A Long Run With No Finish Line

Founded in 1974 by John F. Scimone, the Lakeland Runners Club is one of the oldest volunteer-based running clubs in the United States. This month, the staff, volunteers and members are celebrating the 50th anniversary of bringing people together through running. 

It is one of the only runner’s clubs that has lasted this long, but it wasn’t always as active as it is today.

Seventy-eight-year-old Will Strouse is the oldest and longest-tenured member, and he has seen a bevy of changes to the club since he joined in 1984.

“It was designed to be focused on runners and running and the running community,” Strouse said. “But over the last 40 years…from my perspective, the runners club is no longer for the running community, it’s part of the community.” 

Strouse remembers when the club was male-dominated and geared toward faster, more experienced runners, but that isn’t the case today. 

In no other sport can a 78-year-old run with a 6-year-old and feel comfortable. Both parties feel comfortable. I don’t know of any other sport that has that.” – Will Strouse

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Now, the club has fostered a culture of acceptance and inclusion where everyone embraces runners of all experience levels. New runners gradually traverse farther distances and as the club grows it is continuing to make a more positive impact in people’s lives.

The club currently has almost 600 members, and in 2022, 766 people participated in weekly training groups. It wasn’t overnight booming growth. It was a steady process built on the club’s strong foundation.

Runners say being part of this club has pushed them to new heights and made them run distances they never thought they could when they first started. 

Lakeland Runners Club President Michelle Hoffert calls herself a “born-again runner” since she started racing again in 2013 as a way to feel strong and autonomous. Running for her is a great activity that allows her to set goals and work toward progress. 

“As stubborn people, runners, we’re probably not very good at saying ‘no’ when we get asked to do things, especially when it’s for the community that’s helped us grow,” Hoffert said. “I hear consistently across members, and across board members, that the club gave something to them, and they wanted to give that back.”

The Lakeland Runners Club always has a place for volunteers who want to help the club grow. They’re always looking for ways to innovate and expand their presence while including the community­—all people have to do is volunteer for their events. 

“There are things like writing a newsletter monthly,” Hoffert said. “Everybody is busy with work and family. It takes a lot of hands, so if anyone has a particular gift, we have a place for them to help.” 

The club’s philosophy is that everyone of all ages and walks of life should be able to participate in the same race.

“In no other sport can a 78-year-old run with a 6-year-old and feel comfortable. Both parties feel comfortable. I don’t know of any other sport that has that,” Strouse said.

Check out this year’s Lakeland Runners Club race schedule here

Club Treasurer Sarah Kozul started running in 2010 as part of a resolution for her 40th birthday. Running was one of the few things she found continually challenging, and could also meet great people along the way. 

“I think there’s a long history of giving back in running in general. Running raises the most money for charity of any sport in the world,” Colville said. “It’s just a great way of bringing the community together and have a lot of people thinking about a specific or group of causes.”

The Lakeland Runners Club hosts a slew of races annually, and each race helps support a local cause.

Last year, there were 3,163 total registrations for the club’s races, including the Summer Sunrise Watermelon Series, which has raised $107,500 in scholarships since 2011 to support community organizations.

As the club grows, there are new developments, including a Saturday group run that’ll start on Jan. 28 at Black and Brew at the Lakeland Public Library.

Anyone interested in participating in upcoming races should mark their calendars for this March for a brand new race that the executive board has in store, but has to divulge details on.