The Winter Garden Runners started as a way for a handful of them to train together. It became one of the biggest families around.
Early morning on a Saturday, a group of friends take a seat at Axum Coffee in downtown Winter Garden to shoot the breeze.
They talk about their lives — wins, losses and everything in-between — as well as the upcoming races they’re planning to run.
After a several-mile run along the West Orange Trail, it’s the place where this hodgepodge family gets to sit down and break the proverbial bread. For many — including Danielle Glover, Megan Hoffman, Dana Brady and Jack Michels — it’s the highlight of their week.
“That’s like the beacon of light that everybody looks forward to at the end of their week — to sit post-run with their cup of coffee; there’s nothing like it,” Glover said. “It slaps — it doesn’t just hit different, it slaps.”
“It’s like ‘Cheers,’ when everyone meets in the morning and we’re all kind of groggy and still asleep, because it’s 6 a.m.,” Hoffman said. “At the end, people just start trickling into Axum, and it’s like ‘Cheers.’ You’re just like, ‘Oh hey! There’s Joy, there’s Kim, Dan — what did you do today?’ It’s awesome.”
This group — called the Winter Garden Runners — meets multiple times a week to partake in their shared interest of running while building a community that has led to new friendships.
When Michels — a longtime Winter Garden resident — started the running group a few years ago, it consisted of just himself and three others who simply wanted to run a race together.
After creating a Facebook page for the group, something happened that Michels never expected — a bunch of folks joined.
“Other people started showing up to train, so we thought, ‘Oh, this is kind of cool,’ so more and more people started showing up,” Michels said. “When we set out and created the group we thought, ‘You know, the one thing we want to do is make it free for everybody, and the goal is to just encourage other people — no matter where they are in their skill level — and always have people show up so that people have someone to train with.’”
Over the years, the group has fluctuated in size, but Michels said it normally has about 20 to 30 people participate on any run day. Those include 5 a.m. starts on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays, and a 6 a.m. start on Saturdays. The group also does a night run every third Thursday.
A RUNNING FAMILY
For Brady — who moved to Winter Garden six years ago — finding the group toward the end of 2019 was a blessing.
The experienced runner — who has run 24 half-marathons and a marathon — had grown so used to running on her own, but she realized she needed others to push her. She ended up discovering the group thanks in part to pure happenstance — she met Hoffman at a baby shower — and the two randomly met while working at Disney. Brady took it as a sign and decided to join.
“It’s just nice to meet more people (who) live in your community that have the same like-mindedness,” Brady said. “After one day of running … I maybe made 10 new Facebook friends out of this, and that’s only after one run.”
Both Hoffman and Brady were laid off by Disney toward the end of last year, but the group helped them get back onto their feet — just as the group had done for everyone else.
In Hoffman’s case, 2020 was filled with both personal and professional setbacks, and it was the running group that helped her attain a sense of normalcy.
“The running group is kind of — little by little — how I got more back into the world, because then I started basing stuff off of it,” Hoffman said. “I never ran with a mask, but we took it in baby steps … because we’re outside and fairly distanced, and then we would sit outside at Axum. Every Saturday, that was so much the highlight of my week, because there would be times where I wouldn’t leave my neighborhood the whole week long, because you were just staying home.”
Along with making it through the difficult times in the real world, the group has also helped inspire individuals with their running — which, can be a challenge.
Of all the things that has helped Glover — a Windermere resident — with her own running, it’s been the support of those around her who push her to be better.
“Motivation is easy when you have other people who are also motivated,” Glover said. “Because, you know, getting up and running at 5 o’clock in the morning doesn’t sound all that fun, but when you have other people holding you accountable, you’re more likely to show up. You don’t want to let your friends down.”
The growth of the group as its own community has been a welcome surprise, Michels said. People take care of one another, and watching it happen has made the experience so much better.
“A lot of these people are a part of (one another’s) lives, even outside of running, and there have been people who have moved into town who now have friends because of the group,” Michels said. “That’s one thing that really caught me off-guard — how the community developed. It’s a tight-knit group of people who really, truly encourage each other.”