By Sarah Gooding • Photos by Savanah Mandeville

Crystal Zaerr dabbled in local 5k’s and 10k’s and signed up for her first half marathon, the Joplin Memorial Run, when her dad passed away.

Running offered a way to channel her grief, and her loss ultimately transformed Zaerr from a casual runner into a serious distance runner.

“It was my way of dealing with it,” she said. “It was either eat all the food or go run, so I chose to run. It’s a way to honor my dad, and now I’ve done seven half-marathons, one full and tons of 10 and 5k’s.”

Growing up, Zaerr played basketball and was on the swim team but said she never had an athletic-type body.

A job at the Joplin YMCA changed her passion for fitness, and she began really working out 6-7 years ago, occasionally signing up for 5k’s around Joplin or the Lamar Free Fair 10k.

“When I worked at the Y in Joplin, I got to know a lot of the runners,” she said. “There’s a big running community there, and they would help me if I had any questions, but other than that, I would run when I could fit it into my schedule.”

This helped her fully embrace the sport.

“To be a runner, it doesn’t mean you have to be fast or the first one to cross the finish line,” she said. “Everybody has their own pace and goals, and I want to encourage anyone who is looking at getting into running to find a friend, get out there and go.”

When her dad passed away, she did just that.

“I don’t always like to talk about my feelings, so it was a way to help me get out my anger and frustration,” she said, adding that she enjoys training solo.

“As crazy as it sounds, I do my best thinking when I’m out on a run,” Zaerr said. “It’s peaceful. You can think about your day or not think about your day. Good or bad days, it’s my therapy and my ‘me’ time.”

Even a few years later, Zaerr said she feels closest to her dad when running, but also enjoys that time to think through challenges, problem-solve or review upcoming tasks.

Zaerr said she also appreciates the running community and enjoys seeing friends at races around the region.

“I’ve met some amazing people who have encouraged me and helped me along the way,” she said. “I’ve made so many lasting friendships through running.”

Zaerr said she’s not big into chatting while running, adding, “I’m more focused on not dying,” but said it’s nice to see friends over and over.

“The Joplin Memorial is a big one, because everyone from Joplin usually does that one,” she said. “When I worked at the Y, they would come in to train. It’s always nice to see someone you know.”

Additionally, while her family doesn’t run with her, they do cheer for her.

“I’m about the only person in my family that runs,” she said. “They’re supportive, but they’re like, ‘We’ll meet you at the finish line.’”

But that finish line is a sweet place for Zaerr.

“I really did the marathon for my dad,” she said. “It was awesome. I was in pain, but it was awesome. I want to do another full at some point and to keep doing what I’m doing – improving and getting better with each run I do.”