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Wednesday night Hills & Stairs running group gathers each week

The Wednesday night Hills & Stairs running group gathers each week downtown and runs for party stout!
We run for party stout on Wednesday nights.

We run for party stout on Wednesday nights. /Dan Royer

Running as Community

Running is about health and fitness; it's about training and improvement and competition. It's about losing weight, lowering blood pressure and clearing the mind of the day's anxieties. But the Wednesday Night Hills & Stairs Rocky Climbers Run for Party Stout also reveals that running in a group is a great way to build community. It creates community out of a diverse group of people with a wide range of careers and hobbies and values. It brings together people with diverse lives to "suffer together" as Yoshi put it in the article. Running as a group is different--the momentum of the group pulls you along. It's less effort to run in a group and runners find that they can do things in a group that seem far too difficult on their own. The Hills & Stairs group discovers these realities every week. 

Runners run back up Fulton to Lafayette in the Hills & Stairs group.

Runners run back up Fulton to Lafayette in the Hills & Stairs group. /Dan Royer

Kaitlin Wood, right, and her husband Trevor have been helping to organize the Hills & Stairs group since 2012.

Kaitlin Wood, right, and her husband Trevor have been helping to organize the Hills & Stairs group since 2012. /Dan Royer

It’s 6:15 on a Wednesday evening, and like every Wednesday evening for the past four years a group in bright running gear gathers on the sidewalk in front of Founders Brewery chatting—some grabbing an ankle and pulling gently to touch heel to butt like a group of colorful herons balancing on one leg. A woman, short blond hair and a bright blue tech shirt, hand on the rail to keep her balance, swings a leg from right to left and back again like a giant pendulum, each sideways journey reaching for a wider arc. An auto mechanic, a grizzled ultra-runner, an engineer, a brewer, a real estate developer, a student, a young entrepreneur with plans to open a café, an IRS tax auditor . . . a diversity of ages, gender, work backgrounds, and athletic experience converge to this same spot each week and unite under the banner of “The Hills & Stairs” running group.

A few glance at their watches, and shortly after 6:30 a half-dozen pods of three or four stop chatting for a moment as if owning some native instinct, and, unannounced, begin to walk north—a few steps very slowly at first, tentative for a moment—like geese on a fall pond preparing for flight, turning into the breeze, a little eye contact among them here and there, now a brisk walk for another ten seconds as they turn shoulders and politely weave through the pedestrian sidewalk crowd, and then, anticipating with one mind what’s coming next, break into a run as they cross the street and head down the hill toward Fulton Avenue.

The Hills & Stairs group began in March 2012 when Kaitlin Wood, one of the chief organizers of this group and a regular in the local RUN-GR group, wanted to add some cross-training challenge to her road routine.

“For the first year there were just a few of us; there was Dan Plew and Natalie Cotela, the three of us mapped out the run but a year later it began to snowball. The Facebook group now includes 305 runners, but most weeks there’s twenty or so that join us each week. There was a day last spring when 48 runners showed up. We’ve always run pretty much the same route. And we run all year round,” she said.

It’s a quick pace for some and an easy jog for others as the colorful thread turns onto Fulton and runs past the Van Andel arena. It’s here, a quarter-mile in, the challenge begins, too subtle to notice at first, but the elevation changes imperceptibly; the stoplight at Division Avenue is a relief as the group, just getting started, must pause and pool up together, crowding the corner and smiling at each other.

The light clicks green: the elevation climb is now more serious, Saint Ceclilia’s on the left, One Trick Pony across the street on the right, up to Lafayette and around the corner—a false summit; the climb continues—dozens of lungs laboring hard now, the will takes over to finally crest the first hill, turn the corner left down Fountain Street, and finally they breathe deeply in the steep downhill recovery coasting for the next four or five blocks.

The group will use the crosswalk at Winchester and run back up the hill they just came down and wait on the corner at Lafeyette for everyone to complete this second hill. The pattern repeats on Lyon Street and again on Michigan Street, the last and longest of the four hills, that imposing climb from Monroe back up to Coit Avenue where at the top the runners grab for their knees to rest as the thread collapses again into a single group for a few minutes before taking on the stairs, the final segment of the run.

There is no store sponsor, and other than Facebook, no online presence. There is no cost to join the group, but to be approved to join the private Facebook group one has to show up to one run.

“The full name for our group is ‘Wednesday night Hills & Stairs- Rocky Climbers run for Party Stout.’ That is, when you get to the top of those stairs you feel like ‘Rocky,’ and of course ‘Party Stout’ was a very popular Founders beer, now retired, that we all liked to drink after the run,” Wood said.  

Beginning runners can skip a hill or part of a hill by crossing the street before running all the way to the bottom of the hill. The regroup that occurs at the top of each of the three main hills ensures that this is a group run and builds the comradery that one can observe as the runners waiting at the top high-five and shout encouragement to those working up the hill after them.

Most of the Hills & Stairs runners have other groups they run with—approximately half routinely run with the road group, Run-GR, and others with the West Michigan Trail Runners, a group that runs local trails. Yoshi Saka began running with the Hills & Stairs group this last summer. “Running with a group is easier than running alone: it’s a way to share the suffering or pain of climbing those hills!” he said.

“For me it builds endurance,” said Ed Garma, a longtime runner. “I can do speed work to get faster, but the hills and stairs really help my endurance.”

For all the runners, it seems, the social rewards of this group run also appear to be a big draw.

The stairs mark the far end of the course loop that ultimately returns the runners to Founders. The 148-step concrete staircase was built as a WPA project in the 1930s, though some form of stairs have connected the Sixth-Street Bridge Park and Belknap neighborhoods dating back to 1914. Going down stairs is easy: feet shuffle quickly and a hand might hover over the pipe railing in the center. But, each runner has a personal relationship with the stairs. Don Yeager’s personal record is twelve repeats: “The stairs are what this run is all about,” he said. “The stairs, not the hills, provide a unique training opportunity for me. I sometimes skip some hills so I can do more stairs.”  

After 10 or 15 minutes the runners typically collect in pairs and threes at the base of the stairs and make the mile run, downhill on Division Avenue, back to Founders. By 7:45 or 8:00 p.m. the many become one again standing, beer or water in hand in the outdoor garden forecasting future runs together, talking of trails or hill repeats, talking shoes and gear, catching up on the week, and of course, many can be seen documenting the evening with group selfies.

Disclosure: The author is a regular runner with the Wednesday Night Hills & Stairs Rocky Climbers Run for Party Stout group.

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