Training heels

That race date in early May seems so far away.

More than three months stretch between now and the running of the 500 Festival Mini-Marathon in downtown Indianapolis. With the cold and snow bearing down on central Indiana, it can’t hurt to wait a few weeks to start training for the big day, right?


“That first burst of cold air and snowy roads, people don’t want to get out in that. It’s easy to fall off the wagon early,” said Libby Roberts, a southside resident and Mini-Marathon trainer for the Baxter YMCA. “You’ve got to get out there, even if it’s on a treadmill.”

The exhilaration of crossing the finish line after 13.1 miles will be paid for with hard work in the weeks leading up to the race, local trainers say. In order to enjoy success May 7, people need to be putting in miles, getting the body ready and strengthening up to avoid injury.

The process may not be fun. But it will be worth it when you’re tired, sweaty and clutching that medal for finishing the race.

“Especially if you’re a beginner, it can be so intimidating to think about it. If you’ve never run one mile, how are you going to get to 13?” said Bobbi Finley, wellness director for the Baxter YMCA. “A training program is a great way to have that comfort of people who have done it before, helping you.”

The Mini-Marathon is the largest half-marathon in the country, with more than 26,000 people running and walking it each year.

The race is always conducted on the first Saturday in May, when weather in Indiana is mostly still mild. That’s ideal for those who don’t want to run so far in the cold or the sticky humidity Hoosiers are used to.

But that means that preparations have to start early, in the middle of winter, Roberts said.

To help local participants get into racing shape without injury, the Baxter YMCA offers an annual training program starting in mid-January.

The 16-week program meets three times each week, with two short days during the work week and a long-run day on Saturdays. Each person is provided with a personalized workout plan. Coaches who specialize in either running or walking are present depending on how participants want to train.

The goal is to make sure that they’re not tackling too much mileage too quickly, but still are challenging themselves, Finley said.

“We have people who have never run the Mini in the program, and we have people who have run it three or four times,” she said.

When Libby Roberts ran her first Mini-Marathon, she came to the YMCA looking for guidance. She had been an active runner for most of her adult life, but had really never run more than two miles at a time.

“What I liked about it was that there was a group. Every other time I had run, it had been by myself or on a treadmill. That social aspect was great,” she said. “It got me to the finish line, and a lot more starting lines after that.”

The decision to start running more competitively fueled an addiction. Roberts now has run dozens of half-marathons and is on a mission to complete a marathon in all 50 states.

She’s completed 34 full marathons so far.

Roberts is now a coach for the Baxter YMCA program. While the training is tailored to beginners, intermediates and advanced runners, they use the three-mile mark as a base for all training.

“We have people who start who have never run a mile before, so we work on getting them up to that point. Once they’re there, that’s the benchmark we can add more mileage on to,” she said.

Most of the participants in the program are beginners — people who are looking to get into running and have set the Mini-Marathon as a goal.

Coaches work on the physical aspect of running such a long race first. They make sure participants know the proper stretches for before and after a run, as well as what their gait and form should look like.

The YMCA also has partnered with Franciscan St. Francis Health to bring in health experts to help with injury prevention, nutrition and hydration, among other aspects of training.

“So many people who start out have so many questions, like how they’ll ever get to 13 miles, or if it’s OK to ever walk,” Roberts said. “You just try to answer their basic questions.”

Once runners have established those aspects, they work on how to be mentally strong over the course of a 13-mile race. Mileage is increased slowly.

“I train year round, and that can get exhausting. But there’s something refreshing with people who have never run a mile, and then in April say, ‘Oh, we’re only running six miles?’” Roberts said. “The first time they do a double-digit mile run, you see people tired but so happy.”

The coaches also focus on the slow-fast pacing of interval training, sprinting up hills and other methods to build endurance and strength. That will help more advanced runners improve their time come race day, Roberts said.

“One of the great things about a structured program is you get to know people. People are asking about you, and you feel like if you’re not there, you better have a good reason,” Roberts said.

The training program also provides that impetus when it’s nasty out and you’d rather sit on your couch watching TV than work out, Finley said.

“Having people or a person to be accountable to is important. And you have a plan of what you’re supposed to do each week. You have guidance and direction,” she said.

The Mini Marathon is a race unlike any others. Runners will circle the Indianapolis Motor Speedway, with it’s banked track and long five-mile loop, at the halfway point.

They will also be starting with tens of thousands of people moving in packs.

“We always encourage people to do a race before the Mini, just to have the experience of doing things like grabbing water at a run stop and having to set your own pace,” Roberts said. “You also have to know how to run in a crowd, moving back and forth.”

One of the biggest themes from the coaches at the training program is that you get out of this experience what you put into it, Finley said.

“If you go in with the intention of doing your best and committing to it, you’ll succeed and meet your goals,” she said.

If you go

500 Festival Mini Marathon Training

Where: Baxter YMCA, 7900 S. Shelby St., Indianapolis

When: 5:30 p.m. Mondays and Wednesdays; 9:30 a.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays; 8 a.m. Saturday.

Length: Training sessions last between 45 minutes to up to three hours.

Who: Runners and walkers welcomed

Cost: Monday-Wednesday or Tuesday-Thursday sessions: $87 for YMCA members, $99 for non-members; $50 for Saturday only. Fee does not include race registration.

Details: All training sessions are scheduled to be outdoors. Participants need to dress appropriately.

Registration deadline: Feb. 26

Information: or

Training tips

The thought of running a 13.1 mile half-marathon can be daunting for someone who’s never done it before, even with months to prepare. Baxter YMCA wellness director Bobbi Finley and Mini Marathon training coach Libby Roberts shared some of their advice to get people started.

“Keep an open mind and do your best. Don’t worry too much about the end.” — Finley.

“Don’t increase distance and pace at the same time. Focus on getting your distance up first, then work on your pace.” — Roberts

“Even if you do miss a few weeks, come back. You still have plenty of time before May.” — Roberts

“Don’t increase your mileage more than 10 percent from week to week.” — Roberts

“For someone who is new to this, you’re going to have some general muscle soreness. You’ll feel parts of your body you haven’t felt before. Don’t let that discourage you.” — Roberts

“Make sure you have the right shoes. Otherwise, blisters might develop. If they do, talk to an experienced runner; there are usually some easy fixes for that.” — Roberts

“You don’t want to increase your mileage every week. Build in a fall-back or recovery week. Once you reach five miles for your long run, don’t necessarily increase every Saturday. That will help prevent injuries.” — Roberts

“Take it day-by-day.” — Finley

Ryan Trares is a reporter for the Daily Journal. He can be reached at or 317-736-2727.