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Mike Kraus leads the pack during a training session with the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine running program. Photo by Amy Danzl
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W hen Kevin Groves got back from a family vacation to Florida in 2005, he remembers looking through photos from the trip and thinking “Holy cow.”

“I wasn’t massively obese, but it was just — it hit home like, ‘OK, this is who you are,'” Groves said. “I just had been in denial for so many years. When I was younger, I was very into sports, and I always thought I would get back there, but the more time goes on…”

A family happened, complete with two kids, ages four and eight. So after seeing those photos, Groves started running.

He “ramped” it up too high, kept getting injured and finally decided he needed a coach or a training group.

That’s where Benita Willis and James Carney, who head a new running group for the Boulder Center for Sports Medicine, stepped in.

BCSM already had established cycling and triathlon training programs, but lacked a true running group. Willis and Carney’s program isn’t meant for elites or professionals, but rather for every day Boulder and Denver residents who are working to achieve a personal running goal.

Groves just completed his first marathon, in Los Angeles in March, and finished in two hours and 47 minutes.

“It’s not about how fast you are or how many years you’ve been doing it,” Groves said of the BCSM group. “They’re really into people on an individual level. They get really pumped to see the progress that’s being made.”

When Carney and Willis started the coaching program around two years ago, they decided that amateur runners in Boulder should feel like professionals, so that’s the coaching motto they live by. They wanted to give everyone — no matter how many other responsibilities or commitments they have — the attention they deserve to become better runners, Carney said.

They also have the staff and resources at BCSM behind them, including physiology tests, for more science-driven training.

Carney’s accolades include qualifying for three Olympic trials, twice finishing the Bolder Boulder as the top American, and two national titles. Willis, an Australia native, has run in four Olympics including 2012 in London. She won Australia’s first medal when she won gold at the World Cross Country Championships in 2004.

Most people hear about Willis and Carney by word-of-mouth, and everyone in the 38-member group runs for personal achievement, not because they have plans to become the next Usain Bolt or Steve Prefontaine. Willis and Carney mostly coach Colorado residents, but they also train runners in Maine, Ohio and New Mexico.

Todd Straka, a 20-year Boulder resident, started running competitively about 10 years ago. After the 2012 Bolder Boulder, Straka said he felt it was time to take his “running to a new level,” so he sought out coaching through BCSM.

After a few weeks of working with Carney, Straka ran personal bests for 10K, mile and half-marathon distances.

“Three PRs in about a week and a half,” said Straka, who works full time and has two kids, ages 12 and 10.

The training group meets for early-morning sessions twice a week. Straka, who had been training on his own since he started running, said it’s been encouraging to train with other runners who are working toward similar goals while balancing families and work commitments.

Heather Utrata, who works for the City of Englewood, started looking for a coach and running group after a “big PR” in the 2010 Denver Marathon. Utrata said she used to dread speed work but now looks forward to it because of the group’s energy, and because of the program that Carney and Willis write specifically for her with each workout.

“There’s a lot of blanket programs here,” Willis said. “They have big groups of people and they all get the same training and they all go to the track and do the same thing, but it’s not very individualized.”

In the last six years, Ryan Herzog began running competitively after thinking of it mostly as a hobby before that. He started looking around Boulder for a coach, and said he found a lot of running groups for elite athletes.

When he found out Carney and Willis had started a program, he looked into their backgrounds. What he discovered was that Willis and Carney have dozens of national and international running achievements between them. Before stumbling upon the BCSM running group, Herzog said he ran almost the exact same marathon time three times in a row.

“I realized maybe I’ve hit a plateau where I won’t be able to run faster,” he said. “I’m a typical with a day job, and I just kind of accepted that.”

He’s since shaved four minutes off his marathon time after a few months of training with the group. Herzog credits most, if not all, of his success to Willis, Carney and the other runners in the group who act as a mini-cheering section while he runs.

“That’s the other big reason I’m a part of this team,” he said. “They brought together so many great people, we all think alike and want to have that same camaraderie throughout.”

–Follow Sarah Kuta on Twitter: @SarahKuta.

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