by Stefanie Harper

You have to start somewhere. 9 years ago, I began a journey that is anything but ordinary or predictable. The start of my journey can be credited, in part, to the exhilaration I felt after completing my first 5k.

As everything else related to my journey, my first race experience was also unique. The church I belong to has a sweet corn festival, and a 5K is one of the main events at the festival. Wistfully listening to the info about the 5K signup, I remarked to my church music duet partner, “That sounds like fun; I wish I could do a 5K”. He looked at me, surprised, and replied, “why not? Just sign up and do it”. At the time, I was 320 pounds and literally could not even walk a block without stopping to rest. The race was still 3 months away, and he encouraged me to sign up and start practicing. He suggested that if I start walking a little each day and increasing my distance, by the time the late August race rolled around, I should have no problem walking 3.1 miles. The next week, he asked me if I signed up yet. Nope. The same question the next week, with the same answer. The next week, he didn’t even ask; he pulls a $10 bill out of his pocket and said, “here’s half the registration fee; they already said you could use this as a down payment; go sign up. No excuses”.

Thanks to the encouragement of a friend who believed in me more than I believed in myself, I signed up. On June 1st, 2012, 2 days before my 36th birthday, I went to Grays Lake to start practicing for my first race. That first walk was one of the most difficult things, both physically and mentally, that I’ve ever done. I didn’t even make it all the way around the lake. I made it almost 3/4 of a mile (sitting down to rest several times) before turning around to go back. That 1.5-mile walk ended up taking 50 minutes. Sweating, panting, exhausted, I returned to my car feeling very proud of taking that literal first step. The pride I felt from that walk prompted a desire to do more; I began to go to Grays Lake several times a week, increasing my distance and my pace little by little.

When I first started walking, I was embarrassed by my size and the obvious fact that I was a beginner to this whole exercise. I was afraid others would judge me, laugh at me, or look at me with pity. I spent most of my beginning walks staring at the ground, refusing to make eye contact with any other walkers or runners, sunglasses on my face, and loud music in my earbuds (all the better to stay incognito). Something magical started to happen, though: the more miles I walked, the more my confidence increased. I started looking up instead of at the ground, smiling at and acknowledging other people who were on the path. When I stopped focusing on my perceived shortcomings, I realized that no one was judging or making fun of me. It was the opposite; runners and walkers were cheering me on! They saw my newness to the sport, and they were excited about my journey. I received countless waves and high fives, and words of encouragement. The kind words helped to increase my motivation, and I continued practicing for my goal race.

By the time the end of August finally arrived, I knew I could complete the 5K. Packet pick-up was Friday night; the race was the next morning. This was my first packet pick-up, so I had no idea what to expect. It was a small race; I think we had 50 runners signed up. I am pretty involved in activities at church, so when I hesitantly walked into the parish hall, I was warmly greeted by several people asking what volunteer activity I was there for. My confidence started to wane, and I told them I was actually there to pick up my race packet. Like my experience with other runners at Grays Lake, they reacted with the same excitement and enthusiasm. Looking at the race bib, food coupons, koozie, custom sweet corn festival cup, and the race t-shirt, I was hooked. I knew I wanted to participate in another race sooner rather than later.

The morning of the race couldn’t have been more beautiful. The sun was shining, but it was an early start time, so the temperature wasn’t too warm….yet. A couple of friends wanted to support me, so they signed up for the race to keep me motivated. Even though it was a small race, we still had a police officer helping to hold traffic and act as a sweeper. As they were going through pre-race instructions, the police officer said that after 45 minutes, if we were not yet at the finish line, please move from the street to the sidewalk. Then he added, “we’ll be holding traffic in the area for 45 minutes. I can’t imagine anyone doing a slower than a 15-minute mile, so you shouldn’t have to worry about it”. I looked at my friends with fear in my eyes: I knew I wouldn’t be able to finish in 45 minutes. They assured me we would be fine, so I tried to shake off my concern and enjoy the experience.

An air horn signaled the start of the race, and the people at the front of the pack started at a sprint. I power walked just like I had practiced; keeping a steady pace the entire route was my plan. All started well….but then we reached the first small hill. What??? An incline? I had practiced on a flat route!!! This was going to mess things up a little.

Despite the few small hills and the steadily increasing heat of the day, I was having a great time, enjoying the exercise and the camaraderie. The 45 minute cutoff time came, and we were still on the course, but the finish line was getting closer. At this point, I was exhausted, but my friends noticed the crowd still gathered at the finish line. The winners (and everyone except my 2-person support team and me) had finished the race 15 or more minutes prior, but they grabbed refreshments and then came back to support me. As we rounded the last corner, the crowd erupted in cheers. My exhaustion turned to a huge smile. The friends who were walking with me took my hands, and we crossed the finish line together. Immediately I was engulfed in high fives, hugs, and fist bumps. Someone handed me a bottle of water and showed me how to continue waking slowly and stretch out.

52 minutes was my finish time that day. I remember thinking back to my first walk at Grays Lake; I couldn’t even do 2 miles in 52 minutes.

That first race, unbeknownst to me at the time, was the first step of an adventure. This adventure has been evolving with each passing year and has brought some of the most wonderful people, experiences, and opportunities into my life. There have been many more of the “highs” like I experienced with this first race, and several lows, setbacks, and struggles as well.

I can’t wait to share more of my adventure with you. Thank you for joining me on this journey!