Why I run: Renewal, recovery & redemption

From recovering after cancer to coping with divorce, these three women from the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition have discovered running is about far more than just physical exercise. On West Michigan's trails, they've found camaraderie, confidence and a whole lot more.
There are plenty of reasons to run: to stay fit, to de-stress, to make and stay in touch with friends, to cross-train for other sports, and, for some, just for the sheer fun of it. In the summer, throughout the country, and especially in West Michigan, hundreds of races and relays exist to test the stamina, speed and running power of those devoted to the sport, and those who have just taken on this challenging activity.  While many running events are created for individuals (see the popular Fifth Third River Bank Run or the Grand Rapids Marathon), others are designed for teams, grouping runners together in a long-distance relay.

The Fred, a 200- and 100-mile relay set on the Fred Meijer White Pine Trail State Park, is one such event. Among the hundreds of runners participating in six to 12-person teams, three women of the West Michigan Trails and Greenways Coalition (WMTGC) relay team sat down to divulge their personal reasons for running, and the stories that led them to this year's race.

Lindsay Woodard"I was never a runner growing up," says Lindsay Woodard. However, after she turned 30 and had given birth to two children, Woodard began to re-focus on her health, committing to a "couch to 5K" program and ultimately losing 50 pounds. Woodard also turned to running to de-stress during a particularly turbulent time in her life in which she was experiencing a divorce. "Running and exercise was that one thing that I felt like I was able to control in my life," she says.

Woodard then completed her first 5K five years ago, going on to participate in other races of the same distance and in half marathons, and is currently training for The Fred and a full marathon in the Grand Rapids Marathon this October. Through her training for various events, Woodard didn't pay much attention to her pace, but kept her eye on the prize: finishing. "It doesn't matter if it takes you 15 minutes or five minutes to complete a mile…the main thing is that you complete it," she says.

Woodard also is a fan of events with open, inviting courses that allow spectators to follow along. This is important to Woodard, who always invites her two children to watch her compete. "I really want to be a role model for them," she says. Especially with longer events like The Fred and the upcoming marathon, it's vital for Woodard to "get my kids out there so they can see what I'm doing," she says. "I want my children to know that their health is always very important."

Jennifer MorrisonAnother WMTGC team member, Jennifer Morrison, admits, "I never was a fantastic runner, and I started very late." Beginning the sport at 46, Morrison ran regularly for just a few years before she was diagnosed with colorectal cancer in 2013 at age 50. After two surgeries, three hospital stays, six weeks of radiation, and countless MRIs and cat scans, Morrison was cancer free. However, the path to recovery was not easy. "I had a tough road of figuring out how to handle the new system," says Morrison, who thought, "running…I won't be able to do that ever again."

However, family, friends and her doctor encouraged her to get back out there. At first unsure and a bit unsteady, essentially re-learning how her body would react to the strenuous exercise, Morrison began running on West Michigan's trails. "I like the trails because they're flat; a lot of time they're shaded; you can do an out-and-back," she says. Eventually, Morrison built up her confidence and endurance and was soon joining her husband, John Morrison, the executive director of the WMTGC, on runs. "He has long legs and he's faster than me," jokes Morrison, of their runs together.

Soon enough, John suggested that she join his WMTGC Fred relay team, and Morrison reluctantly agreed to run three required spurs of two to nine miles. After cancer, recovery and a return to feeling like herself, Morrison looks forward to proving she can again test her body and mind. "It feels amazing. I'm thrilled that I can do this," she says. "I know that I can run…I just have more confidence." Morrison has been blogging about her training adventure on her blog, BadAssJen.

Another WMTGC Fred team member has also capitalized on the confidence and positive thinking created through training. Though "I am not a runner at all," claims Barb Ellis, she had the gumption to join the relay team when friend and team trainer Kym Matthews suggested she attempt the event. "I've always been interested in running," says Ellis. "This would be a great opportunity to get into it."

Training three times per week and with her teammates twice per month on Saturdays, Ellis enjoyed the camaraderie of the joint schedule. "It's really empowering and uplifting to have a great group of team members to work through this with," she says. Though this is her first event and Ellis admits that running "is definitely challenging and at times very discouraging," she looks forward to the challenge.

Whether it's overcoming personal obstacles and taking control, getting fit or even recovering from illness, every runner has their own reasons for taking to the street or the trails. This August, Woodard, Morrison and Ellis will each conquer their own goals, while working as a team to finish 200 miles on the White Pine Trail. To those who have never before run a relay or jogged their first step, Ellis says, "You've just got to get out there and do it." To which, Woodard adds, "It's never too late to start."

This article is part of an ongoing series, Moments on the Trails, and was made possible by the West Michigan Trails & Greenways Coalition. For more information about the WMTGC, visit wmtrails.org.

Photography by Adam Bird
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