By Savanah Mandeville • Photos by Mandy Edmonson

We all know the physical benefits of exercise, but the mental health benefits all too often go overlooked. Joplin-based runner Laura Land will be the first to tell you running is a way of life for her because of the incredible mental health benefits she has experienced.

When Laura began running in 2016, she was overweight and battling depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I just wanted to change my life. I knew I needed to,” she said. “I think I started out motivated by the physical aspect and wanting to look better, but running quickly turned to ‘this is so much better for my mental health,’ and it took the focus off the physical goals. The physical goals came eventually, but the changes I made emotionally were far more important.”

On May 22, 2011, Laura and her family narrowly survived when an EF-5 tornado leveled their home and destroyed all their possessions. As the family struggled to get back on their feet in the months following, Laura began to experience symptoms of depression and PTSD.

“I was really struggling, and I didn’t have a big support system,” she said. “But one found me.”

One of Laura’s coworkers introduced her to the idea of joining a running group.

“A really nice lady at work — I’ve worked at Jasper Products for 17 years — came up to me after the tornado and said, ‘I know you lost everything,’ and she gave me a gift card. She would talk to me and check on me from time to time, and we became friends on Facebook. Over the years, I saw she was always running and seemed so happy. I wanted to start, but I was very overweight and depressed and anxious, but she was so encouraging. She said she smoked for years but gave it up by running with this running group. She finally talked me into doing recovery runs with them.”

Laura pushed herself out of her comfort zone and ran one mile.

Soon, one mile turned into three miles.

Laura joined local running groups The Joplin Roadrunners and The Rufus Team, and with the support of other female runners, she was able to start really piling up the miles.

She ran her first 5k in 2016.

She ran her first marathon June 20, 2020.

“I’ve lost weight, I’ve gotten stronger mentally and physically, but most importantly, I found healthy coping mechanisms for when my PTSD kicks in,” she said. “There will always be things that make you anxious and things you can’t control like loud noises, certain smells, things that take you back. Now, when that happens, I can just go out and run. Getting that energy out, getting some time to think it through, or just listening to the repetitive sound of my feet hitting the ground — all of those things help.”

Each year, Laura leaves Joplin during the tornado anniversary because the memories are too painful. For this reason, she has never run the Joplin Memorial Run. This year, she stayed in Joplin and ran the Memorial half-marathon course with a small group of runners. (The full event was postponed due to COVID-19).

“It was so emotional, and I was so happy I was able to run it. When I finished it, I thought, ‘I can do that now. Next year, I can totally do that.’”

For Laura, the simple phrase “I can do that” sums up how she turned tragedy into triumph. Today, the sky’s the limit.

Her next goal is a triathlon.

“I’m definitely going to have to take swimming lessons, but I have no doubt I can learn to swim,” she said. “I came from a place where I didn’t think I could run one mile, so considering how far I’ve come, I know I will get there.”

At the end of the day, Laura said she owes everything to the women who lifted her up along the way.

“When someone else believes you can do something, sometimes that’s all you need to believe you can do it yourself.”