Staying active during the COVID-19 pandemic is a lifeline for many, along with the love of running.
When Debbie Richards joined Team Playmakers, a running club in Okemos, Michigan, in 2009, she didn’t think of herself as a runner.
“I first started off as a walker and I thought, ‘That’s all I’m ever going to do, I’m never going to run’,” Richards said. “Then, when I started doing more walking and running events I thought, ‘OK, I can do this.’ It doesn’t matter my height, it doesn’t matter my weight, it doesn’t matter my skin color, anything, if I choose to do this and do it safely this is a great program to do it.”
Flash forward to today, and Richards is the head coach of the Playmakers women’s training team. Her story of finding running as a passion matches others on the team.
Team Playmakers is an organization that stemmed off of the Playmakers retail store in Okemos. The team welcomes runners at all levels and offers four different groups to join including their women’s training, men’s training, Any Distance Any Pace and Triathlon team.
Michelle Harper joined the women’s training team in 2015, with low personal expectations. She was looking for an outlet to get away from her job that had her sitting at a desk for 8-to-10 hours per day.
She never thought she’d run, let alone complete in a race.
“They took me from walking to being able to run a 5K,” Harper said.
Finally, there’s Marcy Kinser, the executive director of the Playmakers Fitness Foundation. She joined Team Playmakers while taking time off from her full-time teaching job. Several years later, Kinser completed the Boston Marathon, a milestone which she partially credited to her training, coaching and peers at Team Playmakers.
“Now here we are 10 years later, and I love the work, I love the opportunity to be involved in the community,” Kinser said. “It still feels educational with regards to our teams and programs but doesn’t have the rigid schedule a school does.”
Kinser added, “When you have 100 members everyone has a bit different interests, some want to train for ultra-marathons and some are literally walking or running their first 5K. Those are two very different experiences.”
Traditionally, each member of Team Playmakers would train for an end goal event, such as the Bay Shore marathon/half marathon, a course that takes runners along the bay of Traverse City, Michigan. However, like many other things, this year is different and many of these end goal races have gone virtual.
Team Playmakers also went virtual at the start of the pandemic’s global grip in March 2020. The team stopped meeting in person, and instead converted to virtual training. They developed things like a ‘Summer Challenge’ in which participants could run individually and record their miles.
“We had a lot of people whose mental health took a toll,” Kate Johnson, co-head coach of the Any Distance, Any Pace team said. “They didn’t have the coaches, they didn’t have the people to train with, they didn’t have the accountability.”
One year later, Team Playmakers has slowly begun in-person training again, but the practices look much different. In order to maintain safety, coaches follow guidelines from national running organizations like Roadrunners and Chicago Area Runners Club. Additionally, executives meet with Ingham County Health Officer Linda Vail to discuss local safety regulations.
Regardless, being in-person brings back one key aspect that every individual acknowledged as one of the greatest within Team Playmakers: accountability.
“We are finding that offering these programs is helping people stay accountable and that’s really what people want,” Kinser said. “We have more than 75% of our members back. They just really want that comradery, accountability and I think the feeling of being part of a team.”
Johnson said the team has added new activities to adapt to social distancing protocols, such as “Trail Tuesdays,” an event where any member from any team can come out and run a trail course. The idea sparked as more people began running on trails during quarantine and interest in the event grew.
“We’re trying to come up with new things,” Johnson said. “We social distance, start out single file and mask when needed and come up with ways to still keep everybody safe and do some fun things.”
Aside from the accountability that comes with being a part of a team, the comradery is an aspect that has drawn so many people to the program as well, Johnson said. When new members join, they are welcomed to whichever team they choose and coaches work to place those individuals in smaller groups they think they would fit in with, both personally and skill set.
Harper described her relationships with her women’s team members as close.
“It is like a tight knit group of women who are family,” Harper said. “I miss them when I’m gone and when I’m out running down South I hear the coaches in the head when I get discouraged.”
On a broader scale, Kinser hopes the bonds developed between runners in the Playmaker’s groups contributes to the sense of community as a whole.
“People will say, ‘Well, I’m not really a runner,’ well there’s no qualification, it’s just if you go out and run or walk you’re a runner and walker and you’re part of our team,” Kinser said. “It’s not competitive, it’s very much about wanting to be a part of a team...We want to be a contributing factor to making the Greater Lansing region a healthier, more active, more fit community.”