Nine women, 26.2 miles, one goal. All teachers — most at Talent Middle School — they have been training since May 4 to walk the Portland Marathon on Oct. 5 in less than eight hours.

"Of all exercises walking is the best."

— Thomas Jefferson



Nine women, 26.2 miles, one goal. All teachers — most at Talent Middle School — they have been training since May 4 to walk the Portland Marathon on Oct. 5 in less than eight hours.

They meet at 7 a.m. each Sunday on Barnett Road in Medford. After strapping on Camelback water bags and taping up feet and ankles, they head south on the Bear Creek Greenway. On a recent Sunday, this meant 61/2; hours on the tarmac for a 20-miler. Two other days a week they train separately, usually for a rather pedestrian eight-mile jaunt.

"I met a Portland Marathon walker in a spin class at the Medford YMCA," says group organizer Stephanie Aguirre, explaining the idea that launched this project. "Then I sent out an e-mail to the staff at Talent Middle School. We've had all summer to train."

The group that formed around Aguirre consists of Heather Ayers, Erin Dickey, Sara Enriquez, Vicki Helfrich, Danielle Pisors, Marianne Robison, Kristi Sanders and Joyce Squires. They range in age from 26 to 58, and from the frequent and raucous laughter, it's clear they enjoy their walks.

Recent studies at the Duke University Medical Center found that walking as little as 30 minutes a day reduces the risk of heart disease, diabetes and stroke, as well as preventing weight gain. The Journal of the American Medical Association found that walking reduces the risk of breast cancer for post-menopausal women. Other studies show walking reduces anxiety and depression, and reduces the risk of developing Alzheimer's.

The health benefits these women have experienced go further.

"My chocolate cravings are down and I sleep like a baby," says Helfrich. After walking, my recovery time now is phenomenal."

"My legs are stronger, and that has helped reduce my plantar fascitis and sciatic nerve pain," says Robison.

The accumulated hours of walking has made a noticeable increase in the fitness level of all nine women.

"In May, five miles was a killer. Now it's nothing — we do four times five miles in one day, "says Dickey.

The Rogue Valley nine can expect a welcoming experience in the Rose City. Of the 9,000 people who registered for the Portland Marathon last year, 2,200 were walkers. Runner's World dubbed this event the "Most Friendly Walkers' Marathon," and Prevention magazine named it the "No. 1 Walking Marathon."

"We are very proud of the fact that we have treated walkers as first-class participants," says Les Smith, the race director. "We cater to them with late-playing bands, aid stations and lots of support. And we are always ready for them at the finish line with the same treatment as someone who finished hours earlier, including their medal, shirt, rose, pin, food and beverages."

This marathon also features the highest percentage of women runners of any marathon in the world. In the 1980s, when many women started entering marathons, race directors published cutoff times and shut down the course early, stopping those who weren't finished. Not so in Portland, and the word spread quickly.

Kristi Sanders has her goal time of 6 hours, 36 minutes, and 38 seconds stenciled on her shoes. When asked the question she and her friends hear so frequently, she stops adjusting her shoelaces.

"Why are we doing this? Because we can."

For more information on the Portland Marathon go to www.portlandmarathon.org.

Daniel Newberry is a freelance writer living in the Applegate Valley. Reach him at dnewberry@jeffnet.org