When I first began running, I never imagined it would take me this far. Once I started, though, it was as if I couldn’t stop.
I was 48 years old and in the second year of working toward an education degree — an opportunity I’d decided to pursue so I could have more career options when my two teenage sons moved away to college.
My husband hadn’t been supportive of that choice, which strained our marriage, and in 2012 we started divorce proceedings. I was overweight, stressed, and unhappy; running seemed like the catalyst I needed to help me change my life.
I started small, with a local women’s 5K training group, but it took only one race for me to catch the bug. I loved the way a good run boosted my confidence and tamed my anxiety, and I was delighted to discover that races were a great way for me to expand my social circle.
I’ve always been a bookworm, but going back to school in my 40s had made me feel like an outcast in many ways. Through running, I met many women who were taking on similar challenges or encountering the same obstacles, and they were all looking for some means of support. I even started a blog as a way to stay connected with the people I met and to share the highs and lows of my training experiences.
I’ll never forget the euphoria I felt the day I conquered the huge hill in my neighborhood. Because it was so steep, I’d been taking it piece by piece for weeks. When I finally made it to the top without stopping, I had a huge realization: My body had physical hurdles to overcome, but running — like life — was a mental exercise. From then on, whenever I started to doubt myself, I thought, Body, you’ve got this. Mind, you lead.
By the spring of 2015, I was in the best shape of my life. I ran four half-marathons in less than a month, and I was planning to start training for my first full marathon during the summer. But in the middle of one 10-mile race in June, that plan suddenly changed.
Thrown Off Course
I woke up that day feeling a little off, but I didn’t think much of it. I’d just flown home after a brief trip to California, and I figured I was still jet-lagged. Plus, summer in Maryland is hot and humid; it didn’t seem unusual that I wasn’t feeling my best.
Five miles in, I started spotting. I thought it was stress-related, and I wanted to finish the race — five more miles didn’t seem like much. But by the time I crossed the finish line, I was bleeding even more. An ambulance rushed me to the hospital, where I later learned I had stage 2 uterine cancer.
I was devastated. My first thought — and the fear that kept me awake at night — was what was going to happen to my two sons. At the time, they were 21 and 23, and I was the only parent they’d ever been able to depend on. The thought of leaving them alone before they could completely fend for themselves was heart wrenching.
Thankfully, I had an incredible team of doctors, and they assured me we’d caught the cancer in time. I went through chemotherapy that summer, and the treatments were brutal: Each time, I came home completely exhausted, and I was sick in bed for days.
I was also struggling with depression. It wasn’t about my illness, really; by then, I knew I would recover. But I had worked so hard to get in shape, and I felt that my body had turned on me. At that point, I’d already announced on my blog — which had developed quite a large following — that I was planning to train for my first marathon. People were looking to me as a source of inspiration, and I felt like I was letting them down.
I had a complete hysterectomy at the end of August, and my doctors told me it would take at least a year to fully recover. My tendency in the past had been to push through pain and fatigue, but now I had to listen to my body and be patient.
Back in the Running
By the end of 2016, I was running again, but I was slower than I liked. Though I was putting in plenty of miles, I wasn’t improving. I’d also lost a lot of my core strength, and my weight loss had plateaued. I knew I needed something that would help me get my fitness back on track.
When I read about Experience Life’s Strong, Fast, and Fit program in January 2017, I knew right away that I wanted in. I’d recently moved to North Carolina, and I felt a bit isolated. The program seemed like the perfect supportive environment where I could work on losing weight — and I was ready to try something new to keep myself motivated.
Flipping through the first month of workouts, I felt intimidated. I’d never really done any strength training. I tried to imagine myself as the model in the magazine, squatting and lunging and feeling powerful. I assured myself that my body was capable and decided to let my mind lead the way.
As soon as the program started, I was hooked. I hadn’t expected to enjoy the strength training, but I found that having to concentrate on each repetition was eye opening. Every exercise I completed was proof of what my body could do. It wasn’t easy, but I was strong enough, physically and mentally, to rise to the challenge.
I also enjoyed following the other members through the Facebook group and seeing the progress they were making. Some days I woke up feeling like I didn’t have time for my workout, or I simply didn’t want to do it. But then I would see that someone had posted something in the group. Viewing a postworkout selfie or a quick status update helped me see that we were all on this journey together, getting stronger together.
I wasn’t running very much, because I was so focused on the strength-training portion of the program, but within a few months I saw an improvement in my pace. It was a light-bulb moment: I realized that this was the component that had been missing from my routine. All the pieces were falling into place. Through the spring, I set several personal records at various races; in early June, I ran a half-marathon in Raleigh, N.C., and placed first in my age group.
Since last January, I’ve lost 22 pounds, and I’m running faster than ever — even before cancer. More than that, I don’t doubt myself anymore. I used to ask myself, Can I do this? Now I jump in with both feet.
I competed in my first triathlon: the Indoor Tri at Life Time in Cary, N.C. I want to try paddleboarding. And this spring, I plan to start marathon training again. My hope is to run the Athens Marathon in Greece, home of the original marathon. I want it to be memorable, but I don’t want to get hung up on my performance. I just want to cross the finish line.
This originally appeared as “Stronger, Faster, Fitter” in the March 2018 issue of Experience Life.
Anna’s Top 3 Success Strategies
1. Mix it up. After cancer treatment, Anna balanced her running routine with strength training to push through her running plateau and improve her pace. It helped her reach her goals and became a new way to engage with her fitness regimen.
2. Find community. Participating in the Strong, Fast, and Fit group was a powerful motivator. “On difficult days, I had support from people who were having really similar experiences,” she recalls. “That helped keep things in perspective.”
3. Believe in yourself. “We all struggle with self-doubt,” she says, “but ultimately, if you want something to change, you’re the one who has the power to make it happen.”