According to a recent New York Times article, an hour of running might add seven hours to your life; if this is true, then members of the Northern Central Railroad (NCR) Trail Snails may have found that proverbial fountain of youth.
The group of runners, whose motto is "we're behind you all the way," started as friends who wanted to informally train for marathons. Rich Desser, 59, an attorney in Reisterstown, said the group is more of a social running club, and it differentiates itself from other running clubs, which can be more competitive.
Desser has been with the group for about 15 years and didn't start competing in races until college. When he incurred a bike injury while training for a triathlon, he stopped running in races. He said he now runs 10 miles on practice days to keep fit.
"I'm happy with that," Desser said. "My goal is the fitness and the camaraderie."
Out of a roster of about 100 runners, a core of 15 to 20 Snails shows up every Saturday morning, alternating practice runs between the NCR Trail and Loch Raven Reservoir. They choose the reservoir because it is hilly, which helps when people run the Baltimore Marathon, a hilly race.
Most runs range between 4 and 20 miles, and the average pace is an eight- to 12-minute mile. Afterward, everyone looks forward to a group breakfast as a reward.
Sometimes the group will schedule more rugged trail runs for those who want a little extra workout. But don't let the name fool you, the people in this group are no slouches when it comes to races — most have competed in traditional marathons and ultramarathons throughout the years, and have racked up thousands of miles among them.
Steve Mandell, 73, of Stevenson, one of the co-founders of the NCR Trail Snails, said the group is diverse in both age and careers, with "most folks in their 40s, 50s and 60s."
"I'm known as the oldest living snail," he said. "We have dentists, counselors, warehouse workers; we just care about supporting each other."
Mandell figures he's totaled more than 10,000 miles, and his impressive running résumé includes the Boston Marathon, one of the 27 marathons he's run. Once you run a marathon, the next step is to consider the bigger and longer races, he noted.
"You think to yourself, I can run 50 miles, I can run 100 miles," he said, laughing.
Mandell credits his love of running as the reason he survived a heart attack in 2012. His arteries were bad but his heart was strong, he said. After his attack, he was back running a half marathon within a year.
"I went slowly," he said. "The doctors said I would have died had I not been a runner."
Mandell said the group believes it doesn't matter if you run, or walk and run, as long as you finish — then it's considered a victory.
Justina Starobin, 56, of Pikesville, had been with the group since 2000 when she decided she wanted to compete in her first marathon. The Trail Snails group was recommended because she was a novice, and she said she wasn't a fast runner (about 60 percent are women). After her first marathon, she was bitten by the running bug, and so far she has taking part in more than 50 marathons.
Since 2005, she has been realizing her goal of running marathons in all 50 states. Currently, she has 10 states to go. Some are known as series races in which marathons are run back to back. One of her competitions, called the Center of Nations, was a six-state race that was run in six consecutive days.
"I don't like to run the same marathon twice," Starobin said. "And I'm a curious person; on those long runs you can talk to people. I love stories, and I get a good story out of it."
She also tells of how exhaustion on long races can cause hallucinations. "It happens to a lot of people. One time I saw an imaginary ostrich," she said with a laugh.
The group also volunteers its time helping with other races. Members man water stations and do anything else that is needed for the racers. They also participate in the NCR Adopt-A-Mile trail cleanup, and have taken on the care of mile 7-8, which is known as the Monkton section of the trail.
Other original founding members of the group are Owings Mills residents Mary Good, 65, and her husband, Harry, 67, who is the unofficial coach. Mary is affectionately called "Mama Snail." Mary Good has run 25 marathons and said she and her husband started the group in the winter of 1997 when they were training for the Marine Corps Marathon.
Mary now only walks and supports the other runners by crewing for them at races. "We get together and have parties," she said. "We're like a big family."
Mary Good recalls that an original group of runners, including co-founders Jordan and Harvey Feldman, was on a Saturday run on the NCR Trail in the spring of 1998 when someone said "NCR Trail Snails ... behind you all the way." And that's how the group got its name. "I remember it like it was just yesterday," she said.
About once or twice a year, Starobin and Harry Good organize a run called the hush-hush race. It's a last-minute affair that is usually longer than a traditional marathon. It all started when they wanted to train for a 100-mile race and had to run overnight on the NCR Trail, which is not permitted. Now they run the races, which have become a tradition, during the day.
Although the health benefits of running outweigh the disadvantages, the Goods had their own scary experience when Harry graduated into running ultramarathons about 20 years ago. His first time in the JFK 50-mile race almost killed him. He wound up in intensive care for two nights and three days due to hyponatremia, which is a low sodium level in the blood caused by only drinking water and not replacing lost electrolytes. Mary said he also had been on his feet too long because he was checking on the other racers.
"They didn't think he was going to make it," she said of the doctors.
It took Harry almost two years to compete again, and Mary said they learned what they had done wrong (Gatorade replaced the water). Runners World Magazine even wrote about his experience. "At the time we didn't know any better," she said. "Now we do."
And yes, Harry still runs. "He's a happy camper when he runs," his wife said.