Becoming a runner has its advantages. Besides offering an activity you can do anywhere with just a pair of sneakers (and perhaps a friend or two), it’s also a solid way to crush calories, maintain a healthy weight and get a dose of meditation. Better yet: A recent study, covered in The New York Times, found that running could hold the key to a longer life span — more so than any other form of exercise. (We’re talking an extra seven hours of life for every hour you run.)
Pounding the pavement can take some dedication — but it doesn’t have to take all of your time. And you don’t even need to be all that athletically inclined. For some motivation to get out on the open road, we talked to real runners across the country who found the sport a little later in life.
Whether you hope to run 10 minutes a day or 100 miles a week, let the reasons they started running — and never stopped — inspire you to find your stride. One lesson from their stories you’ll want to keep in mind: It only takes one small step to get started.
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How 16 People Started Running (and Never Stopped)
1. Michele King Gonzalez
Her why: Stress relief
Michele King Gonzalez, best known as @nycrunningmama on Instagram, first started pounding the pavement in college. After all, she went to West Point, where it’s a requirement to pass a fitness test. But Gonzalez says she didn’t fully fall in love with the sport until her first deployment. “I was homesick, working long hours and needed an outlet — and running provided that for me,” says the 35-year-old from Staten Island, NY. “I started long-distance running during one of my deployments with several of my friends (one of whom became my husband several years later). And I continued it when I returned home, and then during my last deployment, I trained for the Boston Marathon. It was a way for me to clear my head and find happiness in a stressful environment.”
Gonzalez especially likes prepping for races, when she sees a challenge, sets a goal and works to chip away at it. “The entire process brings me so much happiness,” says Gonzalez who holds a marathon PR of 3:07. “It’s not necessarily about the time I run or whether or not I accomplished my goals, but rather, what it took just to get to the starting line.”
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2. Samara Kelly
Her why: In tribute to a friend
“I fear less and love more because of running.”
Samara Kelly, 34, was never a natural runner. She jogged here and there to keep her weight down in college, but hated it so she stopped…until about three years ago, when she got a little shove from a friend. Her childhood best friend, Christine, was dying of cancer, and Kelly had moved back from LA to NYC to look after her in her last few weeks. “When I returned to care for her, I was in a very dark place in my life: overweight, unhappy with myself, terrible attitude, unhealthy career. Nothing felt good. Christine knew that by looking at me.”
Kelly recalls, “We were up late one night, and she had been rattling off instructions for her funeral arrangements. She wanted her friends in the front row and a cherry wood coffin. Then she put her stern voice on and asked me to challenge myself — to get out of my comfort zone. She said I thrived out of my comfort zone. She was right.” Kelly went home the next day and signed up for the 2014 NYC marathon with exactly 16 weeks to race day. “I couldn’t even run a half-mile without stopping. I was so screwed,” she remembers.
Except she wasn’t. Kelly put in the work and finished the marathon that year with Christine’s nickname on her shirt. And Kelly hasn’t stopped running since — even when she feels like giving up. “I’ve had a lot of setbacks during running. I think all runners do. That’s the beauty of it. This sport constantly knocks you down mentally, physically and emotionally. If you find a way to pick yourself up and keep going, you’ve won, even without crossing a finish line,” she says.
“Every day I hit the pavement, I dig a little deeper into myself, regardless of the setbacks, because I want to know everything about me, good, bad and ugly… After losing my best friend, running has turned my grief into gratitude and despair into hope. I fear less and love more because of running. Maybe for the first time ever, I learned how to love myself, trust myself, and know exactly what I am capable of. Learning how to do that has been invaluable to me, and that is why I will never stop pounding the pavement. The challenge and the joy is just too great.”
3. James Creveling
His why: Looking toward the future
In his early 30s and with four young kids, James Creveling knew he needed to find a way to get active and stay healthy. So he decided to start running — first just jogging to and from a traffic sign about a half mile from his front door and eventually working his way up to one, two, then three miles. “I wanted to make sure I’d be around for my kids and future grandkids,” he says. “And not just watching them, but being able to actively participate in sports and playing outdoors.”
Fast-forward 30 years, and the now 69-year-old continues to run two to three miles most days of the week. Besides that runner’s high he swears by, his health is still a top motivator. “When I hang with most guys my age, they constantly talk about their health issues — how stiff and sore they are — and I don’t want to be like that,” Creveling says. “[Running] helps me maintain a healthy weight and strong muscles. Plus, it’s a ‘habit’ for me now, and old habits are hard to break!”
4. Kara Liotta
Her why: Pushing the limits
As a well-known Flybarre instructor in NYC, Kara Liotta spends most of her days on the move. But one form of movement she had never turned to: running. Then, her friend Jes Woods, a Nike Run Coach, invited her along to clock some miles. A few sessions later, she convinced Liotta to sign up for her first half-marathon.
“Calf pain, hip flexor pain, foot pain, nausea after running, blisters on my toes — you name it and I have experienced it in these first few months. But I have also learned a few things about myself throughout this process,” Liotta, 31, says. “Being a competitive person, I set aggressive pacing goals and quickly learned that I would need to trust and listen to my body and focus on how it feels during and after my runs. I also learned more about the importance of training, hydration, proper nutrition, stretching and rehabilitative exercises to overcome some of those initial (painful) hurdles.”
The positives far outweigh the struggles, Liotta learned. “What I love most about running is how I am doing something I absolutely never thought I would do,” she says. “It has taken me out of my comfort zone in the best way possible and has taught me to be an athlete. The success is also measurable — I can run more miles or improve my time — and I really love that about running.”
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5. Tia Pettygrue
Her why: Dropping pounds, gaining buddies
While on a cruise in December 2008, Tia Pettygrue ran into an old acquaintance. “She said ‘I almost didn’t recognize you, you’ve gained so much weight!’” Pettygrue recalls. “Well, that was my ‘aha’ moment. As soon as I got back from the cruise, I started running four days a week.” Weight wasn’t her only reason to run, though. She also fell in love with the sport thanks to her draw to nature. So soon after she started picking up her pace, she signed up for a 15K. That was just the first of many medals Pettygrue has earned. In fact, she ran her 111th half marathon in April and she’ll be doing her 10th marathon in October. “The running community is so friendly, encouraging and positive and I just feel free when I get out there,” she says.
6. Ali Feller
Her why: Gratitude for each step
A former competitive dancer, Ali Feller put running on the “do not try” list for years. Then she moved to New York City and needed a cheap way to stay active. Luckily, her new roommate, who kept a line-up of shiny half-marathon medals on the wall, invited Feller on her first run.
“I made it less than 60 seconds before I was totally out of breath and walked the .02 miles back home,” Feller, 31, says of that initial 2008 test run. “But something about me was hooked. The next day, I made it my goal to get back out and run to a lamppost a little further than the one I’d made it to the day before. And the day after that, I tried for a few more lampposts. Eventually, I ran a full mile. (There was a dog park a mile from my apartment, so that was my motivation — puppies!). I felt like I was on top of the world.” Soon after, she did a four-mile race in Central Park and later earned her own half-marathon medal.
Then, just a few years ago, Feller had a serious flare up of Crohn’s disease, an inflammatory condition that affects the digestive tract. She tried to run through it — taking many bathroom breaks along the way. But it was a tough two-year stretch, and she eventually had to take some time off.
“It felt so hard and so discouraging…I became deeply depressed and felt like I’d lost my identity,” Feller says. “But when I started to regain my health and my strength, running was right there waiting for me. It was a lot harder than I’d remembered, but it was still there…I realize how cheesy this sounds, but after months of not being able to put one foot in front of the other, I’m now eternally grateful for every run I attempt. That doesn’t mean every run is a great run — some are hard, some are slow, some feel impossible, and some suck for no reason at all. But any day I can leave the house and put one foot in front of the other with a little pep in my step is a good day.”
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7. Phyllis Johnson
Her why: Strength in numbers
Four years ago, at the age of 55, Phyllis Johnson decided to try out the group, Black Girls Run at the request of her daughter who also wanted to join, but was battling breast cancer. They decided Phyllis would try it out and report back, in hopes that if she liked it, her daughter could come along one day. “Sadly, my daughter never got to join me — she passed away less than a year after I started running,” Johnson says. “Running helped me handle grief and all the other emotions that happen after losing your only child. Also, my new running buddies supported me emotionally and so running became my happy pill.” Johnson hasn’t stopped running three to four days a week since then. She even crossed the finish line of her first marathon in March.
8. Gregg Bard
His why: A stellar fitness tribe
Gregg Bard, 43, first started running when his sister asked him to join her for a half-marathon. He said yes, then took a three-year break before he got back out on the road. “I actually hated running at first,” says Bard. “I didn’t understand why anyone would purposely run. Then mid-2013, I did Boston’s Run to Remember and got hit by Cupid’s arrow mid-run. I haven’t looked back since and now I can’t imagine my life without it. It’s my escape.”
So what keeps bringing him back after disliking it so much? The people. “I absolutely love the running community. Everyone is so supportive of one another. When times are tough, you can look to the running community for support to get you through anything,” Bard says. “People who don’t run don’t get it. But then they start and go, ‘ahh, now I get it.’ It’s the best!”
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9. Latoya Snell
Her why: Finding freedom on the run
In 2012, Latoya Snell felt a sharp pain in her back at work. The culprit was a herniated disk and sciatica (pain that radiates down the sciatic nerve, from the lower back to the legs). At the time, her five-foot-three frame was also carrying 265 pounds.
She decided she had to do something, so she posted about her weight loss plans online. That’s when a MySpace friend mentioned he was signing up for a half-marathon. Even though Snell had never run before, she decided to sign up, too. “I thought that I’d just do one race and that would be it, but I found myself actively meditating while on the pavement. I’m not a religious person but I do feel spiritually connected with the world while running,” says Snell, a 31-year-old living in Brooklyn. “After a while, you find yourself seeing the same people, then talking to strangers and sharing your journey with them.”
Snell now runs at least 20 miles a week, though she’s upped her mileage in anticipation of an upcoming ultramarathon. “I love the challenge and freedom of running. It gives me another day to be thankful for my mobility,” she says. “Sometimes we take these things for granted until it’s compromised. Through sciatica and a herniated disc, I have a newfound respect for my ability to walk, run and breathe through it all — despite how easy or hard it may be.”
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10. Erin Leigh Patterson
Her why: Giving back
Though Erin Leigh Patterson ran a half-marathon her junior year of college, she didn’t pick her sneakers back up until she turned 28 and decided to run a full 26.2. “I had always wanted to complete a marathon because I believe life is more like a marathon than a sprint,” says Patterson, now 32. “I knew actually doing it — the training, the time, the discipline — would teach me this in unforgettable ways.” And when she started working with the charity, She’s the First, which provides school scholarships to girls in low-income countries, it gave her a cause.
In 2013, Patterson completed the NYC Marathon in honor of She’s the First, and continues to run recreationally to this day. “The best thing about running is you can always compete with yourself, so I never get tired of it,” she says. “I also view running as a gift to myself. I get to let my mind wander, brainstorm new ideas, listen to podcasts or music or nothing at all. No matter what, I never regret the runs I to take — even the ones that were tough!”
11. Tanisha Long
Her why: Getting back to 100
Tanisha Long, 42, always wanted to be a runner, but didn’t get moving until she was 39. Her goal: Complete a 5K before her 40th birthday. So she joined the group Black Girls Run, started a training plan and finished a four-miler that year. Then, just five months later, while on a training run in the early morning, a car hit her. The collision broke her right ankle, dislocated her shoulder, sprained her neck and badly bruised her left heel. She had signed up for her first half-marathon just over a week before. “I didn’t realize how much I truly loved having the ability to run until I had to fight my way back to the pavement,” Long says.
With the help of doctors and physical therapists, Long earned her half-marathon medal less than a year later. “I stick with [running] because it has become a part of who I am and helps me take steps toward other healthy lifestyle changes. My sisters have joined the running community as well, and running races has become our way of spending quality time together,” Long shares. “I enjoy the sense of accomplishment that running gives me. Oh, and I love race bling!”
12. Alexa Sibberson
Her why: Staying slim and sane
“[Running] gets me into my head and out of my head in all the right ways.”
Alexa Sibberson had many friends in high school on the cross country team, but she could never keep up. So, when she got to college she took it as the perfect opportunity to give running a real go. It also felt like a solid way to avoid the so-called ‘freshman 15.’ “I absolutely loved running on campus early in the morning before anyone else was out, and that’s still one of my favorite things to do,” says Sibberson. Now 26 and living in Columbus, OH, she still runs around her hometown early in the a.m. “It’s like having the city to yourself in the most magical light of the day. And I love the solitude of running. For me it’s a moving meditation. It gets me into my head and out of my head in all the right ways.”
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13. Denise Munroe
Her why: Breaking the boredom
At age 58 and weighing 220 pounds, Denise Munroe initially started exercising in hopes of slimming down. She took aerobic and strength classes at first, but then boredom and burnout set in. After Googling run workouts and groups, Munroe discovered the NYRR Open Run program, a free three-mile run in parks across New York City. “The rest was history,” she says.
Two years later, she’s still signing up for races, including the Dopey Challenge at Disney World — a 5K, 10K, half and full marathon all in one weekend — which she “treated” herself to as a 60th birthday present. “[In the 17 months I’ve been running], I’ve accomplished more than I ever thought, besides losing weight,” Munroe says. “Running has given me life and restored my confidence in such a way that I can’t imagine life without it.”
14. Eileen Greb
Her why: Filling an empty nest
“When my youngest went off to college, I found myself with a lot of spare time on my hands,” says Eileen Greb, 57. “To fill the void and keep busy, I took up walking. I would take brisk walks around my neighborhood and around the parking lot at work during my lunch break. One day a co-worker stopped me and asked if I ran. I laughed and responded with ‘I can’t run. I’ve tried many times, it’s not for me.’ He said, ‘Well, you should try again. You walk as fast as some people run.’” So Greb kept up her quick walking pace, but switched to a run stride for one lap of the track. She continued to add a few more running laps to each session, and two months later, ran her first 5K race.
“Being extremely competitive, the race environment immediately sucked me in,” says Greb, who has gone on to complete 56 half marathons. “What started out as something to keep me busy, has changed into something that helps set my mind free,” Greb says. “I don’t run with music or any gadget distractions — I just run. And the thing I like most about running is the social aspect of training runs and race day. Yes, we are there to run but we also share life happenings with each other…The camaraderie among runners: We are a very special breed.”
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15. Samuel J. Adams
His why: Post-work de-stressing
“As a lawyer, I often work long hours in a stressful environment,” says Samuel J. Adams. “I was looking for a healthy outlet to decompress and process my thoughts at the end of a long day. Running has become one of the few uninterrupted times of day that I have to myself, free from distractions. No matter how tense I may feel at the start of a run, I always end feeling mentally refreshed and ready to focus on something new.”
Adams, 32, often runs with friends in his Brooklyn neighborhood, where he’s currently training for his fourth half-marathon. “I enjoy running the tree-lined paths in Prospect Park. The course is filled with lots of hills, flat roads and smaller inclines,” he says. “I like how the different terrain challenges my body. The hill by Grand Army Plaza is always the biggest challenge, but I feel like I’ve conquered a mountain when I reach the top.”
16. Pam Brolsma
Her why: Showing her body who’s boss
Minnesota native Pam Brolsma first started running 40 years ago, when she had to get in shape for a backpacking trip in the Bighorn Mountains. She kept it up through college and after having kids. But the major reason she’s stayed committed to lacing up her sneaks: Sjogren’s syndrome, an immune system disorder. Doctors warned Brolsma that the condition could lead to arthritis, so she thought “If I just run every day, how will my body know one day that it can’t do it?” Now, she tackles about four miles nearly every day in hopes that her bones will stay healthy and pain-free. As the 58-year-old puts it: “I love how I feel when I exercise and I hate how I feel when I don’t.” We’ll stride to that!