“You’ll probably hear us before you see us,” Erin Clark, a member of the Raleigh Distance Project, had warned in an email the night before.
She wasn’t lying.
It’s 7:11 a.m. on a quiet Saturday morning in January at Lake Johnson in Raleigh, North Carolina, and the previously still parking lot is now buzzing with noise, as eight women from Raleigh Distance Project pile out of cars just as the sun is coming up. They all have travel mugs in hand, but from the sound of it, these aren’t the type of women who need coffee to get their mornings started.
Dropping their bags near the dock, the women start their usual pre-workout routine. It feels casual and unscripted. Some braid (and rebraid) their hair, while others adjust their layers for this unseasonably warm morning; one uses a Roll Recovery R8 contraption while another turns on a Theragun, while a few more do some lunges and dynamic stretches up and down the dock. The specifics feel like background noise; the real focus is on each other, laughing and chatting about a fast-changing number of topics.
By 8 a.m., they take off around the lake for an easy 25-minute jog. It must be a popular spot for locals (or maybe these ladies just know everyone) because they wave and say hi to at least 10 other women during the start of their warmup run alone. There is not a woman in this bunch who is not excited to be here and the energy is palpable.
Finding a path as a competitive post-collegiate runner can be challenging. Finding a path that involves being paid to do the thing you love? That can often seem close to impossible.
Which means traditionally, many sub-elite runners with big dreams have to make a choice: Turn running into a very-competitive hobby or find a way to train like a pro, without the financial backing.
The Raleigh Distance Project formed in September 2017 by six women who felt they were within striking distance of their potential—they just needed a clearer path to reach it. They needed a third option.
“There are tons of run clubs and a great community feel in Raleigh, but there isn’t really anything for people who are out of college and not fast enough or haven’t done enough yet to get a big sponsorship or sign with a shoe company,” says Clark, one of the team’s cofounders. “That was what we wanted to provide for people.”
They set a clear mission—help aspiring elite distance runners reach their goals, while creating enthusiasm for the sport and increasing the strength of the running community in Raleigh—and leaned on the strengths of all of the cofounders to get off the ground. Attorney Rita Beard, for example, wrote the bylaws and articles of incorporation and got Raleigh Distance Project their nonprofit status; Andie Cozzarelli, a 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials qualifier who had been working to make it as a pro runner for about five years, knew how to secure sponsorships.
They worked to find companies that bought into their mission and supported them with resources. “A lot of times it wasn’t cash, but it was a free PT session or gait analysis or nut butter,” Clark says. “Things that make training easier but aren’t 100 percent necessary, but it allowed us to get a good quality athlete with the resources we had.”
Clark points to 2017 North Carolina State graduate Sammy George, one of the team’s original members, as a perfect example. “She wanted to keep running after college, but she didn’t have any prospects from big shoe companies,” Clark says. “We were like, ‘Come join our team. We have physical therapy, we have an ortho, we have a sports psychologist, we have a nutritionist.’ We wanted to centralize those resources and support and then allow people to progress from there.”
Clark estimates the team spent about $12,000 during their first year on incorporation, screen-printing shirts and jerseys, and creating a website. A local company that originally promised $15,000 of seed money only wound up giving them $5,000. (“That was good business knowledge to gain,” Clark says.) They did what they could with what they had, initially giving each of the six athletes a small annual stipend to help cover the costs associated with racing.
To help secure financial backing, the team wrote a five- and 10-year business plan, which included a developmental program. “We had so many applications to be on our elite team and we were like, we can’t let these people go,” Clark says. The four-person Threshold roster—in addition to their Elite team—completes their 10-person squad.
By May 2018, RDP had secured their first high-level, national sponsorship, signing a deal with Oiselle, which provides the team with apparel. It was an easy buy-in for the group. “When we started the team we knew that we stand for the same values that they do and that we’re on the same team,” Clark says. But they still needed true financial support.
“That’s why Salomon is huge, because we can actually support athletes,” Clark says about their just-announced deal with the footwear company. “The people who might not have throw-away money to go to a good massage therapist—stuff that you don’t think is important until you’re running 90-plus miles a week and trying to qualify for Olympic Trials.”
Today, the team—which ranges in age (from 22 to 30 years old) and profession (from grad students to real estate appraiser)—has an annual operating budget of about $40,000. A large portion of that covers race registrations and travel expense reimbursements for the entire team, with the Elite squad having access to a greater amount of money. Members of the Elite roster also receive a monthly stipend to cover training expenses, including food, supplements, and any other services from their PT, strength coach, nutritionist, and sports psychologist providers. Threshold team members receive in-kind perks and discounts from the team’s various sponsors, in addition to what might be the biggest advantage: being brought into the fold of the team’s training schedule, where they have the opportunity to push their potential alongside their Elite teammates.
Nikki Long—a 29-year-old PhD student studying forensic anthropology, and the newest member of the Elite team—has felt the immediate impact. “Even just last semester, I couldn’t drive to all the practices because I can’t afford to get there. So I would bum a ride with a lot of the girls. Which was fine, but I definitely felt like a burden. Or not being able to go to PT every week because I can only afford to go once a month. Just little things like that.”
On a quiet, wood chip trail just across the street from Lake Johnson, the team circles up around Stephen Furst. “I know there’s a lot going on,” he says quietly in the huddle. “For the next 40 minutes, be here.”
Furst has been working with a number of the Raleigh Distance Project athletes for more than two years. “But I’m definitely not the RDP coach,” he says. The former North Carolina State track and cross country runner and 2008 All-American (5,000 meters) runs an engineering startup called Smart Material Solutions, Inc. and allocates a few in-person hours (plus plenty of extra mental time and energy) to work with RDP each week.
Because the Raleigh Distance Project is an athlete-run team, there’s no requirement to work with a specific coach, or stick to the same race schedules or distances. Their goals range from qualifying for the 2020 U.S. Olympic Trials (in marathon and track), qualifying for U.S. Championships, and running the major marathons—each free to devise the best plan for them as individuals.
“I would say the most important thing that I do is get several of them working out together at the same time, same day, same location,” Furst says. “Everyone has their own training cycle, but we’ve standardized working out Wednesday and Saturday. Even if it’s just to warm up together, it’s already useful.”
Today’s a great example of the mix, Furst says. A few of teammates take off together for their own planned workouts, while Furst talks to the five women he’s training. With two women racing Houston Marathon in seven days and another racing a mile the same weekend, it’s going to be a light day—4K tempo, 2 x 1K faster, 4K tempo, two minutes rest in between sets.
After some drills, a few last-minute laughs, and clicks of watch buttons, the women line up and take off down the 1K path. (“It’s a little short, like 30 meters, I like to remind them of that,” Furst says, laughing). George, the focused middle-distance runner on the team leads the way, hitting 3:36 per kilometer in her first set, 3:03 and 3:07 per kilometer in her second set.
It’s her last key session before racing the mile at Clemson Invitational, and her teammates can’t help but gush about how she’s running better than ever before. George, however, is quick to tell me it’s a byproduct of what this team has created. “A lot of teams look for people who are stars right after college. I think that’s why people stop—because they don’t have those resources, those programs, that transition people into the next level,” she says after the workout. “Raleigh Distance Project saw my potential, they believed in me. My first race back in 2018 was slower than the tempo run I just did. It’s crazy what a couple of years of consistency can do, of just sticking through those hard times.”
Meanwhile, halfway through the 2 x 1K set, Threshold member Triskett whispers to Beard that she’s dying.
“That’s great, we’re all dying,” Beard quickly replies.
Triskett quietly persists. She doesn’t think she can finish the set.
“Focus on getting me to Houston,” Beard says, in an attempt to redirect Triskett’s attention to help get her through the toughest set of the day.
“You’re already in Houston,” Triskett replies.
“Oh, look at this sassiness coming out!” Beard says, laughing.
It’s one of many brief and subtle exchanges between teammates that illustrate what Raleigh Distance Project is all about: A group of passionate, determined women who not only see the potential in themselves, but in others; who are dedicated to leveling up in every aspect of their lives, and committed to holding each other to the same standard; who take themselves and their goals seriously, but never at the expense of their joy for the sport and each other.
“Over the past two to three years, this group has really evolved from a collection of runner friends to a team with a core mission and vision that can persist independent of any one individual,” Furst says. “They are heavily invested in healthy sport—mental and physical—along with mindfulness, transparency, and community. From my perspective, it seems they are just ahead of a rising tide in women’s sport.”
The women of RDP are quick to tell you that they’re not the fastest team around. It doesn’t come off as self deprecation or false modesty; more an awareness of the traditional model of sponsorship in the sport of running, which has typically awarded dollars based pretty exclusively on performance.
“We had some friends say, ‘No, this is not going to work. You’re not fast enough. There isn’t enough support in Raleigh for that,’” Clark says.
But the model has started to shift. In May 2019, Salomon promoted a #WMN campaign, asking consumers to help break down stereotypes of women in the outdoors. The historically male-dominated space of trails and mountains was long overdue to more prominantly include women—and now Salomon is doing the same for road running.
“To sign our first-ever road running athletes and have it be an all-women’s team feels pretty damn good, and about time,” says Erin Cooper, run marketing manager of Salomon North America. “We hope that our sponsorship will first and foremost provide the team with more freedom for focused training. We also hope as a brand we can help bring their stories to the masses to inspire other women in the sport.”
And those stories aren’t just about top performances. “We were really drawn to this community and culture the women have created in Raleigh,” Cooper says. “It starts with community, and we really love how inclusive they are. They saw a need for an elite training group and formed it. But they also expanded out to provide their training expertise to community runners. It’s about their attitude and spirit, and their desire to progress the sport for all women.”
That specific type of support has not gone unnoticed by the women of Raleigh Distance Project. “Not all that long ago, sponsorship, bonuses, all of that was dependent upon a time that you hit. And if you hit a fast time the year before, you had this expectation to run even faster than that the next year,” Cozzarelli says. “I feel really lucky to have sponsors that aren’t pressuring anything. They care more about us as humans. I like that because I’m putting enough on myself. If I was in a situation where they were putting pressure on me, that added pressure would just destroy me. It just wouldn’t work.”
Cozzarelli isn’t the only athlete who knows when you remove excess pressure, whether internal or external, success is more likely to follow. Especially when you combine it with a supportive environment. So far three RDP members—Eberhard, Kimberly Maloney, and Threshold member Kate Sanborn—have qualified for Olympic Trials in the marathon, with more hoping to to have a shot at U.S. Olympic Track & Field Trials in June.
Eberhard, for example, came onto the Elite team right before the 2019 Chicago Marathon. She dropped six minutes off her personal best to finish in 2:43, earning the Olympic Trials “B” standard.
“Joining the team and having the sponsorship, having the support, it gave me that extra boost of confidence,” Eberhard says. “Physically, I was ready. I knew I could do it. But when you’re in that moment at mile 20 or 22 and life sucks and you can either start walking or you can finish it, that’s the moment where I was like, okay, other people believe in me. I believe in myself. I can do this.”
After a quick stop for coffee and sweet biscuits at Raleigh’s popular Jubala, the women regroup at Run Raleigh PT, a small physical therapy studio and training gym that has sponsored the team since 2017.
Once a week, they have a scheduled weight session here with a strength coach, focusing on heavier lifts like barbell squats and hex-bar deadlifts. Today, they’ve got the place to themselves.
Social House’s “Magic in the Hamptons,” Drake’s “What a Time to be Alive,” and a whole lot of Lizzo blasts in the background as George takes command of the circuit, leading the rest of the team through a series of running-specific functional strength moves, mobility, and core work.
Not a single one has checked their phone or seems in a rush to leave. This is simply part of their Saturday ritual: doing the work to get better, together—and clearly enjoying every minute of it.
“At the end of the day, running is about persistence, just doing what you’ve got to do every day and being consistent,” Eberhard says. “When you have a team and people to do that with, it makes it so much more enjoyable. It’s changed my attitude and mindset completely. I feel like I’m part of something bigger again.”
After lifting, they’ll head over to Transfer Food Hall together for lunch. And on Sunday, they’ll meet bright and early at American Tobacco Trail for their long run, a weekly staple that is open to members of the community. They’ll have coffee in hand, energy in spades, and an excitement for the miles that will bring them one step closer to their goals.
“Today was a rigid day—you need to hit these paces, you have a race coming up,” says Maloney. “Tomorrow, we’ll all be ten minutes late. We’re going to stop a few times to tie shoes or use the bathroom. Everybody will be going the same pace. And it’s fine, because we’ll all be happier than if we went by ourselves.”