I don’t remember the exact day or time when I decided I would become a runner. I remember seeing an influx of running posts from my Facebook friends and I would always think to myself, “I’m not a runner.” I was never athletic as a child—I would rather have my nose in a book than participate in a physical activity. After frequently telling myself “I’m not a runner,” one day my thought changed and my response to the Facebook posts became “Why don’t I run?” I come from a family that is plagued with obesity, high blood pressure and other types of health issues. Frankly, I didn’t want to become a genetic statistic and continue this family tradition. So I decided to run.
After struggling through some personal issues in 2008 I had gained a few pounds. My doctor was treating me for depression and the pills made me gain weight and slowed down my thyroid function. The lower my thyroid functioned the more weight I put on and the more depressed I became. It was a vicious cycle. By early 2010 I was weighing close to 155 pounds. At 5'1" I was unhealthy and overweight. Then, a slip and fall in a friend's kitchen caused major damage to my knee which required an easy surgery but required physical therapy to be able to walk and pedal a bike again. I gained 25 more pounds due to the steroids and the physical inactivity. I was absolutely miserable. I had hired a personal trainer to help me lose the weight, but with my knee pain it was so hard to do many exercises without severe modification. Weight training was helping me get stronger, but without cardio I knew I'd never lose the weight.
Since I was in a lot of pain and walking was a skill I could manage I started hiking more seriously. I could only do short day hikes, 3-4 miles, but since we live near a national park a lot of backpacking trips would fit this description. I could do a round trip total of 6 or 8 or 10 miles in a weekend! I started hiking as often as I could with a group I found on Meetup.Com that was local to my area. I was often times the slowest person in the group, the one everyone took a break and waited for. I was the one who didn't get a break ever because by the time I caught up to everyone they had been taking a break for a LONG time! Sometimes I really got discouraged, but I had made some amazing friends in the group who helped support me and encourage me on those hard hikes.
Little by little, my injured knee got stronger every day. After about 6 months of working with a trainer and spending my weekends with the hiking group I was able to start doing light impact cardio at a gym - elliptical and bike training. While the pain in my knee was still aggravating, it had lessened dramatically and I was able to work on my endurance. Combined with the strength training, I knew I was getting stronger and was slowly starting to do a better job keeping up with my friends on our hiking trips! By the time we rang in 2011 I had dropped more than 30 pounds, my thyroid began functioning better on it's own, and my depression was lessening. Not only was the physical activity helping my moods, but being outside in the fresh air and sunshine with good company was helping lift my spirits. While I was shedding weight, I was also shedding a dark cloud that had been built up in my soul for a long time.
In the late spring of 2011 I met Jennifer Pharr Davis. She was the female speed record holder for the Appalachian Trail. She was going to try to (and did!) set the overall speed record during the summer. I had already started throwing around the idea of doing a thru hike after spending some time with friends who had done large sections and, after meeting her and listening to how she spoke of the life changing experience of hiking the trail, I knew I had to do it... but how on earth would I manage something like that?! That summer a friend of mine began a bucket list item - hiking the 900 miles of trail in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park before her next birthday. She spent every single weekend out on the trails and by now I was one of the faster hikers. I spent most of my weekends with Elise and other friends of hers doing obscure day hikes and combinations of trails that no one could ever even dream of! With Elise at my side I took my first ever multi-day backpacking trip. Because of all the hard work I put in with her, by the fall of 2011 I knew for sure I could not only start a thru hike but I also knew I would complete one!
By the time I left for Springer Mountain in Georgia on March 27th, 2012 I had lost 50 pounds. I was a strong hiker who for the first month of the trail didn't spend more than a night or two with the same person because I usually completed more miles. I was physically prepared for the trail and even dropped 8 more pounds throughout the length of my hike. By the time I walked to Maine I was the strongest and fittest person I had ever been in my life (with the worst diet probably!). After getting back home to Tennessee I wasn't walking 20+ miles every day and the weight started to come back - much to my horror. Granted, some of those last 8 pounds were caused by dehydration and would be gained back... but it's hard to tell yourself that when you've worked so hard to lose so much weight in the first place. Hand-in-hand with coming back into the real world from a thru hike comes post-trail depression. The inactivity and depression started throwing me back into a spiral of sadness I remembered from years ago and it scared me.
I started running about a month after I got home from the AT as a way to stay busy and fit when I couldn't go hiking every single day. I was running 5K's at Thanksgiving and New Year's and doing the miles started to feel normal to me. After moving to Millinocket in 2013, I made it a priority to take a walk nearly every night around town. Sometimes I even ran a 5K by looping twice around the greenway they had at Millinocket Stream. It wasn't until we moved to Syracuse that I started seriously thinking about running as a way to fill my time. I ran my first half marathon in the spring of 2015 after training through the brutally cold winter outdoors before daylight. For the first time since finishing my thru hike I truly felt accomplished and proud of the things I was doing. Running went from something I really hated to something that kept me focused and sane. By the time we left for the Benton MacKaye Trail in the late spring of 2015 I was in the best cardiovascular shape I had ever been in!
I now consider myself extremely lucky to call myself a hiking guide. I now get paid to share my love of the trails and backpacking with people who are new to the sport. In my free time now I've run a multitude of races, added two more long-distance trails to my hiking resume, and I am even training for my first full marathon in the spring of 2016. If you were to ask me 5 years ago if I ever would have seen myself here I would have told you that you were crazy!
The reason I'm sharing this story now is because I feel like it's important to tell people that small changes add up. I get messages of people asking me how to start hiking with a group; people who are slow and overweight like I was and are afraid to make others wait on them. The reason I'm sharing this is to tell you that we all have to start somewhere. Hell, I even had to learn how to WALK again before I could hike. We all start slow. We all need time to ease into it. If you want to start hiking - GO FOR IT! Hiking changed my life. It saved my life. I'd hate to think where I could be today without it.
By: Jennifer Kelley, Sevierville, TN
I never used to be a runner. I ran from time to time, a mile or two, here and there, often with many years in between. I hiked sometimes, biked sometimes, but never really had any sort of fitness program at all. I’d been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis when I was 26. I had symptoms like weakness, fatigue and dizziness, and sudden onset blindness a few times. My neurologist told me every time I saw her that she would prescribe exercise to me if she could, but I never really took that to heart. The things I had to do took enough work, and exercise just didn’t seem like something I could work into my day. I went to grad school, got a good job, got married, had a child, but I never really prioritized exercise. When I was 40, I learned I had MS related sleep apnea, and I began to treat it. I had been on intermittent disability at work because of fatigue, and with treatment of the apnea, I began to get some energy back. By a stroke of luck, I happened to be having a great day one Saturday in late October of 2011. I went shopping for groceries, and I realized it was the weekend of the Mount Desert Island (MDI) Marathon. The town was buzzing with athletes preparing for a weekend of running adventures. I had a moment of envying those smiling, fit people. Then, almost immediately, I had a moment of enlightenment. Right there in the produce department of the Hannaford, I decided I would run the MDI marathon in 2012.
That night I told my husband of my plan. He looked at me, shook his head, and said "Okay." in a somewhat incredulous, but supportive tone. So the next day, I dug a 10 year old pair of running shoes out of my closet, and went for a torturous one mile run. It sucked. I doubted myself. 41 year old people with MS who couldn’t even stay awake all day for the past few years just don’t start running. So I made myself publically accountable. I came home from that run and posted my goal online. I started raising money for the MS Society. I ran. Got to 2 miles, then I bought some new running shoes. Four miles, and it started to not suck so bad. But then it was winter, and it was cold and icy. I still ran. Once I slipped on the ice two miles out on a dirt trail, hurt my knee, hobbled back. Went out and ran again (on the plowed roads this time). I kept running.
Someone told me I should run some other race before I went and ran a marathon, so I signed up for a half marathon in June of 2012. It was so hot that day I wanted to die. But I finished the race, thanks to nice people with ice cold sponges and hoses spraying water, and my pure determination. In October 2012, I was ready for the full. It was in the mid 40’s and raining on the day of the race, but all the pics I have of me, I was smiling like crazy. I was happy! I was living my year long, hard earned dream, and it felt great! I felt great! I finished the marathon (a hilly one!) in 4:42:26. And I raised several thousand dollars for the National MS Society. It was amazing.
The best thing was that running was no longer difficult. It was fun! I saw such a strong connection between my energy levels and my fitness. I’ve now run 13 other marathon distance or greater races, and I’m currently training for an Ironman triathlon. I’ve accomplished things I’ve never thought possible, and had tons of fun doing it. I know I still have a diagnosis of MS, but it’s no longer who I am. I’m a runner. I do lots of other things, too, but everything now is fueled by the confidence and energy that running has given me. I’m so thankful for those happy runners in Bar Harbor in October 2011, and for the little bit of jealousy that they sparked in me, and for everyone who supported me in that first year and the years after. Run on!
By: Melissa Ossanna, Bar Harbor, Maine