Joni Watkins

Seven years ago, after spending countless years paralyzed by depression, anxiety, PTSD, I reached rock bottom. I was self-medicating with food, alcohol and drugs. My weight had skyrocketed and my self-confidence lower than ever. I was fed up. Done with being miserable, I started taking long walks from my apartment and would incorporate running intervals. Gradually, I increased the length of my running intervals and shortened my walking intervals. That Spring, I ran my first 5K with the support of a close friend. I loved the feeling of setting a goal and achieving it. It was a huge confidence booster. So, I kept running and continued to increase my distance over time. Now, I’ve run more than 30 marathons and ultramarathons.

Of course, running itself helped with my physical and mental health, but what I didn’t expect was to find an incredible community with people of all shapes and sizes. These people welcomed me. They encouraged me to set goals and achieve those goals. And also, to be true to myself – like learning it’s ok to take walk breaks and there’s no shame in finishing last. Running utterly transformed my life, so when I first learned about the Running Start program several years later, I jumped at the opportunity to share what I had experienced with another woman.

The day of the kickoff meeting, Jenn O., approached me and told me my beginner, Jessica H., was outside and having a hard time. She was having a panic attack and couldn’t find the courage to walk through the door. I gave her space, as she didn’t yet know I would be her motivator. The meeting began, and we started with introductions. We went around the room to share our stories. When it was Jessica’s turn, in addition to her background, she shared that everything in her body was telling her to run away. She already wanted to quit. I felt so much compassion for her, as I spent many years running away from problems, avoiding challenges, and opportunities for growth. Being miserable is hard, but often change seems harder.

Jessica and I were officially introduced and went for our first walk together that day at the end of the meeting. She and I shared more about our backgrounds. We had a lot in common. Jessica was anxious, but she was excited. And I was thrilled at the opportunity to help her succeed.

I knew she would need a little extra love, so we met at least once a week for a run/walk. We followed the training plan provided from Running Start, and I babbled her ear off to try and distract her while she huffed and puffed beside me. She struggled a bit during training, as we all do, but each time we met again she wanted to go further and faster. She was driven.

One day she reached a breaking point, triggered by stress at her job. It was clear she was struggling with something big. She wanted to quit. Not just on running, but she wanted to give up on everything. Again, I felt so much compassion for her, as I had once tried to give up on everything too. I was deeply worried for her. I wasn’t sure what to do, so I just told her I cared about her, and that she mattered to me. We ended with a hug that day, and in the coming days, I checked on her regularly. As the race neared, she grew a little distant and bailed on a couple of our training runs together. I knew better than to pressure her, so I didn’t. I let her be, but also let her know I was available anytime. I began to grow nervous that she would skip the race.

A few days before the race, she texted me saying she didn’t think she could do it. My heart sunk. I told her she could, and that she would regret it more if she didn’t try at all versus if she tried and failed. She didn’t respond right away. I was anxious with worry. I texted again the next day. I told her I would come pick her up and drive her to the race. I wanted to ensure she couldn’t run away. So, I was elated when she agreed.

I picked her up that morning, and we drove to Broomfield. I assured her I’d stay by her side, and that we’d just chill out before the race. We arrived and got ready for the race. Her nervousness was at an all-time high. The race started, and she TOOK OFF. I saw a fire ignite inside of Jessica. She ran so fast, I could hardly keep up! I chased her and cheered her on. She pushed and cursed her way to up the hill the turn around. After the turn around, we cruised down the hill to the finish. She ran strong across the finish line with tears in her eyes. To say I was proud is an understatement.

A few months after the race, Jessica reached out to me and told me crossing the finish line gave her the push she needed to confront some health issues she had been secretly dealing with. She said she is now doing better than ever! It warms my heart thinking of her, and I even tear up a bit. Jessica just needed someone to believe in her, and I’m so glad I could be that someone.

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