Club Running at its Best in the Garden State


 

I’m thrilled to sit down with Chuck Schneekloth, Founder and Managing Director of the Garden

State Track Club (GSTC). After a successful career as a middle-distance runner at Rutgers University, Chuck continued racing while coaching at the youth, high school and college levels, he has seen the success of his athletes on both the national and international circuits.


Chuck established the Garden State Track Club in 2010 to serve all levels of runners in New Jersey, in all running venues: roads, cross-country, and track and field. Let’s see what he has to say about the club and what his thoughts are about club running.


Tell me a little bit about the philosophy of your club, a sort of mission statement?


Every organization has its own vision and purpose for existence, and I do think this is a great

first step for any organization. Why are we here? Who are we supporting? What does organizational success look like?


I think one can see our club’s philosophy just from perusing our social media accounts. In any

given week, you’ll see pictures of diversity. Be it old, young, slow, fast, white, brown – the

tri-state area is a profoundly diverse area, and our club’s philosophy, all along, has been to

connect, embrace, and support this diversity. This is, of course, easier said than done, but I’d

rather create a community of inclusiveness than a country club of exclusivity.


At this point, our reputation is often “a club for serious, young, fast runners,” and it’s true, we

do have many of those. However, we are a big team with a broad spectrum of ages, talents, and

backgrounds, and we happily welcome anyone into our community that expresses interest.


Why did you decide to start the club and have you met your original goals?


While I was living on the West Coast, I ran with Northwest Pacesetters (Portland) and the West

Valley Track Club (San Francisco). Being a transplant is never easy, but I just felt an instant community of friends and training partners with these groups. So when I moved back home to New Jersey ten years later, I had that transplant feeling again.


When back in NJ, I called, emailed, and even attended team runs of other clubs around me.

While everyone was welcoming, nothing felt like a good fit. Most groups seemed to cater

toward the recreational runner or masters runner, and I was neither. After exhausting my options, I just decided, rather flippantly, “Well, hell, I’ll just start my own. Surely there are other people in NJ out there looking for what I’m looking for.”


If my original goal was to simply find friends in New Jersey to train with, then yes, this initial

goal was certainly met. For years, I’ve been saying my favorite part about managing this team is

meeting the many amazing people who join it. I’m humbled daily by my teammates who juggle

so many responsibilities while training at 5am, 9pm, and everything in between to get in their

workout for the day. It’s amazing. However, we had two other club values we established that first year: diversity and community outreach. As one can imagine, such goals are never simple boxes to check, and we work hard at trying to improve on such areas every year.


It seems like a huge undertaking to run a successful club. What kind of thingsdo you think people underestimate about this job?


In the beginning, I remember thinking to myself, “How hard can this be? Just get some runners

together, right?” The reality is, as you said, it’s a huge undertaking to do it right, and I certainly

wouldn’t advise anyone to do this before looking around to see what other communities are

currently available.


Surely one element easy to underestimate is team growth. In order to grow, you need to build

relationships. Not just with the runners themselves, but with nearby running stores, college

coaches, high schools, and other running clubs. While I enjoy meeting and connecting with so

many members of the running community, it can be life-consuming. And what fun is a club if

you’re spending all your free time shaking hands and sending emails instead of meeting up for

runs with friends? It’s a tricky balance.


And even when someone emails with interest to join, it might not be until several hours of

emails later that they show up for a run. And even then, you may never see him/her again after

that first run. So as a club leader, one certainly has to be willing to put the club’s interests ahead of your own often, and that means a lot of time communicating with your potential and

current membership.


GSTC caters to so many different runners, youth to masters, sprinters to distance runners and recreational runners to elites. How do you balance it all?


That’s a fair question, and to be honest, most clubs have a singular demographic focus. It’s

much easier to drill an inch wide and a mile deep, and I would certainly recommend this

approach for any fledgling club.


After a decade of building the Garden State Track Club, the tri-state area knows we are a

resource for all types of runners. While the leadership structure was once “Chuck behind a

laptop,” it’s far more layered and robust now. We have talented, committed club members who

believe in our mission and lead these various arms of the club, and it’s my role to support them,

advise them, and provide some quality control. It’s all volunteer- no one is on the payroll here,

including myself - so things are naturally casual and collaborative.


And quality control can be a bumpy road. There’s been more than one time we’ve trusted

someone in a leadership role and, unfortunately, we’ve had to go a different direction shortly

thereafter. So to answer your question, balancing multiple programs can be a delicate process

that requires a lot of communication and collaboration.


Websites, Instagram, Facebook, Teamsnap, you’ve navigated it all. How do you keep up?


Finding time and creative ways to communicate with our surrounding friends and teammates is

an incredibly important function of the club, but you’re right, it’s time consuming and often

stressful. What should we post? When should we post it? How should we post it? It can be a

full-time job to do this in the right way - especially when we’re competing against some clubs

that do pay employees to manage this year-round.


Thankfully, our members are always doing cool things to brag about, and our club is always

planning a team run or fun event to announce. Also, our team graphic designer, Jason

Timochko, just does an amazing job at creating posts that are engaging and aesthetically pleasing. So while this can be a challenging part of managing a club, it sure helps to have

infinite content and a talented artist to help keep things interesting.


I’m looking forward to the Garden State 10 miler and 5K on March 27th. What else is on the horizon in terms of racing and club activities?


I’m looking forward to the GS10 too! We’ve named it “NJ’s Favorite Distance Race” because this

seems to be the case. It’s hard to find a fluid, scenic course in NJ with great medals, fun music,

race pictures, and many other amenities of a big-time event experience.


As you know, we just hosted the “Garden State HS Invite” and “Club Indoor Championships” on

February 18th at Ocean Breeze Indoor Complex, and they were both huge successes! Moving forward, we are planning for the East Coast Track and Field Championships from June

24-26. Along with providing high school athletes one final high-level opportunity to hit a PR,

we’re also hosting the “Club Outdoor Championships” that same weekend. Although we enjoy

running and competing in all sorts of environments, we love competing against other

like-minded clubs, so this will be a fun team-scored championship experience at the end of the season. In addition, we are exploring options for hosting some other high-level road races over the next year, but these are still in the planning phases.


Your club and its runners seem to thrive on the road, on the cross-country course and on the indoor and outdoor track. Do you have a specific event or race that you most look forward to having the club compete in?


Personally, I enjoy team races that my teammates look forward to, as there’s nothing more fun

than having a huge team turnout for a great team experience. Our team tends to rally around

our ten-miler in the spring, a few 5k’s in the summer, and club cross country nationals in the fall.


Who and what helps you keep the momentum going?


This may be one of the biggest challenges any volunteer adult organization may face: how do

you keep it going? It can be so easy to get stuck into a routine doing the same thing with the

same people every year, but how does a group keep momentum going every season?


For me personally, I enjoy pursuing different challenges. It’s fun, for me, to rally our leadership

team around hosting new events, attending new races, and seeking new partnerships. Yet at

the same time, what also helps me keep momentum going are club routines I’ve grown to love:

team workouts, team long runs, team Galas, etc. New members also keep things exciting and fun. New members bring new energy, new ideas, and new experiences into the club that we all benefit from.


Tell us about sponsorship and how it has helped the club and its members.


We’re excited to begin our partnership with Tracksmith this year, and like our Adidas and New

Balance partnerships and sponsorships previous to this, we hope this new relationship has a positive impact on our club membership. In the past, these relationships usually find ways to reward our elite and leadership members through gear, apparel, and other such incentives. Holistically, our entire squad typically enjoys the experience of being in a select, exclusive organization supported by a major running brand in the running space. But from a practical standpoint, people usually join clubs for relationships and a community, and sponsorships don’t often have a direct impact on such things.


The pompom hats have been one of the highlights of the pandemic for club members. Are there other gear items that you are excited about?


Jason Timochko has just done an amazing job with these sorts of club bells and whistles. The

Leadership Team also agreed to include a “team shirt” every year with team membership, and

so folks seem to get excited about getting one of those every year.


Six months into the pandemic you brought joy to hundreds of runners by successfully

initiating the “last chance” and “fall showcase” track meets when there were limited racing opportunities. What inspired you to do this and how did you pull it off?


This was maybe one of the coolest things our club has ever done, and I think we all look back at

it fondly. Indeed, our club’s focus has always been on the adult runner, but the pandemic

created an unexpected challenge: the collapse of the high school running scene. Within

months, we received myriad requests to support teenagers who lost their season.


As we began coaching them in the summer of 2020, we realized there was a fascinating and

unfortunate perfect storm: not only did kids lose spring track of 2020, but the fall would only be

small, uneventful dual meets due to risk-aversion school districts, and there surely would be no

indoor track without vaccines. So how could college-bound runners get meaningful race

opportunities with FAT times?

At this point it was August, and we just jumped into action. We created a schedule of races

every three weeks, and we jumped on social media to begin inviting the fastest kids in the

tri-state area. The next thing we know, we’re getting inquiries from families in Colorado, Maine,

and Texas. While it wasn’t always easy navigating the ever-changing state COVID mandates, the outpouring of grateful emails from college coaches, families, and kids made it all worth it. Dozens of kids were offered scholarships based on their FAT times from our fall series in 2020,

and there’s really nothing more rewarding than helping hard-working, good kids like that.


Another story worth sharing from that fall was of the East Coast Cross Country Championship

we hosted at Holmdel Park in December. Our original plan was to host those five track meets

and be done with it, but on September 13, Danny Pedretti emailed us about hosting a

championship cross country race. The NJSIAA, like many other state bodies, has just recently

canceled the state tournament, and Danny, a senior at North Hunterdon HS, asked us to step in

and organize something special at season’s end.


Admittedly, that just sounded like an overwhelming task while in the midst of planning these

five track meets. A few weeks later, he emailed us again, making an even stronger case for the

value of making it happen, and I agreed to do it. Months later, despite navigating different

COVID rules for numerous surrounding states, we put on one of the most competitive races in

the history of Holmdel Park. And as luck would have it, North Hunterdon, by far the underdog

going into the race, won the team title.


While I’m not the most sentimental type, there was something really special about meeting

Danny that day. Looking back at it all, it’s certainly a story more about the power of student

voice and self-advocacy than just another sports story, as that event would never have

happened had it not been for his persistence to lobby for the best interests of his peers.


You’ve always struck me as a no excuses kinda guy, can you tell me how you bring that

mentality to running the club? And as a follow up, are there every any legitimate excuses to not bringing your A game to a work out, practice or race?


Well, much of my role is to be supportive to all of our members and their journey in fitness, so it

often isn’t fair to impose my personal expectations of myself, my training, etc. onto those of

others. However, I do try to lead by example and, as they say, “lead from the front,” and I can

only hope my teammates appreciate the hard work I put in as the club director in that way.

And regarding one’s A-Game, well, I suppose listening to our bodies is super important to stay

healthy. While there was a time in my life when I would go out and crush a workout regardless

of the context, now I’m a bit more mindful of the circumstances. If job stress, bad weather, or

life schedule just doesn’t allow for that two-hour hard track workout you had planned, there’s

nothing wrong with running easy today and just getting after it tomorrow.


How annoying are all the long-distance runners with their quantity over quality mentality and how do you convince them that a few speed works out are the way to go?


Our job as a club is to welcome and encourage all runners and their wide-ranging interests.

That said, the serial marathoner lifestyle can be one that is least compatible with club running,

so we do sometimes nudge folks to consider other distances and challenges besides the

marathon.


And to be fair, this is usually in the best interests of the runner, as well. It can be hard to

improve in the marathon when this is a year-round primary focus. It seems like many

marathoners benefit from training blocks of shorter, faster distances before ramping up into

another marathon cycle. So indeed, we like to encourage our members, when possible, to

enjoy balanced training plans that ensure success and positive experiences.


What do you want your post-collegiate athletes to know about club running and how do they decide what club is right for them?


It’s understandable that, after four years of high school running and four years of college

running, that many might want a new challenge in life – be that a career, new sport, etc.

However, so many just love it as part of their daily routine, and for those types, clubs are great

Resources. The reality is that, if post-collegiates truly love the sport, they probably have their best races still ahead of them. However, as any adult can attest, it gets a lot trickier after college with the stresses of the real-world.


My advice would be, if they can, find a club that aligns with your interests. You’re only young

and fast once, and this small window can be very fun to explore, enjoy, and maximize. I would

also urge younger runners to not make any immediate moves to the marathon. While I

appreciate the interest in new and exciting goals, I see new runners get hurt often with these

sudden bumps in training volume. So while clubs can be amazing, supportive communities to

network professionally and find company for those cold ten-milers, be sure to enjoy your youth

and your speed while you have them both!


Thank you Chuck for your time and energy. I appreciate that you have made New Jersey a

better place to run for so many runners. I look forward to seeing the growth of the club, to

meeting new and old club members and to many more great group runs.


Follow the club on Instagram @gardenstatetrackclub

Or at www.gardenstatetc.org



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