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Group training for Gate River Run

From left: Christa Figgins, Connie Walker, Michael Figgins, Debbie Foran and Sarah Green take the  first steps of a 5-miles run on a recent Saturday morning.

The 35th annual Gate River Run draws thousands of professional and amateur runners to Jacksonville for the largest 15K in the nation. Many are from Baker County.

For this year’s event — which also features a 5K run and children’s run in addition to the 9-mile race with $85,000 in prize money up for grabs — the Baker County YMCA started group training sessions for the Gate River Run.

Y member Connie Walker spearheaded the effort with help from facility staffers by inviting those interested to three weekly training sessions, which began January 3. She also supplied runners with a training schedule to gradually build up their endurance through race day on March 10.

Ms. Walker said about 10 joggers regularly meet for training runs on Tuesday and Thursday evenings and Saturday mornings, though attendance at a bi-weekly discussion session on topics like proper footwear and other tips has been lacking.

Some in the loose-knit group with similar ability and pace train together, leaving from the Y on West Lowder Street, while others prefer to meet at the Macclenny City Park trail for evening runs because the park is lighted.

Lucia Gadsby of Macclenny, who admits she doesn’t like running, has been training with the group. “My daughter has been asking me to run in [the Gate River Run] for the last year,” she said. “I hate running, but I do it for her.”

When asked why she hates the activity, she responded: “It’s painful. Everything hurts.” Still, the 43-year-old mother said, it’s worth spending quality time with her daughter, who turned 18 last week.

Though she doesn’t consider herself a serious runner, jogging “off and on,” the Massachusetts native boasted that she shaved two minutes off her mile time, down from 13 minutes.

She and others in the training group pushed to fxive miles on January 28,  six weeks before the Gate River Run, which will start at Everbank Stadium.

The route heads through downtown Jacksonville, crossing the Main Street Bridge to the San Marco and St. Nicholas neighborhoods before crossing the Hart Bridge to end at the stadium.

Live bands will play at various locations along the route and water stations will be set up at every mile marker.

As of last week, Ms. Gadsby hadn’t registered for the run yet because she wasn’t sure if she would jog the 5K or 15K.

“I haven’t decided,” she said. “When it gets closer to race day, I’ll decide depending on how the training is going. I just want to finish it. I don’t care about the time it takes to finish.”

Terri Neal, another woman in the group, isn’t entirely sure she’s ready to tackle the 5K, but she’s training nonetheless.

The 47-year-old Baldwin resident said she spent 10 years confined to a motorized wheelchair after spinal disorders, worsened by weight gain, and deteriorating corneas severely hindered her mobility.

“As you lose mobility, you don’t think about decreasing your food intake to match your activity level,” Ms. Neal said during a break from her workout at the Y last week. “You continue the same bad habits.”

Eventually, she got cornea transplants, but after the death of her mother in 2009, her weight increased even further, reaching 330 pounds at her heaviest. One day she looked in the mirror and couldn’t tell where her face ended and her neck began.

“I thought, ‘Who in the world is that woman?’” said Ms. Neal, who stands about 5-feet tall.

She pledged to herself she would change her life, and with God’s help, she said she became a new person.

“Through small changes in my diet and small exercises in my wheelchair, over two years, I dropped 130 pounds. Or more accurately, I pushed it off,” said the former nurse.

Soon she could walk very short distances with a cane or rolling walker. Then last October she made up her mind to mount another challenge — walking a 5K.

Ms. Neal signed up for the Evergreen Pumpkin Run at Evergreen Cemetery in Jacksonville, where her mother is buried. She didn’t run, she walked with a cane, but she finished the roughly 3-mile journey.

“I wasn’t the first to cross the finish line, but I wasn’t the last, either,” she said.

Afterwards Ms. Neal went to her mother’s grave.

“I said, ‘I did it, Mama, I did it!’ with tears in my eyes,” she recalled last week.

Ms. Neal still has frequent pain in her back and other joints as well as challenges related to her cornea transplants. And she still wants to shed another 30 to 40 pounds.

“I encourage anyone who is struggling with their weight to be consistent,” advised Ms. Neal. “Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither was I. Making small changes and sticking to them can make a huge difference.”

For more information about the Gate River Run, visit www.gate-riverrun.com or call the YMCA at 259-0898.

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