It’s a shade before 5:35 AM on Gay Street in Downtown West Chester. While the rest of the borough grabs one more wink of sleep before dispersing out onto this busy avenue of restaurants and retail, it’s the sounds of chattering voices and shuffling feet that bounce of the vacad of some of Chester County’s most historic architecture. The early-riser may be lucky enough to bare witness to this weekly event, existing in the creases of the morning between West Chester’s late-night allure and it’s bustling small business community; a collection of runners, from all ability levels, are finishing off an easy warm-up run en route to their destination at Henderson High School. Some are trading parenting duties with their spouse to wake up before any conceivably normal time, some are gearing up for 8-10 hours at work immediately following their run, and everyone is up earlier than anyone they know. That is, anyone they know outside of this group, which rounds out to about 60-70 runners once everyone convenes on the track at 5:45.
This is the Tuesday Morning Workout group that represents the West Chester Running Company, which meets every week to work together towards the common goals of improving fitness and completing a challenging workout with the help of a group. John Manion has seen the group grow from its humble beginnings, as a fateful run-in at the track linked him up with like-minded men and women looking for others to share the pursuit of improving their running. “By accident, I found a few people training at the track,” says Manion. “It was fortuitous, as I was meddling with the marathon and needed direction.” John talks about how he, like many in the group, grew up running and competing, but saw his focus fall to the wayside “after college, a job and kids”.
Another runner who has experienced the growth of this AM workout group is Jenny Munro, who started running with the WCRC team 10 years ago. She too was searching for a group to pursue improvement physically. “I started running with the team 10 years ago. My daughter was 2 and my son was almost 4. I mostly ran for exercise, but never raced or did any ‘running workouts’. I came with a goal to increase my speed and challenge myself with others.” Under the guidance of CCRS Co-Owner Kevin Kelly, also the Head Coach of Boy’s Cross Country and Track at Henderson and a running icon in West Chester for almost the last three decades, it’s no wonder that many of the runners that show up to these workouts find what they’re looking for and more.
One such satisfied runner is Ed McConnell, who typically runs alongside Manion and Kelly for workouts. “I have been running with the group for 7 years and went from running 20 miles or less per week to 50+ miles, having run numerous PRs in every distance from the mile to the marathon.” While this particular workout occurs once a week, many of the runners that make up the WCRC team use the 5:45 meeting as a launching pad for the rest of the week’s runs. Using time before or after the workout, many group members plan out the remainder of their week so that they can continue to enjoy the company of others on their runs. John Manion reiterates the importance of this collective, which switches over to hill workouts during the winter months and has had to endure some extreme conditions.
“The group is the key,” John says. “No matter the weather, people will be out there. Which means you will be out there, because your teammates are out there…people think we are insane. But crazy loves crazy, so we are always out there, for each other, as a team.” This team component is the adhesive that continues to drive high attendance, as new runners trying out the group for the first time enjoy the camaraderie and stick it out after that. Jeff Kriebel, another member of the group, had first heard about the West Chester Running Company in 2009, but wasn’t sold on coming out right away. “It took me a whole year before I was willing to drag my butt out of bed at 5:00 AM and give it a try. Once I did it, I was hooked.”
Manion goes back to that first experience and notes, “From that point 9 years ago, a group grew from just a handful to 50+ friends who train religiously and constantly push each other to the next level.” Another runner in the group, Dennis Senackerib, has found solace in the accountability the workouts carry with them. “Anyone who runs knows there are times when you just don’t feel motivated to go out and run,” Senackerib says. “It’s very easy to just stay in bed or skip a day when you run alone, but running in the group, especially with good friends, it promotes accountability and your friends are counting on you to show up. Not only do you build lasting friendships, but you are also motivated to make sure you attend so you are not letting your teammates down.” Jenny Munro echoes that motivation, driven by the accountability the group provides to wake up before 5:00 AM most mornings.
While the workouts on both the track and hills work on building overall running fitness, with varying lengths of intervals and recovery that usually total to around 3-4 miles without warm-up or cooldown, there are many runners in the group that gear their efforts towards upcoming races in the area and beyond. For example, the most recent workouts have incorporated some longer intervals, for those eyeing up the Philly Rock N’ Roll Half, along with a few shorter reps at the end to coincide with the upcoming ServiceNow West Chester Mile. Popular races that team members typically aim for include the Philadelphia Marathon, Chester County Turkey Trot, Brian’s Run, Broad Street, Dub C 4 Miler, and the Boston Marathon.
The group of runners who have made the trek up to Boston have shared plenty of race memories together, though none more memorable than their experience in 2013. “A group of us were running the Boston Marathon when the bombs went off,” says Dennis Senackerib. “I was personally planning that this would be my last marathon for a while, but after the tragic events of that day, we agreed we had to go back the following year. I remember all the prep and winter training runs we took together. I recall that this one was going to be different, and personal records or personal achievements didn’t really matter. What mattered was getting out there and running…it was a time to allow the city to heal and just make sure I crossed the finish line.” Manion was also apart of the group that returned to Boston: “10 of us were together at Boston in 2013, when the bombs went off. We looked out for each other the way a team would.” After the race, Senackerib noted that “the WCRC group met that night…to celebrate something a lot more special than just running a marathon.”
The December following the bombing, the 36th Annual Brian’s Run donated proceeds to the Boston One Fund to benefit those affected by the attacks, sporting Red Sox-themed race shirts and high red socks in support. The race helped out one of the many great causes that the WCRC has supported, through both organization and participation in local races. “We found an altruistic avenue (for the group) as well”, says John Manion. “We host our own race events, which have raised over $100,000 for various causes over the past 7 years.”
It’s this collective strength that not only creates a positive influence within the community, but provides various benefits outside of running. This team includes local business owners, teachers, and every occupation in between, connecting a wide range of circumstances with a shared pursuit: the improvement of one’s well-being. “You get great recommendations from the group on businesses and professionals you can trust for anything,” says Ed McConnell. McConnell notes how he sees the town in a different light because of the group, noting that “the longer I have known the group, the more I have realized West Chester is a great place to live, for both running and non-running related reasons.”
The social aspect of the WCRC is one of the group’s strong suits, known for hosting some fantastic post-race festivities at local establishments like Side Bar and Kildare’s. “We run together, we drink together,” says Jenny Munro. “Some of my closest friends (men & women) in this town are because of my connections through WCRC.” Munro also tips John Manion for his dedication to the group and for throwing “some kick-ass parties to recognize our commitment to the team”.
All the positives these runners gleam from their connection with the group has allowed them to persevere through many of life’s challenges, utilizing the same strength cultivated on the track to overcome obstacles and setbacks. Jeff Kriebel recalled a period of time between 2011 and 2012 where he was in-between jobs and “was suddenly faced with a lot of unstructured time”. He decided to run his first marathon in the spring of 2012, and he credits the support of the group for getting him through that time. “It gave me structure to my weeks, and every successful workout along the way gave me a sense of accomplishment that helped keep my spirits up.”
For Ed McConnell, the 5:45 AM start time doesn’t seem to make the rest of his day that much more difficult. In fact, it actually has the opposite effect. “Almost everything, including work, stuff with our house, and dealing with our kids seems relatively easier. After starting the day with a tough workout with the group, I feel awake, more focused, and ready to take on any challenges I may encounter during the day.”
In the end, these runners all share a connection and bond that those who opt for other running options can have a hard time comprehending. John Manion doesn’t mind. “Sometimes people laugh when I tell them I am on a ‘team’. A grown man with a family, still on a team. But I have raced with my team in New York, Chicago, Berlin, Boston and countless other places.” It’s that shared experience, regardless of circumstance, how early it is, or how much work has to be done, that creates a moment for all those who show up on Tuesday morning to keep with them the rest of the week. Whether the workout went good or bad, it’s that hard effort that serves as something to harp back on during the week when things get rough, a reminder of one’s strength and ability to accomplish any goal put in front of them. Even the upcoming ServiceNow West Chester Mile, which last year was named the Boxcar Mile, can draw up runners like McConnell to compete in the Citizen’s Mile, sticking around after to watch Elite athletes take to the same track he does every Tuesday morning and chase their goals. “Watching 3 runners break 4 minutes in the Boxcar Mile last year…I remember a huge crowd cheering them on at the back stretch of the last 400 and then the entire crowd turning around and running back to the home stretch as they finished. It was awesome to watch.” McConnell, along with many WCRC members, will get a chance to have their own ‘400 Meters Til Glory’ moment on Thursday night running in our Citizen’s Mile heats, having added a short speed session to their routine the last few Friday mornings to get ready for some PR’s. The commitment and motivation of these runners to succeed is truly something to marvel and admire, and it’s no surprise that many of them are great people and do a lot of great things for the community.
To close, on Thursday night, John Manion will be toeing the line with these thoughts on his mind:
“It’s amazing to me that I was able to find some of my closest friends and have accomplished some of my most amazing life goals all through the shared love of running. I’ll end with my favorite running quote, which is why I get out of bed everyday at 5:01 to run: ‘Sometimes when I run hard, I feel like I am dying, but that is when I am my most alive.’ I will be thinking that thought as I toe the line of the mile- it’s time to be alive.”
Special Thank You to John Manion, Jenny Munro, Jeff Kriebel, Ed McConnell, Dennis Senackerib, and everyone who contributed to this! Check out the photo album below from last week’s workout, and join the Tuesday Morning Group for one last workout before the ServiceNow West Chester Mile, with ACAC on-hand afterwards with refreshments and water. Looking forward to a great week of running in West Chester!
– Ed Brittingham