Early on a Sunday morning, the air in Ventnor is crisp and the bright sun rises slowly just over the Atlantic Ocean. Several people donning neon colored tank tops make their way onto the Boardwalk at 6:45 a.m.
They’re a particularly talkative bunch for this early in the morning, and they catch up with each other while they stretch and tighten the laces on their shoes.
On Oct. 18, many members of NJ Shore Run will compete at the Atlantic City Marathon. Instead of training by themselves, a group of between five and 20 people meets every weekend to run boardwalks, park trails and coastal routes. Group running is their style, and they say it’s better than running alone.
“It started out with just four of us,” Harry Bilicki, of Mays Landing, said. “People found out and asked if they could join. Little by little and through word of mouth, the group has grown steadily over the last four years.”
On a recent weekend, a group of five ran from one end of the Boardwalk in Ventnor, through Margate and Atlantic City, over the bridge to Brigantine and up to the northern tip of the island before heading back. They ran for a total of 20 miles, just six shy of a marathon distance. And that was just practice.
“Pain loves company,” Carolyn VanDenbussche, of Egg Harbor Township, said as she got ready alongside her husband, Jeff.
Bilicki is an unofficial leader of the group, the “coach.” He started running competitively in high school, continued throughout college and has completed marathons all over the country. He’s been running for 43 years now and also helps coach track and field with his daughter at Hammonton High School.
“He’s Harry now, at breakfast, but during our strength workouts in the middle of the week, when he’s pushing us and we’re all exhausted, he’s coach,” Marlo Adams said, laughing.
If you're a big runner like me you know what I'm talking about when I describe that euphoric…
Adams, of Egg Harbor Township, is co-founder of the running team. She helped start the running club with Bilicki back in 2011. Group members Adam DiBartolo and Tim Smith were also among the original members.
There used to be more running groups cutting their way through crowds on the boards, but nowadays, solo runners outnumber the packs. The solo runners are distinguished by the ear buds attached to a media player or phone strapped to a hip or arm, something that doesn’t fly with NJ Shore Run.
“It’s taboo to wear a headset. You rarely see it in a running group,” Bilicki said. “It’s nice to have company while you’re running. It makes the time go quicker, we help each other with picking up pace, and it’s a better workout.”
Runners of NJ Shore Run vary in age, professions and athletic experience. They come from different areas and backgrounds, which means differences of opinion over things like social issues and politics.
What better time to discuss the current political atmosphere than when you’re pushing yourself over miles of Boardwalks? DiBartolo, of Margate, said he and his running partners will discuss and talk about people running for government, popular social issues and current events. Breathing might become the main focus at mile 15.
Some members of the group will argue that the best part about running together isn’t actually the running itself. It’s the feasting after, or as Bilicki said, “Picking the breakfast place is almost just as fun as picking the course.”
The Sunday morning group returned to one end of the Boardwalk in Ventnor, quickly changed and made their way over to Hannah G’s, a popular breakfast spot for many early risers in the area.
Call it gimmicky. Call it themed. Call it fun.
Adams said the owners and staff have gotten so familiar with their visits that they tend to stick the large party of people in the back, where the other customers can’t smell the evidence of their workout as much.
The runners look over the chalkboard menu on the wall, but it’s just a formality at this point. Some members’ spouses join them for breakfast after running or biking different distances alongside the group. DiBartolo’s partner, Pam Tracey, got in a quick workout that morning and wasn’t going to pass up breakfast.
They aren’t just members of the same running club — they’ve become a kind of family. Over breakfast, Tracey and Lisa Donato, of Absecon, talk about which hospitals in the area have the best neonatal services. Adams jokes with Richie Kopala, of Absecon, about how the group sucked him in from his solo running days.
“Many of us meet socially for birthdays, dinners, and happy hours where significant others can participate and feel part of our group,” Bilicki said. “Our running group has spawned so many new friendships.”