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5K gave me more than sore legs
Ashley Bates, right, and her running coach Kelli Pirkle. Bates ran her first 5K to get in shape physically as well as spiritually. - photo by For The Times

Sitting on the sun-drenched beaches of St. George Island, Fla., in July, I was looking out over the ocean and told my sister that I really hope First Baptist offers their running program in the fall because I was going to join.

She laughed a little but I was set on making a huge change in my life physically after having a baby seven months before.

The nine-week running program called Couch Potato-to-5K began with short run intervals and by the end, I ran the Run for Your Life 5K sponsored by First Baptist Church on Oct. 16.

I finished the 3.1-mile race in 44 minutes, which is extremely slow, but hey, I did it and that's what matters. I did think a few times I would die or pass out during the race, but the body is an amazing machine and my legs did keep moving - I did keep breathing.

On this physical journey I knew I would lose a few pounds and gain a little confidence, I just didn't realize that the experience would give me so much more.

When I interviewed my running coach a few weeks ago for a story in The Times on how churches are ministering through fitness programs, Liz Coates Isandoro said that our minds, bodies and spirits are connected, which means they all need a little exercise from time to time to work together. She is so right.

"I think that first of all, we gain not only confidence in ourselves, but also stress relief and all those things that we need emotionally ... I think there is a very spiritual connection there," said Isandoro, manager of the Family Life Center, in an earlier interview.

Isandoro and Kelli Pirkle for the second year have organized and coached the Couch Potato-to-5K program that has helped about 60 people run their first 5K and live to tell the story, and of course, a healthier lifestyle.

Through the program, the group of about 25 runners, which met three days a week, became bonded by running and encouraging each other to push our bodies physically, all while running in a Christian setting at the Family Life Center.

Each run began with a prayer, and boy did I need it, and finished with stretching.

Lucky for me I was able to begin before the first day of training with a friend. Myself and my new running partner, Brittany Goss, decided we were going to get a jump on the training. Our first day we stretched out on the Riverside Military Academy track and began to run, which was the first mistake in 97-degree heat.

Quickly I wanted to quit and was seeing black spots, but Brittany said to keep on going; I listened and ran in agony.

That day I remember asking her "if we would ever be able to run a mile?" She answered, "Of course we will."

I wasn't a believer but I was going to give it a shot.

Each running interval led me closer to the 5K. I guess the first run that had no walking was the most difficult. It was a 25-minute run in week seven, but we all completed it and showed up the next day, an accomplishment in itself.

I am so thankful that I was able to run and learn from the great coaches at First Baptist, strengthen and make new friendships and most of all connect spiritually to a goal.

I never thought I would say this, but next up for me is a 5K in November at Lake Lanier Islands, and some fun while training with my husband Shannon, who now is on the road to completing the Couch Potato-to-5K program as well.

Ashley Bates is a freelance writer and occasional columnist for The Times.