JOPLIN, Mo. —
Fun, friendship and fitness -- the motto of the American Volkssport Association -- is something that members of the Dogwood Trailblazers take to heart as they walk their way to a healthier lifestyle.
At the heart of the club lie organized walks through some of the Four-State Area's most popular trails and roadways. But club president Jim Gant says it goes beyond a simple organized group walk; it has turned into a lifestyle for members, who have discovered the "people's sport."
"This is a way of life for us to maintain a healthy outlook on things," he said. "The social aspect keeps us motivated, and that becomes the world of difference."
Founded in 1992 in Joplin, the Dogwood Trailblazers are part of the association, which takes its roots from the volkssport movement started in Germany in the late 1960s. The association boasts more than 200 chartered sports clubs nationwide in addition to the 28 other countries that have their own volkssport organizations.
While the term "volkssport" encompasses many different physical activities such as swimming, skiing and biking, members of the Dogwood Trailblazers are focused on walking, which is referred to as volksmarching within the group.
Though non-competitive in its roots, group members opt to actively track their total mileage across 3,000 sponsored walks annually through the AVA's official record keeping service. Typically, walks are split into five- and 10-kilometer distances to provide a variety of challenges to the participants.
A way of life
Larry Lehman and his wife, Josie, reside in Branson but make the drive to Joplin each month to take part in the group's meetings, in addition to participating in the organized walks. Even though they just joined the group last June, the retired couple have been active participants in the volksmarching community for 30 years.
Between them, they have logged more than 44,000 kilometers -- enough to navigate the circumference of the Earth. They have participated in walks in every U.S. state, each of the Canadian provinces and most of the countries in Europe. Since last June, they completed Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon's challenge of 100 miles of outdoor activity.
Josie Lehman said that volksmarching has become a centerpiece in their lives together.
"You start building your vacations around it because you see a place on television and you know you want to see that for yourself," she said. "We're retired, so there isn't anything stopping us from going somewhere to participate in a walk. That's freedom to set goals for yourself and then meet them."
Larry said the couple started walking to stay healthy but discovered how important socialization was in motivating them to keep their goals.
"It was health and fitness for us when we started, but we got really tuned into the social aspect," he said. "You hear people tell stories of where they have been and then you want to see it for yourself. You want to see these things together with your friends."