Albany Running Exchange founder Josh Merlis (left, white shirt) with A.R.E. members before a group run. (Photo by Mark Adam.)
On any given day, members of the Albany Running Exchange (A.R.E.) can log on to the club’s website and select from a host of daily group runs or create their own. The 1,240 members of this community reinforce their camaraderie through message board posts, publicly-published time tracking and by running together.
A.R.E. hosts a Grand Prix Trail Run Series in both spring and summer in which members may participate for free. More elaborate events like the Hairy Gorilla Half Marathon and Squirrelly Six Mile at Thacher State Park in Voorheesville (held this year on Oct. 27), are open to members at a reduced rate. We caught up with A.R.E. this past June at its summer Trail Run Series at Peebles Island State Park in Cohoes, one of five club events throughout the Capital-Saratoga Region. The meeting place — a pop-up tent covering picnic tables and a water cooler — was filled with nearly 80 runners spanning all ages and skill levels. Prior to the 2.25-mile loop at the confluence of the Mohawk and Hudson Rivers, runners socialized and stretched.
Each member comes to the group with a different motivation. Some ran in high school and then rediscovered running later in life. Others ran competitively in college and want to stay connected to the sport they love in a not-so-demanding way. Whatever their reason, they all enjoy the club’s camaraderie and acceptance. A.R.E. is open to runners of all skill levels. Prospective members can sign up on the club’s website for an annual membership fee of $10.
Josh Merlis, president of ARE Event Productions, founded the running club in 2002 as a student group at UAlbany. Running has long been a part of his life; he ran his first 5K at 6 years old. After running for his college team for two years, he moved in a different direction and created this club. Merlis’ company, ARE Event Productions, helps subsidize the running club by organizing running events for other groups. ARE Event Productions time-kept at more than 130 events in 2012 and functions as a for-profit company that happens to operate a running club, Mr. Merlis says. This spring, A.R.E. Event Productions helped implement chip timing at the 5K road race of the hugely popular CDPHP (Capital District Physicians’ Health Plan) Workforce Challenge, held in downtown Albany. The event, inaugurated in 1980, registered more than 9,300 participants in 2012.
John Kinnicutt, director of Wagering Systems at the New York State Gaming Commission, discovered A.R.E. online in November 2004. At that time, the club covered UAlbany students’ entry fees to races, and Mr. Kinnicutt paid his membership fee with the view that it was a donation toward the students’ participation. The following April, Mr. Kinnicutt decided to run with his daughter in the A.R.E.’s Dodge the Deer 5K at Schodack Island State Park. As he picked up his packet and told the registrar his name, he heard Mr. Merlis yell from a distance, “‘You’re John Kinnicutt?! You’re the only club member I don’t know.’”
The following year Mr. Kinnicutt ran his first marathon as part of a club trip to Mystic, Conn. Forty marathons later, he says, “At this point it’s pretty much my entire life.”
It’s evident that A.R.E. runners are a welcoming bunch. At last June’s Trail Run Series, everyone was in a great mood, smiling, laughing and talking with each other; they are eager to tell their personal story. As NYSOM speaks with Paul Mueller — Mr. Merlis’ college classmate and one of the first A.R.E. members — a friendly woman meanders over to his side, looks up at him and interjects, “And what’s the best part of the club?” “I met my wife through the club,” Mr. Mueller responds, as they both laugh. They have been married for two years and became engaged at a race in May 2010. About 20 guests at their wedding were A.R.E. club members, including Mr. Merlis, who served as DJ.
“We call it our running family,” Mrs. Mueller says, with their dog Finnegan in tow.
When the group run begins, we’re perched atop a bridge. In the distance, the herd moves from the tent toward the Mohawk River and then banks straight toward us and passes beneath the bridge. Some runners do one loop and then return to the tent to mingle. Others grab some water and set out again.
“Obviously the running is important, but [it’s also about] getting people together and doing something healthy,” Mr. Merlis says.
Josh Merlis’ New York State of Mind
“I like all the opportunities to be outside. The state parks are great around here. Thacher [State] Park is amazing and it’s not even 15 miles away from my house … there are so many places like that.”