PITTSBURGH (AP) - Bobbi Jo Wendel had never run more than 2 miles without stopping when in November 2013 she signed up for Philadelphia’s PurpleStride 5K, which benefited pancreatic cancer.
Her mother had recently been diagnosed with the disease, and the McKees Rocks crisis manager wanted to express her support in a big way.
“I thought, ‘If my mom can fight cancer every day, I could push through it,’ ” she says.
Not that she was a couch potato: Over the previous five years, Wendel, 34, had shed 140 pounds the hard way, by watching what she ate and adding a steady regimen of exercise to her daily routine - everything from water aerobics, Zumba and Spinning to countless, sweaty workouts on the elliptical.
But running? Not in her wheelhouse. “I never considered myself an athlete,” she explains.
On race day, she ended up walking the last mile. “But it felt good,” she says. So good, actually, that within a few weeks a friend talked her into signing up for her first 13.1-miler the following April, the Scranton Half Marathon.
Like many new runners, Wendel knew she’d need advice and support to go that distance. She found it in Elite Runner & Walker’s marathon training program, which includes coached, bi-weekly workouts. The plan worked, even though at times, she felt like she was learning a foreign language. (Fartleks? LSDs? What the heck?)
Not only did she finish Scranton in a respectable 2:17:37, but 28 days later, the Elk County native completed Pittsburgh’s 2014 half-marathon, too. Last fall, she did three more - Erie, Wine Glass in New York’s Finger Lakes Region and Butler County’s Buffalo Creek - in 34 days, plus several 5Ks and 10Ks.
As her times and endurance steadily improved, Wendel came to realize that that first race wasn’t a fluke. As she puts it, “I saw I had this potential. I wanted to see how far I could go.”
On May 3, she’ll try for 26.2 miles, as a first-time Dick’s Sporting Goods Pittsburgh Marathon “Runner of Steel.”
About 38 percent of all Pittsburgh racers are novices, says race director Patrice Matamoros. And following national trends, there are far more women than men lining up (59 percent vs. 41 percent). So Wendel will be in good company, especially because she’s recruited 18 other group members to run their first full with her, too. Plus, she persuaded her boyfriend, Terry Bradford, to sign up for the half.
To prepare, she’s running five or six days and up to 45 miles a week. Sore muscles aside, she’s never been happier. “I feel it’s part of me now. I can’t imagine life without it.”
Since she started running, Wendel has lost an additional 40 pounds for a total of 180 - making her smaller than she was in high school, and catching the eye of Runner’s World, who will profile her in an upcoming book on weight loss and nutrition. Yet it’s never really been so much about body image as it was about simply being healthier “than yesterday.”
That said, her first race was the hardest effort because she couldn’t help but compare herself to other, thinner runners. “It took me a while to see myself as similar,” she says. “I was stuck mentally.”
While she likes PRs as much as the next runner, she also doesn’t dwell on pace.
“All that really counts is the effort, the work you put in,” she says. “I wanted to prove that anything is possible.”
Running, Wendel says, has changed her life. She now works part time at Elite and last July became a coach/mentor for the store’s “Begin to Win” program in Robinson. She leads a group of about 16.
Coaching, she adds, is about getting people to see in themselves what those on the outside know to be true - how your life can take you different places if you’re willing to “get uncomfortable.”
“It’s great to see (the transformation),” she says, “and know that I’ve inspired change.”
Information from: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, https://www.post-gazette.com
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