By Claire Walla
Of the 1,000 runners expected to show up on Saturday, April 9 for the first annual Katy’s Courage 5K in Sag Harbor, all will be running for a good cause. Actually two.
Proceeds from the race will go to fund a four-year scholarship for a local high school graduate in the name of the Katy Stewart, a Sag Harbor resident who died in December at the age of 12 from a rare form of liver cancer. But the added bonus of raising money through physical activity is that the benefits go both ways.
Perhaps no one knows this more than race organizer Tom O’Donoghue.
The Sag Harbor resident, whose daughter Rose was a classmate and close friend of Stewart’s, embarked on his mission to get physically fit shortly after he found out Katy was sick in 2009.
“She inspired me,” he said, adding that he promptly decided to train for the East Hampton half-marathon. But the road to East Hampton wasn’t exactly smooth.
As someone who had just kicked a 28-year smoking habit and had consequently packed on about 20 extra pounds, O’Donoghue’s training started slow.
“The first time I ran, I don’t think I made it 300 yards before feeling like I was going to keel over, or have a heart attack,” he recalled. Though miles away from his target distance, O’Donoghue had a ways to go before he could even comfortably run the length of a 5K.
This is where good training comes in.
For some, the concept of training might trigger images of hunched bodies bobbing up and down on the pavement, barely sucking down as much oxygen as their lungs demand, leaden feet seeming too difficult to lift and heads wrapped in sweatbands hardly containing the curtains of moisture pouring down their beet-red faces. Granted, training for a 26.2-mile run might not be a walk in the park. But, most trainers agree that with proper preparation, a 5K event can be just that.
A mere snippet of that monstrous marathon distance, the Katy’s Courage 5K is a quick 3.1 mile loop from West Water Street, through downtown Sag Harbor, around the tip of Redwood Lane and back along Sag Harbor Cove to the finish, a route that, even if you jog at a leisurely 15-minute pace, you’ll complete in under an hour.
To prepare for his event, O’Donoghue reached out to Sag Harbor Gym Corp trainer and owner Rich Decker, who set him up with a routine, and helped get him ready for his first road race: the Mind Over Matter 5K (which runs the same route as Katy’s Courage).
“A 5K is not that far,” Decker said. “But the most important [aspect of running a race] is the way you train.”
Decker, who is currently coaching a handful of people participating in the Katy’s Courage 5K, recommends a training method he refers to as overs and unders. The idea is for runners to vary their distance each time they head out, alternating between one-mile runs to build speed, and four- to four-and-a-half-mile runs to build up confidence. Those new to running, he said, should try to run every other day.
“Stretching is also very important,” he added. While loosening up quads, calves and hamstrings is crucial for any endurance sport in which the legs play a major role, Decker also said the hip flexors, while not as noticeably active, are very much engaged during a run. (These muscles connect to the thigh muscles and help raise the knee.) To target the hip flexors, Decker recommends what’s called a pigeon stretch. While sitting on a mat, this maneuver entails keeping the upper half of your body perpendicular to the ground while straightening one leg straight back behind you and keeping the other one bent, as if in a cross-legged position, out in front.
“You basically look like a pigeon,” Decker said.
O’Donoghue’s training improved over time, and he said he learned some lessons along the way.
“When I ran [the 5K] last year, my first mile I did in under six minutes, my second mile was about eight minutes and my last mile was about 14 minutes. I barely crossed the finish line!” he said with a laugh. “I’m a little more consistent now. Now I know your first mile should be your slowest.”
This he learned from Decker, who said it’s common for first-time runners to let their adrenaline power them forward too quickly at the beginning of a race. “Those are the people who are winded at the end,” he said.
Decker also emphasized the importance of nutrition, urging runners to stay away from fats and sugars.
Ruth Zukerman of Flywheel Sports in East Hampton added that runners should drink at least four liters of water a day and consume green superfoods, which are important for providing the energy needed for a run. Though Zukerman caters to an indoor cycling crowd, she said many of her patrons are actually runners that use biking as a way to cross-train before an event.
“You obviously need strength in your legs when you run,” she said. “And with indoor cycling, the cardiovascular workout really helps your stamina.”
O’Donoghue has consistently run since he vowed to take on the East Hampton Half-Marathon (which he finished with a time of 2:05) two years ago. And he looks forward to running Katy’s Courage 5K with other locals eager to support the Katy’s Courage Scholarship Fund, in addition to a whole slew of participants close to the Stewart family, including a busload of teachers from Montauk, as well as O’Donoghue’s own 12-year-old daughter, Rose.
Along with classmates Denise Garcia-Torres, Keri Vila, Courtney Kinsella, Fallon O’Brien, Hannah Young and Claire Kunzeman—all of whom will be running next Saturday—Rose O’Donoghue spent last Friday afternoon putting together around 1,000 gift bags for all race participants.
The girls said they have been training at school with the help of their Physical Education Coach Jonathan Tortorella, who lets them use the treadmill in the weight room. They all seemed prepared for the 3.1-mile run.
“I haven’t done an actual race before, but I have run three miles,” said Kinsella, who added that she and O’Brien run at least three miles at soccer practice.
“I’m going for a medal, I want to place,” Vila chimed in excitedly, adding that she ran this distance last year during the Mind Over Matter 5K. “For anyone who hasn’t run this race, the last mile is all hills. I tell everyone, you have to save yourself for the last mile because if you stop then, you won’t be able to get back up.”
“Motivation is the hardest part,” Tom O’Donoghue said. “For me, I have to have something to motivate me other than myself.”
And now that’s Katy.
“In a way, she saved my life,” he continued. “I know now I’ll never smoke another cigarette again.”