Why I Run: Stronger Than the Storm
By Sarah Gooding
The EF-5 tornado that ripped through Joplin late in the afternoon of May 22, 2011, took 161 lives and left the community with the monumental task of rebuilding from the rubble.
The weeks, months and years that followed brought their own challenges as each individual and household navigated through rubble, paperwork mazes and the challenges of re-establishing roots in the face of ongoing change.
In the weeks and months after, a number residents turned to running: conquering fear, anxiety, grief and chaos as they pushed forward, mile after determined mile.
The establishment of the Joplin Memorial Run added fuel to their resolve, providing an annual opportunity to remember the lives lost, while also reminding runners they are stronger than than the storm.
Running to Remember – Torrie Epperson
In May 2011, Torrie Epperson was adjusting to life with her daughter, Alice, who was born just four weeks prior.
Epperson, then a teacher at Joplin High School, was home on maternity leave and watching TV when she heard the tornado sirens go off.
As an Oklahoma native, Epperson wasn’t too worried about the storm, but she did grab her baby, phone and the dog and headed downstairs to the basement, eventually making her way to the basement closet when the electricity started to flicker.
“I had a four-week-old, and she started crying, and the only thing I knew to do was to nurse her,” Epperson said, adding she was getting nervous by then. “At some point, it got really quiet, so I sent a text to my husband. I spelled all the words wrong.”
Then, things got calm, and she was able to briefly connect via phone with her husband, Eric. When the line went dead, she realized it was raining on her in the basement and getting really loud again.
“A little while later, I could hear a neighbor calling my name. He helped me get upstairs and into the house, and when we got upstairs, the house was destroyed,” Epperson said.
When Eric arrived in the neighborhood, he had to park blocks away and only recognized their home because two nursery walls were still standing, painted green for Alice.
In the chaos that followed, adjusting to parenthood and not having a home, Epperson found a sense of normality when she saw information about the Boomtown run becoming the Joplin Memorial Run. The family had done a few local runs, and Epperson made up her mind to begin training.
“I think I would like to do that this year and mark it with something positive,’” she said.
She took that year off work to be home with Alice, regroup, train and house hunt.
Training for a half-marathon with a baby was a team effort, juggling feeding and nap schedules, but when race day came, Epperson said it was a family victory.
“My husband cheered me on and sat with our daughter while I did training runs and met me at the various points along the course with cold washcloths and Gatorade, and I finished,” she said. “After that, participating in the run became a priority for me.”
She has run in the Joplin Memorial events each year, with the exception of the year she graduated with her master’s degree in biology and had to choose between the run or her graduation ceremony.
Alice also has become a runner and plans to participate in the Joplin Memorial Run 5k this year.
“We’ve had friends and family join in with us in the race, and it’s something we schedule our year around,” Epperson said. “We love it and the symbolism of it; seeing the names of the people we lost, seeing parts of the town that have been rebuilt and accomplishing something good to help us remember what we lost and to remind us of what we have.
“This really bad thing happened, but we still have so much. That’s how it felt for me. I want to remember this day, and it’s obviously part of our story now, but I also don’t want it to be a sad day.”
Running for the 161 Who Can’t – Kendall Chenault
Losing her home in the Joplin tornado was terrifying for then-eighth grader Kendall Chenault.
“Luckily, my grandparents’ house didn’t get hit, so we moved into their basement for six months,” she said. “It was summer, and I was out of school, and every day my mom was going to look at houses and work with insurance. However, if there was a cloud in the sky, and it could literally be a white cloud, I was like, ‘I can’t go outside.’”
Eventually, being cooped up in the basement became tiring, and recurring nightmares about the storm pushed Chenault to get out of her comfort zone and find some sort of outlet.
“When May rolled around and I was standing at that start line, I had a wave of emotions,” she said. “I remember taking a deep breath and telling myself, ‘I’m running for the 161 people who can’t run today.’ Next thing I knew, the start gun was shot and off we went.” – Kendall Chenault
“I just started running around the neighborhood, and it was really refreshing,” she said.
Chenault dug deeper into running in high school, falling in love with cross country even as she and her high school classmates transitioned from one school location to another.
“The teammates and coaches were so passionate about it that we pushed each other to be the best we could. We made Joplin history, making it to sectionals,” she said. “Between the constant support of my coaches and teammates, I became the best version of myself. I hit PRs that I never even knew were possible.
“I had always run the Joplin Memorial Run, and it holds such a special place in my heart,” she said. “Every time I’m standing at the start line and we have the moment of silence for the 161 people who lost their lives, it gives me chills, brings tears to my eyes and reminds me how resilient and grateful I am to live in Joplin.”
After graduation, Chenault decided to take her running to the next level, signing up and training for the 2015 Joplin Memorial half-marathon.
“When May rolled around and I was standing at that start line, I had a wave of emotions,” she said. “I remember taking a deep breath and telling myself, ‘I’m running for the 161 people who can’t run today.’ Next thing I knew, the start gun was shot and off we went.”
She crossed the finish line in 1:58:00 with her family members waiting for her and cheering her on.
“My mom and dad especially have been my biggest supporters when it comes to running,” she said. “They have never missed a single race, and I’m forever thankful for them.”
She continued to run on her own while attending Missouri Southern State University and blew past her 2016 goal of 1:45, crossing the finish line in tears as her hard work paid off with a 1:41:00 finish.
While her biggest goal is to train for a full marathon and qualify for Boston, distance training got to be a challenge, so Chenault came up with an idea to add to the enjoyment.
“I had the idea of volunteering at the Joplin Humane Society,” she said. “I would take the high-energy dogs out of the kennels and bring them to Frisco Trail and run anywhere from 5-8 miles with the dogs. It was such a great experience, because not only was I doing what I loved, running, but I was also getting to do it with dogs.”
Chenault credited much of who she is to learning to run after the storm.
“Running cures all,” she said. “It’s like everything in my head would clear of anything evil or bad going on in my life and fill it with positive thoughts.”