Competitors Feel the Burn, but This Race Is Only a Challenge

By Susan Singer-Bart
Gazette Staff Writer
Thursday, March 27, 2008

Emergency room physician Ellen Smith's co-workers at Montgomery General Hospital in Olney often promise to join her weekend adventures of rappelling, kayaking, biking or hiking, but they never do.

Consequently, Smith, 44, of Damascus, created a virtual way for them to participate. She calls it Dr. Smith's Employee Healthy Sports Challenge.

Each month, Smith posts a new map on an easel and invites her colleagues on virtual adventures, such as an Iditarod sled race across Alaska or a kayaking trip across Niagara Falls. For each 10 minutes of exercise they complete on their own, participants get to move their pin one-half mile on the map.

December's route was 15 miles, and January's was 18 miles, but now the group, which numbers more than 80, has progressed to 30-mile routes.

"I wanted to have a way for people to be proud and demonstrate their progress," Smith said.

This way, everyone can benefit from exercising without undertaking the extreme sports she enjoys, Smith said. Yoga, Pilates, walking and playing basketball all are eligible workouts.

The challenge has generated some good-natured competition at the hospital, even among those who had never exercised, Smith said. And those who already were working out feel challenged to do even more.

"I'm motivated to see how my peers are doing and moving my pins on the map," said Kevin Mell, the hospital's vice president for human resources.

Randy Bursar, supervisor of nuclear medicine, said he has become more consistent in his treadmill and Bowflex machine workouts.

"This is the best thing they've come up with here," said Bursar, one of the few to finish the challenge each month.

This month, participants are "traveling" through Spain on the route of the Vuelta a Espa┬┐a, a three-week bicycle race.

"I always said I was going to [exercise]," said Barbara Boyds, an administrator in the performance improvement department. "Now, I finally did."

Boyds spends most of her workday at a computer. She now exercises on a treadmill three times a week and does Pilates twice a week.

Each virtual race participant is entered into a monthly random drawing for prizes donated by Montgomery General. The prizes include golf and tennis balls, backpacks, weights and certificates to local restaurants.

Smith, who runs at least twice a week with horses and dogs on trails around Damscus, said she hopes the program she created spreads her enthusiasm for exercise to others. Her husband, Jeffrey, a former professional football player in the Canadian Football League, and their children -- Dan, 15, Ben, 13, and Sarah, 11 -- also enjoy sports, she said.

Sports opportunities are easily available in Montgomery County, including those that people might not have considered, such as kayaking, Smith said. A kayak can be rented for $6 an hour at Black Hill Regional Park.

Next month, Smith will begin a monthly lecture series on sports-related topics for hospital employees. This summer, the hospital plans to hold a community lecture series on how to reenter sports.

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