with me," she said.
For more information about Fast Women, contact Thomas at 463-4424, or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Christine Schmid can be reached at email@example.com.
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