Competing at a slower pace

  • From left to right, Rich Allen, Jack Allen, Johanna Henning, Diane Bucher and Bob Varnon prepare to volksmarch. Contributed photo

  • Back left to front right, Bob Varnon, Angela Allen, Rich allen, Jack Allen, Bev Lange and Diane Bucher enjoy lunch after a volksmarch. Contributed photo

  • Walk N' Mass member Margo Craven, left, receiving a certificate at the club's 30th anniversary event.

For the Recorder
Published: 6/29/2019 5:00:09 AM

Every day, Janet and Bob Varnon “volksmarch” around Greenfield — that is, they take a walk.

The local couple discovered volksmarching, a form of non-competitive walking for fitness that was developed in Europe about 50 years ago, in 1991 while taking their son to see the University of Central Florida's campus, which he considered attending. They saw an advertisement in the local newspaper for a volksmarch walk through campus and decided to attend in order to see what the campus was like.

They were hooked.

“This is something we can do,” Janet Varnon said. “We can go to these different places, see different things and meet other people that like to walk as well as get exercise and have something that gets us out of our neighborhood.”

Walk ‘N’ Mass, the local volksmarching chapter, is one of the many clubs of the national American Volkssport Association (AVA), which is a nonprofit that promotes fitness, health and friendship. Founded in 1976, AVA is America’s first noncompetitive sports organization and has more than 250 chartered sports clubs nationwide. The Massachusetts chapter hosts a seasonal event each year where residents can walk stress-free.

Volksmarching began in Germany in late-1960s under the umbrella of volkssporting. The term ‘volkssport’ means ‘sport of the people’ and encompasses many personal fitness sports and recreational programs such as noncompetitive walking, hiking, bicycling, swimming and skiing. Volksmarching is the most popular activity of the volkssport event. Distances for volksmarching events include 10 kilometer (6.2 mile) and 5 kilometer (3.1 mile) walks. Participants walk at their own pace on marked trails.

Walk ‘N’ Mass was founded by Marianne Marshall and her husband, Robert Marshall, along with John Magill and Rick Waivel in Bedford, where they all worked at Hanscom Air Force Base. Marianne Marshall worked in civil service while Robert Marshall, Magill and Waivel served in military. They were aware of volksmarching as a national program, but there wasn’t a Massachusetts chapter at the time.

They thought it would be a good idea to have a club in the area, according to Marianne Marshall, the current secretary and volunteer awards chairperson of Walk ‘N’ Mass.

“Three out of the four of us had the background on volksmarching and had done it in other places. We just wanted to continue the volkssport movement because we thought it was a great way for people to get out, enjoy the outdoors at little cost and meet up with other people who enjoyed being outside,” she said.

The first volksmarch Walk ‘N’ Mass held was in Concord in 1985. These days, Walk ‘N’ Mass holds six to 10 events each year, during which participants walk to interesting places that are scenic and historic. They have also outlined seasonal (April 1-Dec. 31) and year-round (Jan. 1-Dec. 31) walks in Boston and Providence, R.I.

Over the years, Walk ‘N’ Mass has had different people join the club. Janet and Bob Varnon, for example, have always enjoyed nature conservancy walks.

After discovering volksmarching for the first time in Florida, they joined the Mid-Florida Milers Walking Club in Orlando, the First Coast Trail Forgers Walking Club in Jacksonville, Florida and the Valley Vagabonds, Inc. in Cleveland, Ohio. Since then, they have walked in every state from Princeton, New Jersey to Washington, D.C to Gettysburg, Va. When they moved to Greenfield in 2013, the couple became members of Walk ‘N’ Mass.

Through their years of experience, the Varnons offered to put on a seasonal walk in Greenfield and Shelburne Falls.

The volksmarch through Greenfield begins at the CVS pharmacy on 137 Federal St. Inside, there is a box with forms for participants to register and a map with a set of directions to follow. Once participants have directions, they start walking — an option of 5 and 10 kilometer walks around Greenfield and back to the CVS pharmacy. According to Jan Varnon, the 5-kilometer walk typically takes about an hour and the 10-kilometer walk takes about two hours.

“We try to show as much of the interesting things in Greenfield as we can,” Jan Varnon said. “Our goal is to give them a good taste of why we love Greenfield.”

The walk passes Beacon Field, Poet’s Seat Tower, Greenfield High School, through Highland Park and down Main Street.

Once participants complete the route, their distance and events they walked are stamped in the InternationalerVolkssportVerband (IVV) record books.

Sixty-six-year-old Beate Hait of Holliston started participating in volksmarches in 1990 when her family lived in Red Lion, Pa., where she became a member of the York White Rose Wanderers. Since then, Hait has completed 967 volksmarch events in 49 U.S. states as well as in Canada, Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

“I was looking for an activity that we could do as a family. I thought the (volksmarch) direction of ‘walking at your own pace along a marked route’ is something we could do and would be a great way to get to know the area we had recently moved to. And it was, indeed,” Hait said.

In 1992, Hait says her husband’s new job relocated them to the region and she joined Walk ‘N’ Mass. Because she had a great experience with the volksmarches in Pennsylvania, Hait says she joined in order to continue and explore the New England states. Hait has had mobility challenges due to osteoarthritis in her knees, and says participating in volksmarches keeps her going.

“One can see and experience much more of one’s surroundings when walking versus riding by in a car,” Hait said. “Getting outside to enjoy a trail in the woods or along urban streets opens up new experiences. Slowing down to think about things, noticing a flower or new sounds and nodding hello to others as you pass them on the sidewalk gives a sense of appreciation for the world around us.”

For 75-year-old Leo Borque of Montachusett, he first encountered volksmarching while traveling overseas in 1977. Once he discovered there were clubs in the U.S, Borque says he started walking more frequently, even traveling to North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Chicago for events.

Over the last 30 years, he’s been diagnosed with cancer three times, Borque says. He started walking to cope with chemotherapy.

“I’ve been exercising all my life, but once you deal with cancer it re-awakens you. You have a deeper and better appreciation of nature and all the elements,” Borque said, noting he typically walks five to 10 miles each day. “Walking has benefited me in a lot of ways. I walk now with a purpose.”

For more information about the Walk ‘N’ Mass Volkssport Club go to For those interested in volksmarching in Greenfield or Shelburne Falls, contact Janet Varnon at 413-244-4128 or email Notably, there is not a specific day tied to the walks. The volksmarch maps are available from sunrise to sunset every day.

Greenfield Recorder

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Greenfield, MA 01302-1367
Phone: (413) 772-0261
Fax: (413) 772-2906


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