On a dark November morning, a small group of us mingles on the start line of Western’s track, layered in sweats, fleece, and gloves. We are the Fit School’s 5:50 a.m. group, rising before dawn to exercise ahead of the workday and school schedules.

In the frosty air, Fit School founder and instructor Carol Frazey reveals the workout. “Today, we’re doing two minutes at your mile pace,” she says. “That means two minutes at your pace, then one minute walking, then two minutes, one minute walking, and so on. We’ll do that for 25 minutes.”

When Carol says “your mile pace” or “your 10K pace,” depending on the day, she means your own individual pace, which she determines for you early in the class. Carol developed Fit School for Women Walking/ Running Program to meet individuals at their own level and help them progress at their own rate. Her mission is to empower women through running, but the program is much more than simply building fitness. Carol wants us to prioritize ourselves, something women often forget to do, and she has three gentle rules. 1) Don’t say anything negative about yourself; if you do, you’ll need to follow up with three positive things. 2) Don’t compare yourself to others — go your own pace. 3) Be selfish with your time. In other words, maximize the workout.

The fitness model is simple, really. The six-week class meets just twice a week for one hour, which includes 25 minutes of a track workout focused on speed or pacing (your speed/pace), a sequence of drills like high skipping and lunges, three minutes of core strengthening, and a few minutes of stretching.

On the first day of each session, Carol clocks participants walking or running 1600 meters. From the results, she calculates individual paces for subsequent workouts. Sometimes you’ll end up with a pace buddy, often you won’t, but camaraderie abounds. At the end of each session, she times your 1600 again, and everyone celebrates improvement. It’s a brilliant plan, and entirely manageable. It also feels safe for those embarking on new routines, part of Carol’s goal in motivating women to make small changes for healthier lives. But perhaps what makes it unique is Carol herself: her kind, positive character and her ability to inspire women of all ages and fitness levels.

The idea for the program originated from her own weekly runs with friends on Galbraith Mountain. “I’ve cried, hugged, high-fived, and laughed so hard I fell over during these runs,” she says. “We’ve shared our true selves with each other. I wanted to give all women the chance to connect and form a community, go their own pace, and find a sense of strength through running.” Thus a smaller version of Fit School was born in late 2010.

I came to the program as a seasoned runner, but with too many ankle twists to count over the years, I’d been told by medical experts I should stay off pavement and uneven trails and avoid too much mileage. After an ankle surgery, I felt conflicted about running at all. When a friend mentioned Fit School, I perked up. Track workouts sans roots and sidewalks sounded like my cup of tea. Plus, full disclosure, I need more accountability to get out the door.

I didn’t expect that two hours a week would make such a big difference to my other running days. A few weeks into my first session, I noticed it while jogging a neighborhood trail. My steps were shorter and quicker, my arms more efficient, and I felt springier. With Carol’s coaching, my form had improved, and my breathing was stronger. Fit School strength arrives quietly, unexpectedly.

Plenty of others have experienced the same. Many sign up for multiple sessions as I have, becoming fast friends along the way and meeting up on off days to run together. Some start out certain they’re walkers but progress to running and get so fired up they take on local 5Ks, even half marathons, turning up together in the Fit School’s signature hot pink tech shirt.

That shirt is more than a product. It exemplifies Carol’s infectious spirit, her capacity to cultivate a movement built on friendship, newfound personal strength, and, above all, fun. Watch for those pink shirts around Bellingham, and you’ll realize how many women are onto it.

Learn more and sign up at thefitschool.com.

"I’ve cried, hugged, high-fived, and laughed so hard I fell over during these runs"