Leatta Jackson’s first tough hill could have been her last.

With a bit of trepidation, she joined the regulars who gathered each Thursday morning at Bike Stop Café and Outpost in St. Charles for a mountain bike ride. Her first ascent left her intimidated. She lagged behind but stayed under the watchful eye of the ride’s leader and café owner, Jodi Devonshire. And instead of riding ahead, the group stopped at the top and yelled back to Jackson, “You’re gonna make it.”

“I was a slow putz, and they were nice,” Jackson said.

When she made it, everyone cheered. And then they rode down together.

“One year later, and now she blows past me,” Devonshire said.

Which goes to show that the first experience makes or breaks group training.

“What we’ve learned is that if someone comes out for the first time and gets dropped, they go home and don’t come back,” said Mike Weiss, owner of Big Shark Bicycle Co. So, Big Shark instituted a rule for its Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday group rides: “You don’t pass the pacer,” Weiss said. “The idea is that it’s inclusive. The group ride is not the place to ride with a bunch of strangers and try to drop them.”

And by making them inclusive, group training can offer more athletes at all levels multiple ways to improve performance and develop esprit de corps in so many ways.

Cold. Snow. Rain. Scheduling conflicts. Fatigue. Soreness. The group’s obligation to each other can rise above them all.

“There are plenty of times when you’re ambivalent,” Devonshire said. “It even happens to the leader. But you know other people will be there, so you show up. A little peer pressure works wonders.”

April Hobbs, who has led 5k runs at Bike Stop twice a week since November, noted that posting and joining a run on Facebook and committing to it in public “makes you obligated. That helps as a motivation.”

Jen Schaller, owner of RunWell in Edwardsville, Illinois, trained hundreds of people for their first 5k or half-marathon, then saw them finish the race, turn to each other and ask, “‘What now?’ They had no goal and weren’t sure they were good enough to join one of the established groups. So, we formed one on our own. That gave them the motivation to stick with it. And they just keep getting better.”

Dubbed the Dash Mob, Schaller’s group meets for weekly training sessions — tough stuff like tempo runs, repeats and hills — but also has monthly bike rides and trail runs, scavenger hunts and zip-lining. “Variety keeps it interesting,” Schaller said.

Hobbs said her core group of a half-dozen enjoys the synergy that pushes the group pace beyond what they’d run separately.

“They’ve said to me, ‘I can’t believe we ran that fast,” she said. “Generally people feel like they can run faster when they are with other people. I even notice it myself.”

Schaller recalled a couple that she had trained for a 5k who hesitated to join her 5-mile group run. With the help of the group, though, they finished with ease.

“They had no idea how far they could go,” she said. “And they found the confidence to go farther.”

Schaller noted that with safety in numbers, runners were more likely to train in the evening or try a new route. “You find the courage to face the unknown or adverse conditions if you know you’ll be safe,” she said.

Safety first is the rule for Big Shark’s open-water training every Saturday in May and June. Between 100 and 200 people show up each week, knowing they’re under the watchful eye of a lifeguard and can overcome the fear factor in open water and seize an opportunity to work on transitioning from swim to bike.

“There’s a lot more to it than ‘go jump in the lake,’” Weiss said.

“Bikes and beans makes sense,” as Weiss says, so a little training recap over coffee — or a cold adult beverage — allows for comparing of notes and strengthening the group dynamic.

“Part of the reason we opened the café was that we want to continue the social experience after the ride,” Davenport said. “Cycling is a pack sport. You’re riding along, talking and engaged. Then the ride ends and you realize, ‘Now I’m hungry and I don’t just want to get in my car and go home.’ You’ve accomplished something. It’s worth celebrating with the people you accomplished it with.”

Schaller’s shop in Edwardsville is situated in the center of a blossoming business district, so her groups have multiple options for watering holes: Fiona’s in the morning, the Stagger Inn in the evening.

“They accept us as we are,” she said. “Smelly and sweaty.”

Author: Kathleen Nelson is a regular contributor to Terrain magazine