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3/21/2024 by Barbara Huebner

From Zero to the Northside Hospital Atlanta Women’s 5K

Not long after Gabrielle Wilkinson became a member of Atlanta Track Club Elite last fall, the 6-time All-American was asked: Besides its world-class team of professional athletes, was there anything else that drew you to the Club?

Her answer came quickly: Its mission of health and wellness.

"One of my passions is how to give people the tools and resources to have healthier lives, to have the health information to take those steps," said the 24-year-old Wilkinson, who earned degrees in kinesiology and exercise science (undergrad, 2022) and health education behavior (masters) while starring at 800 and 1,500 meters for the University of Florida. "Atlanta is such a diverse community; I feel that this is a place where I can definitely grow and help. I'm all about community, so that's important to me."

Every athlete who competes on the Elite team also holds a staff role within the Club, and Wilkinson's is focused on health outreach. That's how she met Tawanta Washington and Stephanie Jang.

Their lives may never be quite the same.

With the Northside Hospital Atlanta Women's 5K on the calendar for March 23, Wilkinson put out a call around the holidays looking for three non-exercisers who might benefit from support and training in getting to the start line. By the deadline, 64 women - many with a connection to Northside - had applied.

"My fitness experience before applying to the program was kind of nonexistent," said Washington, a 46-year-old revenue specialist for Northside Hospital Systems, at the first in-person session on February 20. "I was basically sedentary all the time, especially after Covid. So, I just figured this would be a great opportunity. So far, the program has been a little challenging … I'm so used to not doing anything."

Jang, a 32-year-old nurse, said she was excited to see how far she could push herself. For a time after college, she said, she would run or walk on a treadmill for a few miles, but that had gone by the wayside.

"I consider myself a beginner," she said.

After a discussion about individual goals, the first day of the eight-week program developed by Wilkinson had Washington and Jang (the third woman withdrew just before the program began) doing a 5-minute walk, 5-minute brisk walk, 5-minute walk. As the program neared its end, in Week 7, the outline called for 20-25 minutes of jogging.

Along the way, as the women went a little farther and a little faster, they also worked on strength and conditioning. Wilkinson helped them learn stretching techniques, refined their running mechanics and provided information on sleep management, nutrition and hydration. She conducted several Zoom sessions - including a Week 3 Valentine's Day Total Body Workout - and did a weekly check-in with each of the women separately. They all met at Cheney Stadium, site of Saturday's event, on Wednesday night for their last in-person workout.

In between, life happened. It was sometimes a challenge to juggle training and work schedules. Washington got the flu midway through the program, and then spent much of Week 7 driving to and from her native Mississippi for a pair of family funerals. Early this month, Jang's car was totaled after being hit on the driver's side; luckily, she escaped without major injury.

Along the way, Wilkinson reminded them that they're human, that it was OK if they missed a few days, that everyone battled lack of motivation sometimes, that every training cycle had its ups and downs.

And that it's supposed to be fun. "I wanted to encourage them that no matter what the circumstances are, to make the best of every situation and to have joy while you're doing it," said Wilkinson. "A couple of times, we talked about finding your motivation. I'm a big believer that if you have fun and love what you do, then the rest will take care of itself."

"As an athlete, I've had a lot of experience dealing with injuries and setbacks but learning from that," she added. "I was able to give back some of what I've learned."

Both women were able to roll with the punches. Although Jang acknowledges that she may have to "dial it down" because of some lingering soreness, she said that before the accident she did 3 miles on a trail in about 40 minutes, with only a little walking.

"I never considered myself an athletic person by any means, but despite saying that, the running felt fluid to me in a way," she said. "I thought I would struggle a lot more than I have. And I've had someone who makes me accountable. It's been wonderful. This was the push I needed."

Washington, meanwhile, has been spending up to 45 minutes at a time on the treadmill. "The fact that I'm able to stay on for more than 10 minutes," she said, "means I've exceeded my goals."

But just putting on her racing shoes this Saturday will be the real triumph.

"It's been a personal goal of mine to start a program and finish it," Washington said. "Like last week; in the past, I've looked for any reason that 'now is not a good time; this is a sign for me to quit.' Instead, I feel a positive force to keep going. I feel proud of myself for that."

Both women say that Saturday's finish line will also signal a new start: Washington said she always wanted to be a runner and plans to continue; Jang is already looking into future races.

And what will "Coach" Wilkinson be doing on Saturday?

"Cheering them on at the finish line," she said. "I have a lot of fun helping others to be fit and healthy."

There's still time to register for the Northside Hospital Atlanta Women's 5K. Learn more here. Also, Atlanta Track Club offers a series of group In-Training programs for runners of all abilities, including beginners. Visit atlantatrackclub.org and click on TRAIN for more information.