Community fitness gets Memphis moving

Exercise innovators are building communities around physical activity, engaging people of all fitness levels and weaving the changing landscape of the city into their programs.

Known for barbeque and blues clubs, and with averages over the national in obesity, Memphis is often thought of as the gut of the Dirty South. But as the city develops and invests in its physical resources, its residents are riding this wave of positive energy into fitter bodies. Families utilize the Greenline on weekends for running, walking and rollerblading. More and more professionals are also using the Greenline and bike lanes for bike commuting. Shelby Forest and Shelby Farms, both short drives from the city center, are incredible spaces for all kinds of outdoor activities.

And while there is no gym shortage in the city of Memphis, the trailblazers in fitness are getting creative about getting people up and moving. Through inclusive programs, friendly accountability and easy access, a few local groups are proving you don't have to be a skilled athlete or have a lot of expensive gear to be healthy and fit.

Everyone Can Run
Star Ritchey, of running group Star Runners, is not content to let the old statistics rest. A certified running and triathlon coach, Ritchey began the Cooper-Young Festival Friday 4 Miler training group in 2009, and it's been going strong since. "When I moved to Cooper-Young, I felt there could be a need specifically for that race," Ritchey said, "because it's such a fun one." Due to often-segmented communities, she didn't know anyone in the Cooper-Young neighborhood when she and her husband bought their house. "In Memphis it can be easy to stay in your group. But through Star Runners I met people I would've never imagined being friends with. I moved here and didn't know anyone, now I know someone on every single street in Cooper-Young."

After the first 4 Miler training, Ritchey explains that the group grew into half-marathon and marathon trainings, because as her new friends told her, "We can't stop." Now she runs training groups 51 weeks out of the year for those wishing to complete a marathon, a half-marathon, a triathlon or the seminal Cooper-Young 4 Miler.

The Cooper-Young 4 Miler training group, beginning this year on June 21, is open to all fitness levels, including people who have never run before. Ritchey and her husband, Keith, create a fun and safe group atmosphere with added individualized attention, doing whatever it takes to get each runner across the finish line. The group draws participants from as far as Nesbitt, Miss., and Mumford, Tenn., and ranging in age from 15 to 70.

"We definitely welcome the true beginner--everyone has to get started somewhere." Ritchey explains that this is the type of environment that is geared towards a novice, but that even a veteran runner can enjoy. It is these varying abilities and experience levels that keep the group alive.

"Everyone can do more than they think they can. And people come back year after year, which is inspiring to someone new." Ritchey sees plenty of budding mentorships with each new training group. "We're such a community."

She cites the goal-based training as the distinguishing factor between hers and other running groups. "You don't have to be the best to be the most successful. It's all in how hard you work and what you achieve from it."

Ritchey leads the Star Runners all around the city to train, highlighting some of her favorite trails and green spaces. "One of my goals is to introduce runners to my favorite places to run," she explained.  "Shelby Forest is gorgeous."  Many of her runners wouldn't venture there on their own, but when she introduces the group to the forest, "it becomes everyone's favorite run."

Ritchey meditates on the accomplishments of the group when struggling with her own training. In the past five years she has carried her runners through setbacks and successes inclusive of many emotional moments. "Those kind of things carry me when I'm doing an event," she says. No matter the type or distance of race, for "every single person that crossed a line they've never crossed before, it's a big deal."

Drink to Ride, Ride to Drink
Much like Ritchey, Kerry Hayes is looking to explore Memphis and strengthen friendships, but through cycling. In 2012, along with fellow co-captain Jason Potter, Hayes built Boscos Cycling.  While there are already a number of racing teams in the area, Hayes created this charity team with a clear direction: to cycle and fundraise for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

With Boscos Brewery as the anchoring sponsor, the team is comprised of 13 riders of varying skill levels and abilities. "We're not trying to win races or be super-advanced cyclists, but we are serious about fundraising and being prepared for rides," Hayes explains. The motto of the team is to "raise a glass, raise funds and raise awareness." Each rider is responsible for raising a minimum of $1,000 yearly, all of which goes to multiple sclerosis (MS) research. In their second year, contributions totaled $30,000, and both the team members and carefully chosen sponsors refuse to remain complacent about fundraising goals. Hayes notes often that MS isn't attached to any celebrity or glamorous sources, so it is a cause in great need of funds.

While the members train together and participate in several structured rides, the FedEx Rock and Roll "MS150," which extends from Memphis to Tunica, Miss., and back, tends to be the main event. The team rides 150 miles together over two days, celebrating and drinking together at the midpoint in Tunica. Boscos Cycling is also teaming up with its exclusive bike shop sponsor, Victory Bicycling Studio, to host a community ride, open to all, leaving from the store at 8 a.m. on Sundays. Riders will pedal roughly 40-50 miles, with gradual increases in distance taking place throughout the summer.

"Cycling is a key to unlocking the city," Hayes says, calling Shelby Forest "a beautiful and unbelievable natural resource." Weekend training rides become an opportunity for the team to explore other neighborhoods in Memphis. Hayes gets excited when talking about their discoveries. "[Cycling] changes your mental map. If you chose a bike versus a car, you will think about the city in a different way."

Not only has each member of the group become fitter and faster as a result of team accountability, but each one has reached out in the community to bring people together and surpass fundraising goals. Terri Harris hosts a yearly crawfish boil to garner donations. Kevin Ritz won a dinner for 20 at a silent auction and re-gifted it to raise additional funds for the team. And Howell Evans has promised he will shave his hair into a Mr. T-style mohawk if he can reach $3,000 this year in donations to the National Multiple Sclerosis Society.

"If you had told me [several years ago] I would be a guy in spandex riding a bike with skinny tires, I would have laughed in your face," Hayes declares when reminiscing about his life before picking up the sport. He admits that the team faces challenges to getting in regular rides together, but that Boscos Cycling by its nature fosters a culture of accountability. "If it's me riding by myself, it's super hard to get out of bed, put on my gear and ride alone. If you know you've got six or eight people waiting for you, you get up and go and you’re glad you did it."

Hayes is proud of what the team has come to mean to all involved. "There's so much else going on in our lives, but we all have this drive in common--the need to contribute in a bigger way that Boscos Cycling seems to provide."

Shake, Shake, Shake
There are many additional group fitness opportunities in Memphis, even for those fearful of the more-athletic endeavors. Dance on Broad is an eight-week series of "community dance parties" running on Saturday evenings in May and June at the Broad Avenue Water Pavilion. These parties include free dance lessons for the first hour and then plenty of time to practice afterwards while dancing to a live band. Pat Brown, Creative Placemaking Project Director for Broad Avenue Arts, sees this "active arts" program as an opportunity to draw people together while continuing to develop Broad Avenue as an arts district. "We had been looking for a way to develop the warehouse and dock into a performance space," she explained. And the Dance on Broad project fills that need with flair.

Dance on Broad is touted as a rain-or-shine event, and they mean it. Brown says that they had over 150 in attendance for salsa night, even in cold and drizzle. The project is supported by a grant from ArtPlace America, making the experience completely free to participants unless they decide to purchase refreshments.  Collage Dance Collective, which has studio space on Broad, produces the series, selecting music and master dancers for each themed night. Upcoming events will focus on line dancing, afro house, Zumba and Bollywood. The events are geared toward beginners, hopefully motivating those from surrounding communities to shake their way towards a more healthy and active lifestyle.

Another primary aim of Dance on Broad, according to Brown, is removing barriers between communities in Memphis. "The goal is to celebrate dance and provide a fun way to move and groove and meet new friends," she says. The events are complemented by food trucks and an artist market, so dancers can engage with the visual arts and local fare even when taking rest breaks.  Brown notes that the attendees thus far have been quite diverse, and she seems buoyed by the success of dance nights that have already taken place. She is emphatic that people of all experience levels and abilities can benefit. "What better way than with dance than to get to know one another, even with two left feet?"

Read more articles by Grace Korzekwa.

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