CHRIS MORLAN HAS SUPER POWERS. By day, most people know him as an architect, a good husband and a caring father. But this is all part of his plan to blend in with the rest of the community. His modest demeanor and easy-going smile might fool some, but when it’s time to run, he reveals his true colors. Faster than other heroes can enter and leave a phone booth, Morlan delivers running workouts that astonish even the fittest runners.

He has the power to make a 12-mile trail run feel like 20. He can transform a tranquil city park into the site of a grueling speed drill. On special occasions, he has even been known to make runners curse their heart monitors, Garmins or stopwatches. But his greatest power, by far, is his ability to bring out the best in other runners as head coach for the Spokane Distance Project, a men’s running team.

“The long, slow trail run with Chris Morlan is the biggest deception in town. You have to run slow because the hills are too steep to do anything else,” jokes one runner during a Morlan-monster workout. Another runner says, “I think we have to keep laughing and joking. It’s imperative ‘cause I really don’t want Chris to see me cry.”

The SPOKANE DISTANCE PROJECT (SDP) formed in June 2010. The group’s initial goal was to train for the U.S. 15km Cross Country Championships hosted in Spokane that fall. After a successful two-month trial period, they decided to move forward as a full-fledged team. For many members of the team, running was already a big part of their lives, and the SDP just developed into a vehicle for each of them to train harder and smarter. The team absorbs each individual’s success, and uses it to fuel the team’s objectives and targets.

Morlan easily qualifies to serve as the coach. He has cruised the Bloomsday course under 40-minutes on six occasions. He has completed multiple sub-2:30 marathons and raced in the 1996 Olympic Marathon Trials. While he didn’t run for the University of Idaho, during one semester he traced his runs on a Moscow City street map until he’d covered the full length of every street in town.

Even after he takes off his running shoes, his enduring passion for local running is unrivaled. He spent over 20 years with the Bloomsday Road Runners Club, including three years on the Board, and one year as president. He coached Lewis and Clark high school cross-country and track for 15 years. He also served on the Junior Bloomsday Board of Directors from 1993 to 1997. Now that he’s working with the SDP, he’s able to exploit every training and recovery trick he knows, and really fortify the team.

Team captain, Andy LeFriec, continually emphasizes the rich value of the SDP. While he admits that every runner is a little different, he summarizes the best of the SDP with three main points: “Camaraderie is the greatest value you can get from running with us. Most of us take this running thing pretty dang seriously. We put too much pain, time and sweat into running not to be serious. But you’re also probably not going to the Olympics so we enjoy our teammates. Speed, to me, is the second best thing you get from the SDP. If you listen to Coach Morlan, you will get faster. Another huge value within the SDP is learning everybody’s secret trail. There are so many cool trails in Spokane most people don’t know about, and it seems like every new runner brings a whole new set of cool trails and link-ups to places in town I never knew about.”

Spokane Distance Project actually got a late start. The team is practically an echo of the goals and values of the SPOKANE SWIFTS—a women’s running team founded two years earlier.

“Just like in life, the women have been working longer and harder than the guys,” said one female runner.

Heather LeFriec, Andy’s wife, is one of the founding members of the Swifts. “The Spokane Swifts team was created in 2008, back when Spokane hosted the USATF Club Cross Country Nationals,” she says. “A group of us who had [informally] run together for years decided it would be fun to dig out our old college spikes and enter a team into XC Nationals. We ended up entering two teams and one of our members coined us the ‘swifts,’ named after a bird that swiftly glides through the forest around Riverside State Park. ‘Spokane Swifts’ had a nice ring to it, and our graphic artist and club VP, Linda Lillard, contributed to an awesome logo that included a bird, so it stuck. We like to think the race isn’t always won by the fastest but by the Swifts.”

While it was a convenient location for the brand-new Swifts team, the 2008 Club XC Nationals couldn’t have taken place in worse conditions. The 6km race occurred at Plantes Ferry in the Spokane Valley in December—it was 21 degrees with continuous 30 mph winds. Based on the online calculator for the National Weather Service, the wind chill temperature hovered between 0 and -5 degrees Fahrenheit that day. In spite of the wickedly, cruel weather, the Swifts finished 11th out of 21 teams, only a few points from cracking into the national top ten.
“[Swift Coach Sarah Ranson is] sort of like Tinkerbell in combat boots. She’s so sweet and petite and really fast, but she’s also really good at kicking some ass,” says Swift member Ali King. “Sarah is also a bit of a hyper-taskmaster. She can go from being all sweet ‘Oh, how was your weekend?’ to ‘What the Hell, stop being such a wimp!”

Like Chris Morlan, Ranson is over-qualified to be the Swifts’ head coach. She was a member of the University of Missouri track and cross-country teams from 1991to1996. She holds numerous ALL Big 8 titles—from the 3,000m to 10,000m—and she was an NCAA qualifier in the 10,000m and Cross Country. And she was named an Athletic Academic All-American.

While pursuing a Master’s degree in Sport Management at Florida State University, Sarah was a graduate assistant coach for both the track and cross-country programs. Sarah has PRs of 2:51 marathon, 1:21 half marathon, 35:20 10k, and 16:52 5k.

Sarah placed her running career on hold for a few years when she and her husband grew their family with the addition of two boys. Now she is training hard again and looks forward to improving her marathon and half marathon records.

While running is simply a component of the triathlon, it’s often the most engaging aspect of the three-pillar sport. For sure, there is very little conversation whenever you’re swimming laps or riding bikes single-file. But training runs accommodate some reasonable conversation and feedback. Also, running is perhaps the easiest component for triathletes to jive with other athletes.

Since 2003, the triathlon’s popularity has grown exponentially in the Inland Northwest due in part to Ironman Coeur d’Alene, as well as the successful development of multiple local triathlon clubs. Eastern Washington and North Idaho are fortunate to have several options for a variety of race distances, thanks to so many suitable swimming lakes and safe bike routes within a few hours’ drive.

Scott and Tristin Roy relocated to Spokane from Hawaii in 2003. Both of them grew up in the Columbia Gorge, outside of Hood River, and both of them have been focused on triathlons for most of their adult lives. In Hawaii, they were part of a club called Team Jet Hawaii, so when they moved to Spokane they wanted to start something very similar. The Roys knew they wanted their new team logo to include the sun since this represented a positive part of their outdoor training life. In addition, they considered all the time spent on the Centennial Trail. These influences inspired the idea of blazing a trail, which in turn lead to the creation of TEAM BLAZE SPOKANE TRIATHLON CLUB.

“The Team Blaze members are genuine and family-oriented, and give back to the community,” says Scott Roy. “They support and inspire each other like a family. The club provides several training opportunities with weekly workouts year-round that include: coached swims, Bike Hub trainer rides, coached track workouts and practice triathlons. These workouts, plus a member kit [shirt, hat, bag, water bottle] and insurance are all included with membership.”

Team Blaze members are quick to share accolades about Scott, such as, “He’s the best.” “Man, that guy is awesome.” “He is everyone’s coach and everyone’s biggest fan. I love that guy!”

On Team Blaze, Norma Meyers breaks any pre-conceived notions faster than they are conceived. As a competitor in her early 60s, Norma has qualified for the Boston Marathon and the Half Ironman World Championships. “Scott Roy has coached me for several years, beginning when I only was interested in maintaining some conditioning,” she says. “One of the outstanding qualities of Scott’s coaching is his emphasis on life balance. I have never missed an opportunity to enjoy my family and my friends. My goal is to maintain optimum health so that I can enjoy my life fully. With Scott’s coaching I am constantly reaping the benefits of my training.”

From a narrow perspective, these three fitness teams merely attract athletes with like-minded interests and empower them to further that special interest. But their influence and reach extends to the greater Spokane community, and the results illustrate a strong pattern of running growth in Spokane.
Nate Kinghorn manages the Runner’s Soul store. He serves runners day in and day out because he loves it, and because he, too, is a runner. This position enables him to keep his finger on the pulse of the Spokane running community, and he’s quick to acknowledge the Swifts and the SDP.

“The running community in Spokane has a storied tradition, and these groups are another chapter in a book that won’t end anytime soon,” says Kinghorn.

“It’s hard to measurably gauge the monetary impact,” he says, when asked about the running groups’ collective impact, “but I know that it is significant through the members being customers first, as well as recommending [Runner’s Soul] to their beginning runner friends. These people know what it’s like to put all of their effort into not only the race itself but also all the training that leads up to it—and they have a tremendous amount of respect for all who compete.”

In addition to supporting local businesses, the teams also support local races, often because many of the races are charitable benefits for near-and-dear causes. Of course, they participate in Bloomsday, the largest community race, but they also support the Monster Dash, Turkey Trot and Partners in Pain events. You might say they run with their feet and their hearts.

Within each team, the successful results continue to build. Setting goals and achieving them creates positive energy and momentum. Aspirations of winning one’s own age group becomes possible. The dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon becomes achievable.

Some runners use the Spokane Swifts as a springboard to take one’s efforts and performance to the next level. For example, in the past year, Rachel Jaten qualified for the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials, and raced impressively at the 2012 Trials in Houston last January.

And Jeanne Armstrong used to wonder what it would take to qualify for the Boston Marathon. She’s a small-business owner, wife and mother with a minor running addiction who hoped the Swifts would help her reach this goal.

Armstrong admits she felt a little intimidated joining the Swifts. “These are strong, successful women with full lives,” she says. “Yet they make time to help and encourage each other all while they pursue their own passion for running.”

Did she qualify for Boston? She says, “Well, first of all, speed workouts matter and make a difference. Secondly, [these speed workouts] cut my marathon time by seventeen minutes between seasons, and took 34 minutes off my first marathon.”
So, yes, she qualified and will be racing in the 2012 Boston Marathon this April.

Without a doubt, running teams are just one of many ways to improve one’s race times and get motivated to stay fit. But the aggressive workouts of a competitive team might not be the right match for some runners. For example, running clubs, such as the Flying Irish, provide a great social and encouraging atmosphere to help someone get moving and enjoy running or walking. While the Flying Irish is the most notorious Spokane running group, there are also the SoHi Runners and the Manito Running Club.

For those runners with pinpoint goals—such as a specific race finish time or difficult schedules— personal coaches provide an edge. While it costs more than joining a local running team, it’s often the best training supplement with the greatest rewards.

Personal running coaches challenge you differently, reduce workout boredom, help develop incremental achievements, and provide support and supervision, which also helps reduce injuries. Best of all, personal coaching helps raise your accountability. After all, you’re really unlikely to skip a workout when you know you’re paying for it.

Perhaps the one benefit cited most frequently among runners from Team Blaze, SDP and the Swifts is the support and encouragement following a bad performance, or even worse, an injury. There’s some truth to the old saying that there are only two kinds of runners in the world—those that have been injured and those that will be injured. Sometimes, the remedy is just a few weeks rest or some corrective shoes. Other times, the remedy might be found through a little rehab with B&B Physical Therapy. Nevertheless, some injuries require months of recovery (or some new sources of confidence)—and that’s when the supportive feedback from a teammate can be so critical, even uplifting. More than a brilliant PR, those moments often serve as the greatest testament to the team’s power, because so often the absence of running can be painful mentally and emotionally.

“People run for lots of reasons,” says Andy LeFriec. “Sometimes it’s about [getting] a flat stomach or fitting into some skinny jeans, and sometimes it’s a little sibling rivalry. Maybe it’s just about lowering your marathon time. Nobody knows all of the reasons, but if you want to get fast, and you think you have what it takes, then definitely consider these teams. Pick the one that suits you, and be prepared for some really neat changes in your life.”