Follow the Ashland Family YMCA's wanna-be runners in a series of stories to appear in the Daily Tidings and at www.dailytidings.com

The number of non-athletes enrolled in the Ashland Family YMCA's Sofa to 5K fitness class has jumped from 12 to 16, and their progress in the six-week course to be race-ready for the Pear Blossom run in April can be measured by the length of their practice runs.

Last week, the first time the group met, they walked and ran one mile. This week, the course was stretched to 2 miles.

On Tuesday, they looped around streets bordering the YMCA. On Thursday, they gathered at their usual start time, 6:45 a.m., but instead of circling the YMCA they lost their breath in North Mountain Park.

Before the outdoor runs, they warmed up with jumping jacks, A-skips and lunges. They walked for five minutes, then some of the participants naturally started to jog, floating for a nano second. Others kept at least one foot planted on the ground at all times, but in a committed sense of esprit de corps, they did pick up their walking pace.

"The pack will start to spread," predicted Chip Layton, the YMCA's Health & Wellness director who conceived the Sofa to 5K fitness class to encourage people to get in better shape for the spring run and beyond.

But being in the front of the line or the back is fine, he said, as long as everybody pays attention to form.

"For the beginner, I believe it is important to focus on shorter strides, allowing feet to land on the middle portion of the sole," he said.

Then he offered other reminders of good form. "Body upright without tensing up and arms relaxed without clinching fists."

Twenty minutes into the hour-long practice, Charlotte McKernan, 71, of Ashland, was one of the people in the back of the line who would find it hard to see the leaders of the pack if she cared to look. But she didn't. She's not competing against them.

"I have longer endurance when I speed walk than I do running," she said calmly during the Tuesday workout. "My body is telling me to slow down then start up again. This practice, for me, is to become more aware of my body. I work out all the time and this is stretching me."

On the Clay Street incline, she halted her brisk walk. If she looked ahead, she could have seen cars, bikers and runners crossing Ashland Street. But she didn't look ahead.

Layton's advice seemed to linger in the air: It's OK to switch up the pace, altering between jogging and brisk walking. "Increase mileage and intensity at your pace," he said.

He also told the group that breathing style is personal, too. "Find out what feels comfortable to you at your pace. At lower intensity levels, breathing through your nose is a good technique," he said. "At a higher pace or higher mileage, it is hard to breathe through the nose. A combination of nose-mouth breathing allows for maximum intake of oxygen."

At the end of the two miles, McKernan entered the YMCA lobby, puffing a little, but still smiling.

McKernan, you see, is no coach potato. She laughs at the term. "I don't even own a TV," she said.

She routinely walks on the treadmill and three miles around town. She does circuit training and weight training. "I thought this would be a good thing to look forward to for spring," she said, pulling off her knit cap and letting her hair fall free.

Pause. Smile. "I'm 71 and a half. I feel great," she said. "You have to keep it going. You have to keep using it. I feel better than I did when I was in my 40s."

Is she looking forward to crossing the finish line? This time she didn't pause: "It's a big commitment," she said, "but I will be there."

Reach reporter Janet Eastman at 541-776-4465 or jeastman@dailytidings.com.