Sole Sisters: How 9 Women Became Runners

One woman had broken her neck (twice). Others were dedicated couch potatoes. But when a powerhouse mentor came into their lives they hit the ground running and never looked back.

female-runners-stretching
Photo by Melissa Ann Pinney

Alexandra Allred isn’t one to shy away from a challenge. A former competitive bobsledder, the 47-year-old fitness instructor has played women’s professional football, self-published books, and fought against industrial pollution (alongside Erin Brockovich, no less) in her hometown of Midlothian, Texas.



But in June 2010 Alex found herself struggling with an unexpected problem: how to instill confidence in her students at the local gym. A number of the women who attended Alex’s kickboxing class constantly complained about how they looked and how they felt—but resisted doing much to improve their lives. Some were coping with debilitating conditions. Linda Dean, a 52-year-old magazine sales executive, had struggled for 10 years with various illnesses. Patty Soper-Shaw, a university registrar, also 52, had lost all the toes on her right foot in a childhood accident. Michelle Powe (Alex’s sister), a 49-year-old college instructor, had broken her neck twice and suffered from chronic headaches.

Others in the group—such as Minerva “Minnie” Silva, a 49-year-old administrative assistant; Jill Dunegan, a 42-year-old elementary-school teacher; Julie Watkins, a 40-year-old writer; Sheri Torrez, a 49-year-old executive assistant; and Heather Wells, a 36-year-old financial-accounts specialist—were out of shape. At first, Alex was sympathetic. But after listening to the group lament every week about how hopeless and exhausted they felt, she had had enough.

Alex: I said, “Ladies, right now we’re going to run a mile.”

Linda: We all laughed. I had been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease, interstitial cystitis, fibromyalgia, tennis elbow—you name it. I had joined the gym only two months earlier as a last ditch effort to help myself. I thought, There’s no way I can run.

Minnie: I hadn’t run since high school.

Sheri: Within just a few years, my 24-year marriage had come to an end and I’d been laid off. When I joined Alex’s class, I was in such bad shape, I got out of breath walking down the hall.

Patty: I wear an orthotic device in my shoe. Running seemed nearly impossible.

Julie: Five years before, I had gone running, but only to impress my boyfriend (who’s now my husband). I had since had three kids and gained 40 pounds.

Michelle: No one but Alex thought we could last a whole mile.

Linda: Like many women, I had been working and attending to my kids my entire adult life, not taking care of myself. As a result, I  didn’t like who I was.

Mired in negativity, the women couldn’t see how putting one foot in front of the other could make a difference. Although previously they had only chatted casually before class, they suddenly spoke as one voice in opposition to Alex—who paid no attention.

Alex: I sent them on their run. I knew these women were strong, but they didn’t believe it. They needed a reason to feel good about themselves.

Linda: I got so tired. Just breathing was hard.

Michelle: Nothing moved naturally—not my legs, feet, or arms.

Patty: I was the last one to finish, but everyone in the group waited outside the gym and cheered me on. I hadn’t heard applause like that since I walked across the stage for my master’s degree, in 2006.

Alex: You know why it’s so exciting to see someone run her first mile? Because if you can run one, you can run three. Then five. Then eight. And so on.

Julie: After that, Alex came into class and said, “We’re going to run a 5K.” Then “Better yet, a half marathon!” A few of us complained, “That’s too much!” or “I don’t have time!” or “I’m out of shape!” It really sounded scary, but we agreed to keep running.

Feeling the Burn

Summers in Texas are notoriously hot and humid. To avoid the worst of the weather, the women dragged themselves out of bed at 5 a.m. or met after work to run together as many as five days a week. (Impressively, they kickboxed at the gym on the other days.) Initially, only a few made it past the two-mile marker. But as they gradually clocked in more miles, the Main Street Gym Midlothian Running Club—as they started calling themselves—stopped being afraid of failing or ending up in a heap by the side of the road. Most surprisingly, they started to enjoy running together.

Patty: If anyone had ever told me I would be getting up at dawn to run, I would have said he was out of his mind.

Linda: I didn’t believe I could ever run very far, but each time the other women pushed me to keep going.

Julie: To everyone’s surprise, running started becoming our group addiction. We were all motivated by the feeling of accomplishment. The power. The stress relief. And the camaraderie.

They developed intense friendships, all the more unusual since it would be difficult to find a more diverse cross section of women. Ranging in age from 24 to 52, the group included married women and singles, religious believers and non-churchgoers, Tea Party conservatives and Obama supporters. And yet small talk on their runs soon gave way to deeper discussions about personal challenges and even life-and-death matters.

Julie: I was struggling to get pregnant again and was so scared that I would have to start fertility treatments. The first time I admitted that to anyone was on a run.

Heather: My eight-year-old daughter, Allison, was diagnosed with bone cancer. I was devastated, and I stopped running. But the other women didn’t forget about me. They made time to call and stop by. They also organized a fun run for Allison, which raised $4,000 to help pay her medical bills. I was so touched. Thankfully, my daughter’s disease was caught early. She’s now 10 and doing fine.

 

A Long Road

While a few of the women, like Patty and Sheri, opted to stick with shorter routes, the others eventually started to tackle longer runs, working their way up to the 13.1-mile half marathon in Cleburne, Texas, on October 30, 2010. But over the course of the summer the relentless training regimen began to tax them all physically.

Alex: Everyone had a mini meltdown.

Jill: I sweat a lot, so I had to invent creative ways to keep from losing electrolytes. I tried eating fried pickles beforehand.

Alex: Jill once lost so much salt that her toes curled up under her and she couldn’t walk.

Jill: My calf knotted and the cramp traveled to my foot. I had to walk on my toes to straighten them out, then start running again.

Alex: Another day, Minnie wiped out over the railroad tracks.

Minnie: I still can’t believe I didn’t break my leg or arm.

Alex: There were so many obstacles: Idiot drivers nearly sideswiped us on the road. We ran into copperheads on the trails. I got so used to seeing snakes, I began shoving them off the path with a stick.

Michelle: But we kept going, in spite of it all. There’s a power that comes from having women friends who support you.

Alex: For example, Jill is petrified of heights, so each time we ran across an overpass, Minnie quietly moved to her side. Some of the women are nervous around dogs, so if we encountered loose ones, Michelle and I would run out in front. We learned to take care of each other.

Making A Trial Run

Throughout the early fall, the members of the running club competed in small local races, including one that took place on a muddy, military-style obstacle course. They scrambled up rope ladders, crawled through puddles, and even jumped over fire, sticking together each time. For six of the women, the practice runs culminated in the long-awaited October half marathon.

Alex: All the training and planning, the ridiculously early runs, the juggling of work and family—it all boiled down to that moment before the race. All you wanted to know was “Can I do this?” The only person who didn’t think so the morning of the half marathon was Linda. She was super nervous.

Linda: My stomach was cramping. I hadn’t been able to sleep the night before.

Alex: I gave her a strategy: Run eight miles, which she had already done in training, then walk the rest.

Julie: We started off strong together, thinking the course was going to be flat. Then we hit our first hill and…oh boy, it was ugly.

Minnie: To make the time pass, we took turns telling outrageous stories about ourselves.

Alex: Which we’ll never share! What happens on the run stays on the run. And by mile nine Linda was feeling good and just kept going, one foot in front of the other.

Linda: Alex, Minnie, Jill, Michelle, and Julie finished three to six minutes ahead of me. They all stood there, waiting for me to cross the finish line. They were yelling and cheering.

Alex: Even Minnie, the class toughie, got tears in her eyes.

Minnie: It was amazing to see Linda go from believing she was sick and doubting herself to being healthy and confident.

Linda: I was so sore, I could barely walk. But it was wonderful.

 

Facing Hurdles

For some, completing the half marathon was accomplishment enough, but a core group—Jill, Michelle, Minnie, Julie, and, of course, Alex—decided to shoot for the Dallas White Rock Marathon on December 5, 2010.

However, once the race was a mere five weeks away, the women were beset by even more problems. Training had strained their hips, knees, backs, and calves. Jill and Minnie became racked with self-doubt, worried that they couldn’t make the 26.2 miles. Julie’s husband shipped out with the National Guard, which made it difficult for her to train while juggling three kids and a full-time job. Both Minnie and Alex contracted pneumonia.

Alex was also grappling with terrible news: Her 15-year-old daughter, Katie, who was planning to run the half marathon at White Rock, had been diagnosed with a brain tumor. An operation to remove it was scheduled for the week after the race.


Alex: I’m a control freak. I can control a run, but I couldn’t control my daughter’s medical condition or her surgery. I didn’t want to even think, What if something goes wrong? But the fear was there. Training for the race gave Katie and me something healthy to focus on while we waited to see what would happen.

Michelle: I was worried about Alex. She was so stressed about Katie’s condition.

Jill: All the while, we continued to train like never before. We planned our weekends around our runs and watched everything we ate and drank. We did near backflips to find time to run around work and family, and our routes became so grueling that it messed with our emotional stamina.

Minnie: For our last run, Alex said we would only do an easy route. She lied. Instead, she had secretly plotted a circuit of 13.4 miles—all in the freezing cold.

Alex: I had to lie! Minnie kept saying, “I can’t do it. I can’t do it.” She was letting all these doubts come into her head.

Minnie: It started sleeting. I couldn’t feel my hands or feet. I could have killed Alex! But it was her way of pushing me.

Alex: People curse at me all the time. I don’t take it personally. I knew that if the women dug down deep, they could do so much.

Jill: When I began doubting whether I could really finish a marathon, I depended on Alex to keep me motivated. And she did.

The Finish Line

The morning of the race, the women were giddy with anticipation. Training for the marathon had become about much more than burning calories and building endurance. The women were overcoming the fears and the insecurities that had dogged them for years.

Julie: That morning, Alex looked at each of us and said, “Your life is going to change today.”

Jill: We tried to keep things light and funny, because when we got serious, we teared up, realizing what we were about to accomplish.

Michelle: Once, while I was going through a very painful period in my life, Alex had given me a medal that she had gotten from running the San Antonio marathon. It meant so much to me. And now here I was, about to get my own.

Jill: We stayed together in the beginning. But around mile six, I noticed that I had lost everyone. I ran back to try to find them. I needed these women! There was no way I was doing this alone.

Minnie: Around mile eight, my knee started acting up. I was in excruciating pain every time I took a step. Alex stayed with me.

Alex: I ran around like an idiot trying to entertain Minnie. I didn’t want her to give up.

Minnie: I walked and ran and cried all the way.

Alex: It’s your buddies who get you through a marathon. When your hips start talking and your knees start hurting, it’s your friends who drown out the pain in your head.

Julie: Around mile 16, I hit a major wall. I lost feeling in my arms. By mile 19, I wanted to curl up into a ball and cry. Not until mile 22 did I finally think, This is ridiculous. I can do this. And then I put my legs in gear and took off.

Alex: When Minnie and I made it into the home stretch, I was so happy that I trotted over to talk to Julie, Jill, and Michelle, who were done and waiting on the sidelines.

Michelle: We told Alex to finish the race. She was so focused on how we felt that she completely forgot to cross the finish line.

Minnie: Those women showed me that even while dealing with  physical trauma, I could do anything.

Michelle: Afterward I thought, Maybe I’ll do a triathlon. And I wasn’t being delusional! I have never felt more confident.

Alex: Katie leapt over the finish line with her hands above her head in triumph. When she went to bed that night, with her medal next to her bedside, she was one happy girl. And then three days  later she had the surgery, and we learned her tumor was benign. Thank God. As soon as she started to recover from the operation, she started asking me: “So, when can I start running again?”

Going the Distance

The running club continues to meet as often as they can. Together the women have run in 10Ks, stair-flight races, and more half marathons. And in the process they’ve conquered many of their personal demons.

Linda: I’m no longer on any medications. My physical ailments are all under control; my blood pressure is normal. I don’t feel half dead anymore. It’s because of the running—and the wonderful women in my life who will quite honestly kick my butt if I stop.

Michelle: Because of my spinal and nerve injuries, I’ll always have headaches. But I’m not overwhelmed by them anymore.

Julie: In the spring of 2011, I ran another 5K—while I was three months pregnant. I run with my husband, too. Training has made us so much closer. We feel like we’re dating again.

Patty: I look and feel better than I ever have. I’ve lost 45 pounds.

Linda: Now I see women at my church who are overweight and  unhappy with their lives and I think, They’re who I used to be. I’ve encouraged them to start running.

Michelle: Who we are today is because of Alex. She’s the one who got us off our couches and into running shoes.

Minnie: I wouldn’t change these last two years for anything. These women have been there to laugh, to listen, to cry with me, and to challenge me.

Alex: It’s not like we’re training for the Olympics. There’s no glory. But I’ve been on medal podiums before, and to me these runs are far more satisfying. Even running through the cemetery in the dark or dealing with snakes in our path represents something for each of us.

Linda: I used to say, “I can’t” all the time. I said it over and over in my head. Now I tell myself, “You can do this. You will finish.” That’s why I run.