Mike Flynn, marathon professor

Mike Flynn, professor in the Department of Health and Human Performance.

The first year of college is a big step – and, for most students, it takes a semester or two of conditioning to really get on track. But they figure it out, they learn to pace themselves and, eventually, find their stride. And, by the time that first year has run its course, most students have come a really long way.

Perhaps not quite as far as the 17 students in Mike Flynn’s Run for the Roses class, though: This Saturday, April 25, 2015, these first-year students will go the distance (26.2 miles, to be exact), putting all their training to the test at the Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon in Louisville, Ky.

That’s right: These students have spent the course of their first year at the College preparing not just to run a marathon, but to understand how to run a marathon. Although it’s the third time the College has offered the running course, this is the first time it has been offered as a First-Year Seminar.

Watch a video of students in Mike Flynn’s Sport Physiology and Marathon Training course at the 2013 Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon.

“The First-Year Experience philosophy is to give students exposure to what your discipline is all about,” says Flynn, professor of health and human performance, noting that – along with training students to run a marathon – the course gives students a taste of sports physiology concepts and exercise science, and there are exams, papers and assignments just like any other class. “I don’t know if any freshmen would have much interest in taking a physiology course if it weren’t for the marathon aspect. I can almost hear the eyeballs roll when I say the word physiology.”

The course introduces students to measurement techniques and scientific writing as they focus on the physiological adaptations to marathon training. Through VO2 max measurement, body composition analysis, nutritional analysis and other performance tests, the students use their own bodies as the laboratory for the class.

It can’t get any more hands-on: Every Tuesday and Thursday, after 45–50 minutes of lecture, the students head out to test their endurance, their nutrition, their hydration, their pace on their 40–50-minute run along the Battery.

Flynn, himself a runner with 12 marathons under his belt (two of them being the Boston Marathon), has taught the marathon course a total of six times (four times at Purdue University). Of the 125 or so students he has trained, six have qualified for the Boston Marathon, and two have broken three hours.

students running marathon

In 2010, Mike Flynn’s students ran the Country Music Marathon in Nashville, Tenn.

“I think this group will do well – they are a fairly serious group,” says Flynn, who has also taught a First-Year Experience course for which students ran the Cooper River Bridge Run. “They have a lot of energy, and they’ve had fewer injuries than other classes. They’re also the most running savvy group I’ve ever had.”

Bri Stewart, for example, ran cross country in high school and has run 5Ks and a 10K before, though never a half-marathon or a marathon. The course caught her eye at orientation last summer.

“I couldn’t think of a better way to get to know my way around Charleston than running miles and miles around it,” she says. “I knew this was going to be challenging, but I couldn’t pass it up.”

One of the main challenges, of course, is the endless running that marathon training requires – and all the time that running takes up.

“Time management has definitely been the most difficult part of the class. Trying to time when to get more than three-hour runs was definitely a challenge,” says Casey White, who ran track and cross country before she came to the College. “I’ve learned that my body can handle a lot more running than I ever thought it could. I feel a lot more dedicated as a runner than before. You don’t go on insanely long runs without convincing yourself that this is something you really want to do.”

And this marathon is something these students really want to do – or, at least, they really want to be done with.

“I am looking forward to the finish line and being done!” says Kaylie Beech, a state cross country qualifier.

Stewart agrees that running through the finish line is going to be the highlight: “I know at that moment I will feel so beyond accomplished.”

It’s that sense of achievement that these first-year students will take away from the course: that knowledge that – with drive, practice and commitment – they can do whatever they want to do and go as far as they want to go.

And, for most students, that’s a really big step.