Keeping the Roadrunners on track

Coach Roger Warnes is the inspiration behind SLO Roadrunners Running & Triathlon Club

Rain or shine, year after year, the SLO Roadrunners are ticking off their laps at SLO High School each Tuesday, Thursday and Sunday, like a never-ending song. The group shifts and morphs, as members move or change their life focus, as Cal Poly students come and go, but a core of stalwarts has been running with the Roadrunners for as long as 25 years. These diehards are dedicated to the sport of running, to the Roadrunners Club and to the structure of its coach, Roger Warnes.

Warnes, a Cal Poly physical education graduate, started the club in 1976 as a class offered through the SLO Recreation Department. When Warnes moved to New Zealand to coach and study the methods of the great coach Arthur Lydiard, the club was temporarily disbanded.  

Warnes returned to the Central Coast in 1986 and resurrected the club, which has been in existence ever since. In the early years, workouts and fun runs were often staged at the newly-completed Laguna fitness trails, but SLO High School has been the “home” of the Roadrunners for many years now.

Over the years, as more triathletes began populating the club seeking help in running, they clamored for swim and bike coaching as well. Now swim training occurs at several sites and Warnes offers the same sort of critique and biomechanical correction for swimmers as he has long done for runners. 

A group of club cyclists meets on Saturdays to train together at distances prescribed by Warnes for each athlete. The branching-out into triathlon has produced over 150 Ironman athletes from the club and hundreds of other triathlon events.   

Tuesday evening workouts are fartlek (fast/slow speedplay) runs and Thursday evenings are generally tempo or speed workouts, both on the high school track. Runners adapt their paces and distance to conform to their own personal ability and in deference to their personal training schedules.  

For Sunday long runs, in which individual athletes run different distances varying from 6 to 20 miles, Coach Warnes drives a sag vehicle to carry runners’ water and fuel. Club members leave from the high school track in waves according to pace so that the group is somewhat hung-together. Stopping periodically at pre-determined points, Warnes supplies the runners and picks up anyone in difficulty or who has reached their limit for the day. These long runs are the fulcrum of the training week for SLO Roadrunners.

Sue O’Sullivan has been running with the club since 1990. She grew up as a short distance runner and had been burned by poor coaching in her youth. Warnes guaranteed that if she followed his instruction, he’d have her running until she was 80. Twenty-five years later, she’s still running and has scored some great finish times in races of all distances, including three Boston Marathons.  

O’Sullivan says she most values the club for the friendships and personal coaching on form, posture, stride, footplant, pace, race strategy, even advice on shoes. O’Sullivan says that runners in the club consistently report that they’ve never gotten that kind of education from any other source; that’s what keeps people in the club and what consistently brings newcomers into the fold.  

The membership includes college students, working professionals, searingly fast runners, run/walkers, triathletes and ultra runners. Warnes coaches to each athlete’s ability, says O’Sullivan.

Warnes cuts a wide swath, with his loud, gruff voice and colorful aphorisms. Not too terribly far beneath his brusque exterior, however, lies a heartfelt dedication to the health and success of the athletes who entrust their training to him. One club member notes, “Unlike any other coach I ever had, he truly cares about all his runners, from the fastest on the track to the 10-minute+ milers.”

As a runner sidelined by a serious overuse injury himself, Warnes is especially attentive to the risk of running injury. The American Journal of Sports Medicine found a 65 percent injury rate in one year among a test group of runners of all distances. Of those injuries, 72 percent were found to be due to training error. In light of such a fearsome rate of injury, good coaching becomes critical.

Running veteran John Kellerman of Templeton says that is one reason he stuck with the club through the years. In the 15 years he spent under Warnes’ coaching, he never suffered a running injury... until he tripped on a log two weeks before his wedding.  

Kellerman notes that most people who tie on their sneakers and go out for a run have never been coached in proper technique. Running is one of those things that many believe to be “natural” but in order to run without injury, there are certain things a runner needs to know and practice. SLO Roadrunners is one place a runner can learn correct running form and injury prevention.  

25-year Roadrunners veteran Cathy Agler remembers a time when she and other members received handwritten training schedules from Coach Warnes – now they are delivered by email. Agler values the consistency of the Roadrunner workouts, such that a runner knows they can always find a group with whom to run if they show up at the SLO High School on a Tuesday, Thursday or Sunday. With that regularity, a truly bonded community of runners can form. 

Over the years, the Roadrunners have volunteered at numerous county races but perhaps the greatest contribution the club has made to the well-being of the community is the healthy lifestyle of running. A healthy community results from healthy individuals, more so than from programs and initiatives imposed from the outside.

The SLO Roadrunners can be seen in action on April 27 at the SLO Marathon & Half among the field of runners, staffing the finish line, or crowding the awards area to cheer their coach as he is inducted into the SLO Marathon Hall of Fame for 2014. Warnes was chosen for this honor by virtue of his contributions to the running community, especially in coaching, education and personal passion for the sport of running.

The Roadrunners club is open to newcomers. Interested athletes can take a look at the Facebook page SLO Roadrunners Running & Triathlon Club, email Coach Warnes at or call the club hotline at (805) 544-2385. Alternatively, a runner can just show up any Sunday at 8:30 a.m. at the SLO High School track and see for themselves what makes the SLO Roadrunners run.  

Sheryl Collmer - writes, runs and occasionally circles the track with the Roadrunners in San Luis Obispo.