When James Sardea of Urban Fitness Guam started his Go The Distance Challenge in July, it was to full the void left in island sports by COVID-19 and the subsequent shutdown.
With 400 athletes, Sardea admitted he was surprised by the turnout and pleased by the variety of athletes that joined the monthlong journey, which allows athletes to compete in a bike (300 miles), swim (30 miles) or run (100 miles) portion. Some athletes choose to do all three - a journey of 430 miles - allowing them to be recognized as a Michelin Ultra athlete on the GTD leaderboards.
Sardea, a competitive ultra athlete, knew he could pull in competitive athletes, but found himself surprised by the number of novices who signed up despite the intimidating numbers in each challenge.
Amazingly, he said, the athletes posting big gains weren’t the names normally seen dominating the local sports scene.
“Some finished the challenge in less than a week … I think people were surprised,” Sardea said. “The names are different from the usual. … It brought out the athlete within them.”
One such athlete was Lauren Mechelle Taitano Agar.
“Lauren is very new in being a competitive athlete. She surprised me with her determination even before the GTD started,” said Sardea, adding Agar was completing distances normally done by endurance athletes. “She became an inspiration for other runners, especially she looks fresh even after so many miles in each activity she finished.”
A mother of three, Agar admits running was never her thing. Yet, in July, she logged in 485.90 miles. Her 5K time dropped from 53 minutes a year ago to a personal record of 26:53 just recently. Her mile time dropped to 7:40. She completed her first 25-miler. A 10-miler is something she does on the daily and for every single day in July, she made sure she hit the pavement – some days, she hit the roads twice for a run.
“I love running, because it does not require anything or anyone,” she said. “Day or night, sunshine or rain, on pavement, sidewalks, or a trail, running is pure freedom.”
The running community, from spectators to competitors, is very supportive regardless of distance or pace, she said, especially to novice runners.
“Even though we may not know a runner passing by us, we share a greeting of hello or show a simple peace sign to the other runner. Some, like myself give others encouragement and say, 'Good job! Way to go!,’” she said.
“I love how when you say a simple phrase like that, you can really see that at that moment some people really needed to hear that to keep them going.”
Her daughters pulled her in, but the community kept her going.
"I started running because of my girls," she said. "As a mom of three, there is no off time. Running has allowed me to bond with my girls in a way that makes me feel young again."
If you had asked Agar to join you for a run in May 2019, you may have gotten a different answer, she said.
“I was never athletic in high school nor was I a runner,” she said.
However, her daughters, Jaychelle and Rhylaieh – both of whom competed for Agueda Johnston Middle School in cross country – discovered they liked running. A loss by Rhylaieh at the all-island meet proved devastating, but it provided Agar the impetus to go and start joining 5Ks so her daughters could enjoy the sport they loved.
Pushing a toddler, Agar found she enjoyed the weekend races – 5Ks for her daughters and 2Ks for her. Knowing her daughters’ passion for the sport, Agar said she took it upon herself to provide a training venue for her children and, more importantly, lead by example.
"Some Saturdays, the girls would fight me to wake up early and run. But I knew that I had to take running seriously, if I wanted them to be successful runners,” Agar said. “So even though I was slow and too tired to go, I had to show them that I was determined.”
When COVID-19 shut down island sports, Agar found herself out of sorts, trying to find a venue to continue her newfound passion.
A chance encounter with a virtual challenge allowed her to get back into the grind, which her daughters happily joined her.
“This challenge had gotten off to amazing start,” she said. It had inspired, encouraged and motivated local families, couples, and individuals to maintain or increase good health and physical activity despite social distancing.”
Soon, she found a group of local runners – Belen Sidell, Janice Millare, and Heath Gogue – who pulled her into the fold.
“We would run four times a week. Belen was our coach,” she said. “If it weren’t for Belen, I wouldn’t be the runner I am today. … This May, I broke three personal records in one week. I was overjoyed that I just kept making more running goals for myself.”
Then, GTD came up and joining it seemed like a fun thing to do to keep the COVID-19 blues at bay and stay healthy.
But, Agar said she knew she wouldn’t win the fastest times, so she set a different goal for herself.
“I thought to myself that I may not be the fastest runner, but if I can have a medal for the most miles then that would mean so much more to me, because I have to work twice as hard to run the same amount of miles as a seasoned runner,” she said. “If I want something, I am very disciplined and will go the distance and beyond to achieve my goal.”
Seeing her name on the leaderboard week after week was something of a shock, Agar said.
“But I was really trying. My husband, my girls and my friends all see (it),” she said. “Every chance I get I would run just to add miles to this challenge. I started bringing my running gear with me wherever I go, in case there was an opportunity to run.”
Seeing seasoned runners follow her was another shock, Agar said.
“I’m a nobody in the running community. I am not fast, but I am determined,” she said.
Documenting her runs throughout the challenge allowed her track her growth, she said. While doing this, she started receiving messages asking about her regimen, her routes and places to help kids.
“Seeing my name on the leaderboard, meant to me that my strategy is working and I must be doing something right,” she said.
Now, Agar is a strong advocate for running, regardless of pace, skill or fitness level.
But, it takes time, she said. Don’t be afraid to try it out.
“Not every one is a natural, fast runner. So be patient with your self. Learn to be disciplined about your routine and don’t use the weather, other obligations, and being tired as an excuse,” she said. “Even if you’re tired, do it tired. If it’s raining, go in the rain. You’re going to get sweaty and wet anyways.
“Everyone runs a race at a different pace,” she said. “Regardless of our journey that has brought us into running, we all have one common goal together, and that is to cross that finish line.”
For now, Agar is locked in on her next goal.
“When I first started running, the only goal I had for myself was to be able to run side by side with my two older girls,” she said. “I am still not as fast as them, but I am almost there and that’s okay.”
Her other goal is to run a 5K under 26 minutes and hit an 11-minute pace for 5-milers and up.
“Each time I hit a goal, my next goal is to go lower,” she said.
But, regardless of goals, Agar is happy to set an example for her children.
“With practice, you get better. My girls see that. I could barely run a 2k without stopping to walk,” she said. “My girls see that I am getting stronger, faster, and they know from watching mom, that you can start your fitness journey at any age and stage in life.
Just try it out, she said, hoping everyone gets bit by a bug as healthy as running.
“You don’t have to be the best in something to start it. You just have to try,” she said, “Right when you want to give up, that‘s when you know you need to try even harder. Success feels best when it is earned and not given.”