Area team preps for N.C. Half Marathon

Two months ago, Andrew Cunningham was a little out of shape, he thought.

Trips to the gym were inconsistent and not productive enough for him to shed his desired 20 pounds. He needed a goal, something to strive for.

In December, Cunningham found a group of a half-dozen people, mostly fellow Concord residents who had a similar objective: training with a purpose.

Under the direction of personal trainer Tommy Snodgrass, the lot of them are preparing for the first N.C. Half Marathon, to take place March 25 at Charlotte Motor Speedway. Their goal at this point? To finish the race, tackling a distance most of them have never attained.

Many of the budding half-marathoners have participated in Snodgrass's "Couch to 5K" program in the last year, accomplishing their goal of completing shorter runs. When it was announced in the fall that the Speedway was hosting a half-marathon, several of the 5K graduates elevated their aspirations.

One of them was 35-year old Jermaine Fuller, a Buffalo, N.Y., native whose 6-foot-4 frame looks better suited for basketball than long-distance running. His introduction to the 5k circuit is one that is not uncommon.

Two years ago, a co-worker invited Fuller to participate with him in a 5K race. Fuller showed up, the co-worker did not.

"I ran about 70 percent of it," Fuller said, "and walked about 30 percent of it. I never considered myself a runner, but I thought 'I just finished a 5K!'"

Fuller likes the concept of training with others but competing against himself and improving his times. Since he started working with Snodgrass last year, he has completed six 5K runs and three 10K runs.

Two years ago, Fuller said, he wasn't able to run six miles. But now, running that distance feels "like a jog," he said, and it is a consistent part of his training routine.

When Fuller started specifically training for the N.C. Half Marathon in December, Snodgrass timed him at eight minutes, 16 seconds in a mile run. Four weeks in to the 14-week training regiment, Fuller cut his mile time by nine seconds.

Braving freezing temperatures on a recent Sunday morning - the four-week mark of their training - Cunningham was running a 6:21 miles, 24 seconds better than his base time at the start of their regiment.

Others in the group - Concord's Michelle Zelaya and Jennifer Lyles of Rockwell - have trimmed more than 40 seconds off their base times. They both have tales of being much more fit before their children were born years ago, then yearning to find their grooves again in the last couple of years.

Zelaya, 33, used to compete in triathlons in the early 2000s and once ran a marathon. Lyles, 40, was once a certified personal trainer and used to teach step aerobics and kickboxing at the Salisbury YMCA. Having an opportunity to run in the N.C. Half Marathon falls right into her long-term fitness plans.

"My long-term goal was always to do a half marathon," said Lyles. "It just helped me build and build. It's been a solid goal of mine for last five years. It's kind of like the stars lined up. It was an incredible coincidence."

Cunningham sees the N.C. Half Marathon as something to shoot for. He meets with the group on Sundays and follows the training plans Snodgrass emails him during the week. He feels good about the progress he has made.

"It's nice to have somebody who knows more than me to tell me what to do, how far to run, and what pace I should be at.

"I've probably lost about 20 pounds. I think I'm getting better every day. But I'm not quite where I want to be."

He has about seven weeks to get there.