What compels thousands of us to hit the roads and trails, day after day? Stress? Friendship? Health? Survival? For many, it's all of the above.
I’ll never forget that Tuesday morning in 2006 when I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. I was bouncing an inconsolable baby on one hip while straining over the sink to keep my older son—who could not, despite my simple instructions, figure out how to brush his teeth—from smearing toothpaste in his eye.
Three years earlier, I had left my career as an editor to stay home and figure out how to raise kids. Now here I was, still dressed in the frumpy pajamas that accommodated the extra dozen—okay, 15—pounds I hadn’t been able to shake after my second pregnancy. (I had recently overheard a friend whisper to another friend that it looked like I hadn’t gotten back down to my fighting weight, had I? Ouch.) And I was working myself raw for two miniature bosses who couldn’t yet articulate a “thank-you.”
That’s when I broke. I screamed at the kids, at my reflection in the mirror and threw a toothbrush across the room. After 33 years, the competent, put-together woman I’d strived to become was no longer recognizable.
That evening, after scraping emotional and physical rock-bottom, I plunked dinner on the table, handed the reins over to my husband, Kevin, and excused myself to go out for a run.
I had never been a runner. It was just the cheapest, most flexible and immediate means of escapism that I could muster. But the relief was almost instantaneous. As I trotted down Lee Highway to the Key Bridge and back up again, pumping Death Cab for Cutie through my earbuds, I relished the fact that I wasn’t pushing a stroller or strapped to a baby. I felt like a new person.
Meanwhile, without me around as the go-to parent, Kevin had a chance to do all of those Awesome Dad things—clean up after dinner, get bath time started and host a kids’ dance party. The boys got to bond with their father and I was grateful for the time off. It was a win for everyone.
So I decided to make a habit of it. As my outings became more routine, my friend Matt would meet me for runs on the W&OD trail behind his house. He eventually convinced me to sign up for a small race. All of a sudden, my pre-pregnancy jeans started to fit again. Buoyed by the endorphin high and the positive feedback, I became a much nicer person to be around.
I’m hardly the first frazzled soul to discover the therapeutic benefits of running. We live in a community where foot-traffic jams are a regular occurrence on sidewalks and trails after work, where numbered bibs held up with safety pins are standard weekend attire. This simplest of workouts may not be a new concept (it’s as old as humanity itself), but it certainly has caught on in recent years. Consider the annual Arlington Turkey Trot in Lyon Park and Ashton Heights, which started in 2006 with 275 participants. In 2013, it counted 3,100 runners.
George Banker, who has served as operations manager for the Army Ten-Miler since 2003, says that in the ’80s and ’90s, it was common for runners to register the night before the race. Not anymore. For the past six years, the October event, which starts and ends at the Pentagon, has sold out—usually within 24 hours of when general registration opens in May. (A similar frenzy has swept the Marine Corps Marathon, which, in 2012, sold out its 30,000 bib numbers in just over two hours.)
Two years ago, organizers for the Ten-Miler increased the maximum number of registrants from 30,000 to 35,000. Some 80 percent of its participants hail from Northern Virginia.
“I was 32 when I started running,” says Banker, 64, who worked at IBM for 25 years before assuming his current post. “Before that, I was locked in with my Chivas Regal Scotch and my pipe, and I thought that the three of us were going to walk off into the sunset together. Then one day I realized that I couldn’t run a mile in under 12 minutes and I knew something was wrong with this picture. I figured I’d better fix it.”
This spring, Banker ran his 97th marathon.
Running culture’s veritable stampede into the 21st century isn’t just a local phenomenon. According to a biennial survey compiled by the national nonprofit Running USA, the number of male race-finishers nationwide nearly doubled in the last decade, increasing from 3.6 million to 6.8 million between 1990 and 2012. And that’s nothing compared with the women. During that same time period, the ranks of females entering and finishing foot races exploded from 1.2 million to 8.7 million.
Hannah Grieco is one of those women. At 38, she is one of the 650 members of the Arlington/Alexandria chapter of Moms RUN This Town (MRTT), a group she joined last year. Since then she has completed more than ten races, including three half-marathons. She is now registered to run the Marine Corps Marathon this fall. “Running has been my lifeline to sanity and happiness,” explains the Waverly Hills mom of three. “In moms’ groups, you talk about breastfeeding and your birth story, but it’s still all about your kids. I was proud of myself for doing something that had nothing to do with being a mom. I had lost sight of who I was.”
Deborah Brooks tells a similar story. “I was a stay-at-home mom and my life was revolving around my kids,” says the McLean resident, 44, who founded MRTT’s McLean chapter in February 2013. “I found something that was only for me.” Clearly other McLean moms had a similar urge to lace up and hit the road. Within 14 months, Brooks’ group had 250 members.
MRTT is a nationwide outfit with multiple chapters in our area (the Falls Church group has 187 members, according to its Facebook page), but it’s hardly the only runners’ club in town. Countless other tribes of like-minded individuals have assembled around the common goal of staying fit through this most basic form of exercise.
Take Lava Ladies, a cadre that first came together in 2003 when four women, whose kids attended the Children’s House Montessori School on North Glebe Road, discovered that they were training separately for marathons.
“For the first several years it was just the four of us, but then we started to grow by word of mouth,” says the group’s leader, Darla Gonson, who lives in East Falls Church.
Today, its two dozen or so members range in age from the late 30s to mid-50s. Many are current or former moms from Tuckahoe Elementary School; all are crazy enough to get up in the dark while the rest of their families are still in bed, and run five miles or more, three times a week.
What’s up with the name, Lava Ladies? It was coined when the group’s founding members ran their first Ragnar (a 200-mile overnight relay race) in 2009. “We had to come up with a team name to enter,” explains Gonson, now 50. “Our tagline was Not so fast, but pretty damn hot.” Today, that tagline is a bit of a misnomer, considering that the various members who participate in relays—they’ve done six—usually end up placing first or second in their age group. But they stress that it’s not all about winning.
“Forty percent of the reason I get up at 5 a.m. to run with this group is the physical aspect of it, but 60 percent is mental,” says Marta Perez Drake, 43, a Yorktown resident who’s been running with Lava since 2004. “It’s about starting your day with a group of women who I can talk to about anything”—aging parents, illnesses, marriages, kids—“and I know that anything we discuss is confidential. We have a saying, What’s said on the trail stays on the trail. There’s something about how when you’re both looking forward rather than right at each other, you share more. You talk about everything.”
Plus, Drake adds wryly, the group serves as a de facto neighborhood watch. “I have two kids and I hope they always make good choices,” she says. “But I will often remind them that when they’re out and about on their own to remember, Lava is watching. We are everywhere in this town. You can’t get away with something without having one of us find out.”
Is running our new cultural obsession, in the same way that throngs of ab-crunching hopefuls sweated it out to Jane Fonda aerobics routines in the ’80s? A snapshot of the local landscape certainly seems to suggest as much—except that there are far more guys in on the action now that the uniform doesn’t include leotards and leg warmers.
“At 6 p.m., you’ll see just as many people going for a run as are going to the bars [for happy hour],” says ultra-runner Michael Wardian, 40, who lives in the Arlington Forest neighborhood. “And if you show up at Iwo Jima on Saturday morning, good luck getting a spot on the trail.”
Despite the crowds, Wardian, an Olympic 100K silver medalist and a Guinness World Record holder (he ran the fastest marathon dressed as a superhero), is intent on rounding up more converts. He occasionally leads organized group runs—departing from the Pacers store in Clarendon, or from the sweetgreen in Ballston—designed to get first-time runners into the sport.
“We talk about shoes, nutrition, and go for a short 1.5-mile run,” he says. “It’s community-building. People see that I’m not a freak of nature just because I now run hundred-milers; I started out just like them.”
Last year, more than 50,000 runners registered for at least one of the 18 runs in the local Pacers Race Series—a string of events that included the Crystal City 5Ks and Twilighter runs, the Four Courts Four Miler, and the Clarendon Day 5K, 10K and Kids Dash. “Most of our races are shorter distances [10 miles or less] so that they can be accessible to everyone,” says Pacers race coordinator Kathy Dalby.
Adults aren’t the only ones giving running a try. This spring, 319 girls in Arlington, 33 girls in Falls Church City, and more than 1,500 girls in Fairfax County registered for Girls on the Run, a national elementary-school-based program that uses running to teach girls about health, strength of character, and respect for self and others. At the culmination of the spring session, the girls ran one of two 5K races—either in Ballston or Merrifield—where their friends, family and teachers could sign up to run alongside them. The Northern Virginia chapter of Girls on the Run is the third-largest in the nation.
In April, Falls Church fourth-grader Rheinhardt Harrison set a world record for the fastest 10-miler ever run by a 10-year-old, finishing the Cherry Blossom Ten Mile Run in the District in 1:11:24.
Cherrydale resident Ryan Shadrick Wilson would argue that running has simply become part of our shared identity. “It’s just assumed that everyone runs,” she says.
“Running is the new golf.” Shadrick Wilson serves as general counsel for Partnership for a Healthier America, a nonprofit aimed at ending childhood obesity (it was founded in conjunction with first lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign). She recalls being in a recent meeting on physical activity where attendees shared their personal running stories as an icebreaker.
People run for all kinds of reasons, many of them personal.
Falls Church resident Tim Rowe, 45, a former semipro soccer player, resolved to keep running after he hung up his cleats, having witnessed his father’s own health struggles. “My dad had three quadruple-bypass surgeries. It scared me to see what he went through,” says Rowe, who works in health care IT. “I have two sons now and I don’t want to do that to them. My father was a great role model for me in many ways, but he was also an example of what not to do. He really made me aware of how important it is to stay active.”
For Sarah Lee, a Lyon Village mother of two who left a career in broadcast journalism in 2011 and is now the director of public relations for Choice Hotels International in Rockville, each morning run is a race against time.
“I’m trying to defy age through strength,” says Lee, who has run 23 marathons in 19 years (she’s qualified for Boston four times, and she ran the 2011 D.C. Ragnar relay as an ultra, meaning half as many team members and twice the mileage per person).
Now 43, Lee meets up with her eight-person running group four to five times a week, sometimes as early as 4:30 a.m. “Once you start to back down, it’s sort of a slippery slope,” she says. “I have to work harder and put more thought into it now. I’ve also got to pay attention to rest and diet.”
Arlington County School Board member Noah Simon, 39, says he runs “to control my weight, clear my mind and do my best thinking. I always try to come back from my runs with one big idea.”
For the past several months, Simon has also been running in remembrance of his wife, Kedron, who passed away in December after a 15-month battle with duodenal cancer. The two met for the first time in 1998 at the Marine Corps Marathon (Simon was a runner; she, a spectator). Kedron ran the marathon the following year and they married in 2000. Running was an integral thread in their lives and their relationship for the next 13 years.
During his wife’s illness, running was a constant for Simon in an otherwise chaotic and stressful time. “Kedron knew that for my mental health and physical well-being, I needed to run,” says the Cherrydale father of two. Now the metronomic sound of his footfalls is helping to propel him through a period of impossible sadness. “It’s nice to be able to have running as a hobby,” he says. “Some people golf. Some people go to bars. I run.”
Of all the coping methods people rely on in times of grief, running is certainly one of the healthier ones. Moderate, frequent exercise is known to reduce the symptoms of depression and anxiety. McLean-based sports psychologist Jennifer Lager says that many of her clients report that running has an almost spiritual, meditative effect on them.
“It’s also a way to connect to a different part of your identity,” she says. “You spend so much time being a parent, a spouse, a professional, but running is a way to connect to the joyfulness of just using your body.”
Moreover, training and competing in a group can have other psychological benefits. “Shared experiences, like facing and overcoming challenges together, are very powerful experiences,” Lager says. “To support someone through that is very meaningful.”
Running has obvious physical benefits, too. “It sounds corny, but physical fitness really is the best medicine there is,” says Lauren Proctor, a physical therapist at Body Dynamics in Falls Church. “The more in shape you are, the longer you’ll stave off any illness, whether that’s diabetes or heart disease. We’ve had…clients who come in on medication and who are then able to reduce medications or get off them all together [through exercise].”
A high-impact aerobic activity like running also can help to increase bone density, Proctor says. “When you run, you’re putting two to three times your body weight on your legs with each step,” she explains. “This is what’s known as Wolff’s Law, which states that bone mass in a healthy person will increase to accommodate the pressure that’s put on it.”
Janeen Porche, 37, a financial analyst who lives near Shirlington, runs for health reasons that supersede her mere desire to stay in shape. Thirteen years ago, she was diagnosed with a brain AVM (an arteriovenous malformation or “brain bleed”), which left her in a wheelchair and unable to speak clearly. She was told she’d never walk again.
Determined to overcome that prognosis, Porche endured 10 months of grueling physical therapy and regained her ability to walk and talk. In 2011, she saw a flier for Team in Training, a fundraising program for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. The program promised it could get her to run a half-marathon. She accepted the challenge.
“I ran outside once a week—it scared the bejezus out of me [because] I was self-conscious and slow,” she says. “I worried that people would judge me and think Oh, you’re not a runner. But [I’ve found that] runners are only encouraging.” In 2012, Porche joined the Arlington Road Runners Club, which at last count had 180 members.
She now runs 10 to 30 miles a week and has completed five half-marathons in three years.
Falls Church resident Heather Jeff similarly chose running as a form of therapy after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2002.
“It shifted my foundation. I realized that I needed to enjoy what I had. For me, running was giving the middle finger to MS,” says Jeff, now 40, whose blog, findyourinnerpace.com, chronicles her story. “I’m not on medication—my doctor is amazed. My identity is not my disease.”
For Meg Nelson, 33, a member of the Arlington/Alexandria chapter of MRTT, running is an activity that’s helped her keep a lifelong eating disorder at bay.
“Anorexia/bulimia is a psychological disorder: Any time I felt like something started spinning out of my control, I would turn to food to try to regain control of my life,” explains Nelson, who, for 15 years, yo-yoed in a pattern of starvation and weight gain.
“When my daughter was 3, she started to ask me about the way I was eating,” Nelson says. “Here I was, telling her to make healthy choices and teaching her not to rely on outward appearances—that you’re only as pretty as you are on the inside—and I realized that I didn’t feel about myself the way I was asking her to feel about herself. I was totally hypocritical.”
Resolving to get healthy, Nelson started a Couch-to-5K program (“It sucked, I hated it,” she admits) and kept surprising herself by going farther and farther.
She also educated herself on what she needed to eat in order to fuel her body, which included a balanced intake of proteins, fats and carbs. This fall, she will run her second marathon.
“In order to run 30-plus miles a week, I have to eat a good diet and have a good measure of determination—it kind of forces me to stay healthy. It’s been transformational,” Nelson says. “Running has really saved me.”
Sometimes we run to save others. Jennica Whitfield, who lives in Falls Church, ran a 10K in May to raise funds for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. Her daughter, Ellie, was diagnosed with leukemia in 2013 at age 4. “I run now because I want to connect with other moms and because it’s raising money for a good cause,” explains Whitfield, 36. She says that Ellie has responded well to treatment and her prognosis is good. “I want to give back to an organization that’s helped save my daughter’s life.”
Frank Fumich, 46, a resident of Arlington’s Stoneridge neighborhood, recently ran 450 miles from D.C. to Boston with his friend Matt Nelson to raise money for the families of the Boston Marathon bombing victims. He describes the sensation of crossing the finish line as one of both pleasure and pain.
“I don’t do it because it’s fun,” says Fumich, who raised $81,100 on the road to Bean Town. “I do it because I want to see what I’m made of.”
If there’s one thing local running groups know how to do, it’s rally.
Falls Church resident Whitney Casstevens, 39, who runs with Lava Ladies, can attest to that fact. “I recently fell and broke both wrists at 10 p.m. on a Saturday night,” says the mother of three. “By 5 a.m. Sunday, the group had set up a meal service website for me and the list was already full. Here I am with two broken arms, but I knew that my family was going to be okay. This group is just amazing.”
Many of us run for fitness, competition, camaraderie and charitable causes. We also run to feel our feet on the ground; to show our gratitude that our bodies continue to move forward in the face of illness and tragedy; to show that life’s challenges won’t break us. We run to be better parents, better partners, bigger thinkers and more effective leaders. We run to connect to the community around us.
Remember that crying baby who first propelled me out the door in a fit of frustration? He’s now my race partner. My 9-year-old son, Liam, and I have run five 5K races side by side; he’s got a collection of race medals and bib numbers to prove it. We take morning jogs when we go on vacation so that we can see a new city in a way we never would otherwise.
Liam’s 11-year-old brother, Ethan—now quite the accomplished tooth-brusher—is getting into the act, too. In May, I ran alongside him as he completed his first 5K in 26 minutes, 52 seconds.
When I ask my boys why they run, they say it’s because they get to spend time alone with me. If you’re a mom, you can’t possibly hear those words without thinking you’ve done something right.
And then I realize: What I started out running away from is exactly what I’ve been running toward this whole time.
Adrienne Wichard-Edds’ best 10-mile race time is 1:12:23. She has never run more than 10 miles in a row.
How can we stay fit without wrecking our bodies? Medical experts stress that there’s a smart way and a dumb way to incorporate running into your daily life. Some pointers:
Ease into it. If you’re new to running, don’t expect to be marathon-ready in a month. “You have to find the balance. Don’t do too much too quickly,” says Chris Annunziata, an orthopedic surgeon for Commonwealth Orthopaedics in Arlington (he’s also the head team orthopedic physician for the Washington Redskins and a consultant to Washington Ballet and McLean Youth Soccer). For guidance, join a running club, or follow the training protocol in an app like Couch-to-5K.
Don’t run through pain. If it hurts, see a doctor. “Pain is the body’s response to stress,” Annunziata cautions. Ignoring it can lead to more significant problems that will sideline an athlete even longer. “Most running injuries, such as stress fractures, tendonitis and the dreaded plantar fasciitis are related to overuse. Running just prolongs the problem.”
Get sleep. Physical therapist Kerri Kramer, who owns the Endurance Athlete Center in Falls Church City, notes that some injuries can have a direct correlation to lack of sleep. “In that REM stage, that’s when your body’s really working to recover from the stress you’ve put on it the day before. Runners ideally need seven or eight hours” to recoup and avoid injury, she says. So if you plan to hit the pavement before dawn, it’s equally important to hit the sack earlier.
Take time to stretch. But do it after you run, when your muscles are warm and elastic. Over time, this cool-down practice will improve your performance and reduce your risk of injury. "If you have a lot of tight, short muscles [a common phenomenon in people who have desk jobs], running is like driving a car with the emergency brake on,” Kramer says. “Tight pecs and hip muscles can mess up a lot of things down the line.” If you insist on stretching before you run, stick to dynamic, fluid movements (such as knee-ups and butt-kickers) as opposed to static stretches that can cause muscle strain.
Consider your gait. When it comes to the potential for injury, how you run may matter more than the frequency or distance of your outings. Studies have shown that the farther away your foot-strike falls from the centerline of your body, the higher your injury rate. “When we evaluate a runner, we’re looking primarily at your running form,” Kramer says. “We’ll also look at things like what shoes you’re wearing and your musculoskeletal structure, but more important is the length of your stride. The closer you can get to striking underneath your body, the exponentially smaller your probability for injury.”
Barefoot running: good or bad? While barefoot running can be safe for some, it can be very unsafe for others. It all depends on your body type, running history and past injuries. “If you have high arches, you tend to have a more rigid foot architecture and therefore more stress on your joints,” Annunziata explains. “If you make the transition to barefoot running, you need to make the transition little by little.” Keep in mind that decades of wearing shoes will modify the way you run, so you can’t just make an abrupt change, Kramer adds. “But if there’s a good transition, barefoot running can be beneficial; it gives feedback to the body that you need to run softer and springier so that your body adjusts. When you have shoes on, you run harder and heavier and it changes the foot-strike.”