Mari Balow wants you to make friends while you work out. For over a year now she’s led and organized one of the city’s only weekly grassroots workout groups, the Portland Sweat Project, while maintaining a strong supporting role in the Runaways Run Club. Both of these clubs are free and open to everyone. Runaways is focused on running (obviously) and the Portland Sweat Project is all about free weight exercises, and they’re both designed to bring together active community members, holding them accountable to their fitness goals. After all, it’s tough to bail on an early morning run when a dozen or so of your friends are expecting your presence. The Portland Sweat Project meets every Wednesday morning at 6:30 am alternating between Portland’s Back Cove and City Hall, and the Runaways Run Club switches locations between Back Cove, the Presumpscot River trail, and the Old Port every Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Check their Facebook and Instagram for updates.
Do you have a formal background in health and fitness?
It started out being personal. Most of us have the same desires of wanting to be fit and physically capable. For me that was certainly true.
That interest led me about 7 years ago to get my pilates certification and I’m also certified with TRX which is this crazy suspension training system. It was designed by the U.S. military and is a really effective way to strength train.
But you really don’t need a special system to get a good workout in.
Which is sort of the idea behind Portland Sweat Project and the Runaways Run Club right?
Yes, exactly. Body weight exercises are great because you can do them anywhere without any special equipment. It’s amazing how physically demanding it can get just working against gravity and your own body weight. You don’t need a gym to get fit.
What’s a big misconception in health and fitness?
Icing after a workout doesn’t have any benefits. It’s not good to slow down muscle inflammation, which is an important and natural process in recovery after a workout or a run.
Your fitness programs invite everybody from marathon runners to people who have never run before. Is it challenging providing that sort of accessibility?
Not really because everything is scalable. For the workouts we’re doing there is running involved but usually for the Portland Sweat Project we’re in a fairly contained environment.
So we run the Eastern Prom hills for instance, where you can do one hill, or you can do 50. Whatever you’re able to do.
All of the exercises — push ups, dips, squats, burpees, are scalable too.
We never leave somebody behind on a run. No matter how slow somebody is, I’m sweeping back to make sure we’re picking up anybody lagging behind. We’re always giving folks guidance if they look like they need it.
The goal is that almost anybody can come and work out with us. Our members span the age and ability range. We want to bring people together and push them to work hard, but we also want to make sure everyone is comfortable.
How many people join you on these runs?
About 25 people usually show up for the Tuesday trail runs. It does vary depending on the weather, but we’re still always out here regardless of rain, sun, or snow. But our Wednesday Pub Runs are our biggest nights, probably because of the social component, with about 40 people showing up to run in between pubs in the Old Port.
What is special to you about the community aspect of working out this way?
Fundamentally we’re social creatures. It’s nice to be doing something like this with others and having someone to high five and encourage you to keep going. One of our taglines is “Accountabili-buddy.” You know people are going to be there looking for you and asking about you if you don’t show up. Not in a mean way, just a casual, “hey, where were ya?” It’s usually enough to motivate people.
We’re also always trying to find way to connect with people or volunteer.
Just last month we did a "PLOG", which is basically running while picking up litter. We partnered up with the City of Portland which had a truck following up picking up all the trash we collected, and Rising Tide provided a place for us to gather afterwards and some things to give away as prizes. It was a lot of fun.
It’s awesome to realize, this idea of doing something that’s bigger than yourself. People say that all the time about whatever, but with this run club, it really does make a difference for people, because you can literally see their progress.
Do you assume a leadership role on these runs?
I’m not the fastest runner so I’m mid pack, but I always swing back to make sure nobody's too far behind and I’m keeping an eye out for safety reasons. It’s their workout, not mine, and I don’t need to worry about running the fastest because I’m not training at the moment. My job is to inspire.
Please come play with us. It’s fun. It’s not intimidating — or rather it shouldn't be. People might feel that way when they get here, but the goal is to be supportive no matter what. And fitness classes can get expensive but our meet-ups will always be free for everyone.
This article has been edited to reflect the name of one of the groups — it's Runaways Run Club, not Portland Run Club.
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