Jamie Scott Fitness is hosting its annual charity 5K race this year in support of Sistercare. (Photos by Hanna Schatteman)

On any given day, there are runners on their routes on the streets of Columbia, the Riverwalk and other Midlands paths.

Columbia’s hub of running trails has always made it competitive in bringing in races and runners to the city. Before the pandemic, Columbia was a hub for races, holding anywhere from a 5K to a half-marathon every weekend.

But Roy Shelley, president and treasurer of Columbia Running Club, thinks the pandemic heavily contributed to the recent increase in the number of runners.

Shelley says the greater Columbia area now hosts three to four races every weekend.

“Nobody really knew what was going to happen with COVID,” Shelley said, “But our numbers almost doubled.”

Shelley said the pandemic forced people to find ways to get outside of their homes, and running was something for them to do.

Like the Columbia Running Club, Ferguson State Forest, a popular Midlands hiking and running trail, saw its numbers more than double during the pandemic.

“(It) is great for the running community,” Shelley said. “And for getting people out there who can do the race.”

Shelley said Columbia hadn’t prepared for the COVID-related increase. But it has handled it well.

Normally, many runners use races as a way to compete and reward themselves for their hard work in training with support from friends, family, and the local community, he said.

But the pandemic and social distancing made that impossible.

Still, people got outside. And they stayed outside.

And, now, more people are joining them.

And with the return of competitive races, that number doesn’t seem to be declining anytime soon.

Training together

Running on its own has many benefits, including improved mental health and overall well-being.

But for runners, training with a partner or a group is essential to their success.

Columbia runner Erin Jesfords first started running when she turned 40. In the four years since, she has competed in races from 5Ks to half-marathons. 

“It’s motivating (to run with other people),” Jesfords said. “It keeps your pace. … I tend to keep a better pace when I’m running with other people.”

Others agree.

When running with a group, you naturally fall alongside someone who matches your stride and can offer advice for training, injuries, and more, Shelley said.

But runners who want to challenge themselves and improve their running should train with someone a little above their level, Shelley said.  

Columbia Running Club, for example, has multiple age groups training and racing together.

“If you have a runner who’s been doing it their entire life, then they can help someone just getting into it,” Shelley said. 

Shelley, who started running in 2013, thinks training together also offers social benefits.

“I think getting out there and exercising and being active makes you want to connect with other people, right?” Shelley said. “So you may not be the most talkative person, but it’s easy to talk with someone with whom you have a shared connection.”

Whether it’s the location of the run, distance or type of runner, Columbia has groups that anyone can join. One group that stands out is Columbia’s Running Under the Influence group, which typically ends its runs at a local brewery or pub to offer runners a social connection.

Local involvement

With the growing presence of runners throughout the Midlands, more businesses and charities have become involved since the pandemic. 

And the idea of giving seems to appeal to runners and supporters.

“I’m here for the service,” said Tessa O’Neal, a second-year student at the University of South Carolina. 

Jamie Scott Fitness last month held its annual EmpoweRun 5K Walk & Run benefitting a local charity. Members this year chose to support Sistercare, which offers shelters and support services for survivors of domestic violence in the Midlands. Runners raised nearly $20,000.

Jamie Scott, who owns the gym, said it’s important to him to support local charities.

“Some people sign up specifically to race (for the cause),” Scott said. “If they can’t run, they can walk. And if they don’t want to do that, we can still take their donation.”

A DJ, a spin class, food for runners and local businesses met runners at the finish line of the recent race.

Runners also passed a fence lined with posters purchased by sponsors to show their support for the event. That’s one way business are able to encourage the running community and the growing number of Columbia races.

Jesfords tells new runners they can find friendship and support. 

“If you want to run, just give it a try,” she said.

Listen to a read-aloud of the story here: https://soundcloud.com/schatteh/columbia-running-community-read-aloud/s-cWzVS9Hlzi2?si=12fe715b716a4736a9649a46fd5a01e1&utm_source=clipboard&utm_medium=text&utm_campaign=social_sharing

Family, friends and supporters cheer on runners to the finish line.

Local businesses that sponsor the EmpoweRun line the fence as runners pass. 

Dogs and children also took part in the EmpoweRun.