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.

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.