A Mother-of-Five’s Couch to Half Marathon Story
Run a half marathon?
Kelli Stanley’s doubts and insecurities wracked her mind with countless reasons why covering 13.1 miles on foot was an impossible feat.
A single mother of five with a full-time job – the children ranging in ages from 7 to 14 – where was she going to squeeze in the time? At 5-foot-6, 220 pounds, she wasn’t exactly a lithe Ethiopian. And at 37, she had never been the athletic type.
“I used to laugh with my friends in P.E. during high school,” says Stanley, who lives in the Chicago suburb Oak Park. “We’d be playing soccer and the coach would yell at us. ‘Quit killing the grass!’ We’d take one step, move over a bit and say, ‘Is this good?’ He just rolled his eyes.”
Now in adulthood, Stanley faced one other not-so-minor obstacle.
“I didn’t run at all,” she says. “I couldn’t even run around the block before saying, ‘That’s enough. I’m done.'”
But last February, after hearing from friends who had tackled the running challenge with the help of a Christian-based running club, Stanley posed a question to herself: Why not me?
The six-month journey leading to last July’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon entailed pain, heartache, doubt and, in the end, the realization to Stanley that if you dedicate yourself to a task, surround yourself with a caring support group, sometimes you can accomplish things you thought were beyond your reach.
The program is called The Elijah Running Club. It was founded by Darnell Williams in 2001. The club’s purpose is to take people with little or no running background and show them that with faith, education, visualization and action, they can stretch themselves, achieving goals they thought were unattainable. To date, more than 1,000 people have started the program as non-runners and gone on to complete half marathons and marathons. Some went on to cross Ironman triathlons and ultramarathons off their bucket lists.
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Stanley joined the club in February, during the heart of Chicago’s bitter winter. For the first seven weeks, the once-a-week indoor meetings were primarily educational, emphasizing basics like running form, nutrition and shoe fitting. The participants designed visual boards, cutting out pictures and writing captions, visualizing the person and the lifestyle they wanted to create.
By April, Stanley began the physical training in earnest, starting out using a walking-running combination to cover three miles. By late May, her once-a-week long run/walk with the group had stretched to 10 miles. It was only supposed to be an 8-miler but Stanley took a wrong turn on the course and inadvertently covered 10 miles. She had lost 30 pounds.
“I felt awesome,” she says. “When I got home (from the 10-miler), I wasn’t sore or anything. I didn’t believe it was me.”
But like anyone who accepts the first-timer’s long-distance challenge, there were setbacks. She missed about 10 days of training in late May when her high-school daughter, in Stanley’s words, “was making some bad choices, bad friends. I had to get in her back pocket.”
Having missed a couple of the club’s long workouts, she tried to jump right back in on the group’s schedule and tackle a 10-miler along Chicago’s Lake Shore Drive, fronting Lake Michigan. But her legs cramped and she had to hail a taxi for the last three miles.
Then her grandfather became gravely ill, eventually passing away in June. Helping her mother deal with funeral arrangements and all the details that go with a family member’s passing cost Stanley about another month of consistent training. Two weeks before the Rock ‘n’ Roll Chicago Half Marathon, Stanley considered not running the race.
“But as a mom of five kids, you don’t waste money,” she says. “I said, ‘I accepted this challenge. I’m going to do it.'”
So two weeks before the race, having not run farther than seven miles the past seven weeks, she adopted a game plan. Start out training with a 3-miler, increasing the distance by about a mile each workout. She got up to about 7 miles. Realistically, Stanley knew it had hardly been the ideal four-month training regimen.
Life was throwing roadblocks. Too many workouts missed. But sometimes resolve takes the body places it didn’t know it could go. Stanley recalled her original thinking when undertaking the 13.1-mile adventure.
“I thought if I could learn to love something I completely hated, finish something I didn’t think I could finish, I could get that same push for other challenges in my life.”
Then came race day.
Stanley walked the first mile and a half, then eased into an alternate walk-run combo.
“The first five miles I felt really good,” she remembers. “After mile six, I started to feel a little sore.”
By mile nine, her back began cramping and she needed ice packs. There were frequent bathroom breaks.
Recalls Stanley, “One lady said, ‘Just go on yourself.’ I told her, ‘It’s not the kind of bathroom where you just go on yourself!'”
She crept closer and closer to the SAG wagon.
“One lady told me (the support vehicle) would take me farther up the course,” says Stanley. “It crossed my mind a couple of times, but I never took advantage of that.”
Of the last mile, she says, “I felt horrible. I had a cramp starting at my hip that went down my leg. My whole left side was cramping. A couple times people asked me if I wanted a ride to the finish line. They said, ‘Are you OK?’ I said, ‘I’m going to do it.'”
Her reaction to a stranger after hitting the finish line, 3:54 after the start, the temperature having pushed into the 80s: “I’m ready to go home.”
The ensuing weeks gave Stanley time to reflect.
She doesn’t think she’ll do another half marathon any time soon. As a single parent raising five children she felt pangs of guilt when
the kids would occasionally say, “Don’t you have time for us?”
She’ll stick to 5Ks and 10Ks.
“I’m so glad I did this,” says Stanley, who dropped from 220 pounds to 175. “I’m glad I’m moving forward (in my life). I might not have finished first. I might not have been graceful the entire time. But I did it.”
Says her 14-year-old daughter, Kiara, “It’s cool that my mom can do so much and still have time to manage herself and take care of us, too.”
Adds Williams, the founder of the Elijah Running Club, “Kelli’s strong desire to believe that there was more in her life, more possibilities for her life than what she was seeing, I think that’s what drove her to stick to the program, to get from the couch to the finish line.”
Sitting at home one recent evening, the to-school and back-home mother’s taxi service complete, her tutoring job done for the day, dinner cooked, homework checked, Stanley looked back on her self-discovery.
“Being in the mix of athletic people, it really empowered me to feel good about myself.”
She paused, then added, “You know, to love myself.”