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Can an annual health festival and mini-marathon motivate Fort Wayne to get on its feet?

By Michael Summers


Fort Wayne Reader


Tim Kenesey, CEO of Medical Protective and the Chairman of the Fort-4-Fitness health festival taking place in September, is trying to come up with a tactful way of addressing the big elephant head that pops up anytime the words “Fort Wayne” and “health” are mentioned in the same sentence.

“There’s a sentiment that Northeast Indiana is… there are biases, let’s say that,” Kenesey begins. “There are biases against Northeast Indiana that have been documented, that we’re… overweight and don’t eat healthy.”

“Overweight” and “don’t eat healthy” are nice ways of putting it. In the past decade, Fort Wayne has gained the reputation as one of the fattest cities in the U.S. We have a number of health magazines to thank for that, most notably Men’s Health, the same magazine that ranked us as the dumbest city in America about three years ago (and least sexy a year or so after that).

If it were just a case of glossy lifestyle magazines using junk science to mock our stolid Midwestern-ness, we’d probably take in it stride (or at least lying on the couch), but the Center For Disease Control — a far more credible institution not known for junk science — also weighed in, putting Fort Wayne at #4 on the nation’s fattest cities list back in 2003.

More recent data from the CDC shows that, just like in so many other things, Indiana is no better and not much worse than quite a lot of other states in the nation as far as the percentage of obese adults we have among us (and at least we’re not like those lardos in West Virginia and Mississippi). But that’s really nothing to brag about, and in the end, it doesn’t matter that we’re a little above the national average — perception is reality, and the only thing any potential employer weighing the pros and cons of relocating to Northeast Indiana needs to hear is “nation’s fattest city” before he or she will decide the health care costs are too prohibitive and look somewhere else.

“Here’s the way I’d summarize it: you’ve got bad PR, increasing health care costs… But then just two hours south, Indianapolis has a race that’s over-subscribed by thousands,” Kenesey says. “Why not put something together in Fort Wayne?”

This “why not Fort Wayne?” has lead to Fort-4-Fitness, a day-long event on September 26-27 consisting of a half-marathon, a 4-mile run/walk, a health fair and a health food expo. “This is really encouraging people to think about their health in a comprehensive way,” Kenesey says. “Yeah, running for the half-marathon, jogging for the four-miler, that’s all important, but it’s part of a comprehensive look that ties to being proactive with your health care and your diet.”

Still, the centerpiece of Fort-4-Fitness is the half-marathon (that’s 13.1 miles) and 4-mile walk/run. The former starts at Friemann Square and makes its way through West Central, Sweeney Park, Sherman, Spring, and State streets, and Franke Park before heading back downtown via Wells.

A group of volunteers has been planning for Fort-4-Fitness for a little over a year. Even when the event was just an idea, the planning committees got a lot of support from city leadership and other organizations such as Parkview Health and the Lutheran Health Network, who stepped forward as sponsors early on. Sponsorship support is one thing, though; public interest is another. But if the committee was worried that no one would show up, the number of people who have registered already have put those fears to rest. “The last we heard just over 700 have pre-registered,” says Tim Newlin, an avid runner who serves on the Fort-4-Fitness committee. “We are very excited about that, especially since we’re still a few months out.”

The number of early registrants, most of them from Fort Wayne and the immediate area, has surprised even Jeff Metzger, the event’s race director. “If you would have told me a year ago that we’d get this many people signed up, I would have laughed,” he admits.

But it’s the fact that so many people have signed up early that surprises Metzger, not the fact that those people are out there. For a supposed hotbed of unhealthiness, Fort Wayne and the surrounding areas are actually rife with races and runners. The Fort Wayne Track Club (www.fwtc.org) has had a total of around 5,000 members since it started in 1976, according to founder Don Lindley, and organizes several races in the area (though the FWTC is not officially involved in Fort-4-Fitness). There are a number of 5Ks, 12ks, 10ks… even a half-marathon in Bluffton, the Parlor City Trot, that takes place in September.

The idea of a full marathon was tossed around during the early days of Fort-4-Fitness, but Metzger says they soon decided against it. There have been marathons in Fort Wayne before, he explains… “But that distance has not been very successful here. It’s kind of hard to sell Fort Wayne, and with a marathon distance you’re limiting the number of people who can participate.”

“We’re trying to go after a different group of runners,” adds Metzger, a Fort Wayne native who has been running since high school. “There are a lot of people out there running and jogging that aren’t in the Fort Wayne Track Club, and those are the people we’re going after.”

Michael Thurston, secretary of the Fort Wayne Track Club, echoes Metzger. “You’ll get people like my mom coming out, the power-walkers who use our trail systems everyday,” he says. “The social aspect of the event is going to get the first timers out to the 4-mile fun run/walk, it’s going to bring out those people who have never run a step.”

One person who has worked with a lot of runners — first timers and veterans — is Tammy Behrens. A member of the Fort-4-Fitness committee, Behrens runs a training company called PR Training (www.myprtraining) that provides services, classes, and training for runners and walkers to improve on their goals. “We train anywhere from 5 K distance to marathon distance, and a lot of times we pick up beginning people, too,” says Behrens, a certified RRCA (Road Runners Club of America) running coach and a YMCA certified trainer. Behrens teaches different programs throughout the year, including a half-marathon training group for the Indy Mini that starts in January and goes through May. Her classes covers anything and everything a runner needs to know, from nutrition and injury prevention through shoes and clothes. “A lot of people don’t realize you have to have a plan,” she says. “I’ll have people ask me ‘how far do you run everyday?’ Well, it’s not like I just go run five miles everyday and that’s the end of it. There’s a pace and there’s a plan and some days I run fast and short and one day a week we all run really long. You really need to have a training schedule to complete a half-marathon or a marathon and have some accountability to that. By the end of class so many people say ‘I had no idea there was so much to be learned.’”

She has a 14-week training group starting on June 19 for the Fort-4-Fitness half-marathon, meeting at at 5:30 am Thursday mornings. “I’m finding that there are a lot more people saying ‘I’ve never thought about doing something like that but since it’s here in town, I’ll try it’,” she says. “I really think we’re really going to have a lot of beginners.”

Behrens says that Fort-4-Fitness is committed to putting on the event for at least three years, no matter what happens financially. But with the number of registrants for the race already rapidly approaching the committee’s initial goal of a thousand, it seems the event is poised to just get bigger. “I don’t see any reason why the half-marathon and 4 mile fun run it shouldn’t be 2,500 people in the years to come,” Michael Thurston says.

Jeff Metzger is even more optimistic. “I went to a seminar a couple years ago, where they talked about 4% of the population being runners/walkers,’ he says. “Taking the population base of Fort Wayne and the surrounding areas as about 500,000… that’s a lot of runners and walkers who haven’t participated in a half-marathon or any kind of race before. Let’s get those people involved, and maybe that will spill over into all the other races and running events around Fort Wayne.”

For more information on Fort-4-Fitness, go to www.fort-4-fitness.org. There’s a discount for registering before July 1, 2008.

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