By Savanah Mandeville
When Rachel Bryan started running during her freshman year of college, her goal was partially to keep off the dreaded Freshman 15 and partially as a stress reliever from homework and studying. She never would’ve guessed this simple hobby would one day become a powerful tool to help her overcome the darkest period of her life.
“In high school, I’d always admired the cross-country team. I thought it was so awesome they could do that. So, that’s initially what inspired me to get started.”
Rachel married her husband, Jason, between her sophomore and junior years of college and moved to a farm in the country. Her daily routine changed, but her love for running only intensified.
“I would run the sections around the farm,” she said. “Finally, I got up the courage to do a 5k that Integris put on in Oklahoma City.”
After that, 5k’s became a regular part of life. Through the rest of her college career, the birth of two sons, a move to Fort Scott, Kansas, and starting out as a registered nurse, Rachel kept on running. 5k’s were, as she put it: “kind of my jam.
“I was hooked! Distances became longer, and soon, I was running three, then four, then up to seven miles,” she said.
Before long, when Rachel looked in the mirror, she saw one of those cross-country runners she admired so much when she was younger.
She ran her first 10k in 2015.
“That was about the time I started thinking about running a half marathon,” she said. “I was in a running club in Fort Scott, and we got up every day at 5 am to run. It was so much fun. We always joked that we needed t-shirts that said, ‘We Run This Town!’ At age 35, I decided I would run a half marathon by the time I turned 40.”
Life was pretty wonderful in Rachel’s world. She had a beautiful family, a great group of girlfriends, a rewarding career and she was knocking down one running goal after another.
Then, tragedy struck.
Rachel’s 13-year-old son, John, passed away unexpectedly.
After that, she went to a dark place mentally and didn’t run for a very, very long time.
As she grieved the loss of her son, she had all but given up on her dream of running a half marathon. Yet somehow, a tiny flame stayed lit somewhere deep inside her. When she felt strong enough, she laced up her running shoes.
“As I felt the wind blow across my face and my feet hit the pavement, my body instinctively fell into a steady breathing pattern, and it was like meeting up with an old friend,” she said. “At that moment, I realized, I’m still a runner.”
She had gotten an important piece of her identity back, and that gave her strength. By this time, she was 39 and knew if she wanted to achieve her goal, it was now or never.
And, she had a greater purpose than ever before: to honor her son.
“A half marathon is 13.1 miles, and my son was 13-years-old,” she said. “I wanted to do it for him. To honor him.”
Rachel began to train, this time on her own. Her family had moved to Seneca, Missouri, miles away from her running group, but she stuck to her training schedule and pushed herself, even battling intermittent knee and back pain along the way.
“Running again did help,” she said. “John used to like to go on runs with me, and the boys would ride their bikes beside me as we ran. It was just good memories.”
In March 2019, Rachel ran the Bentonville Half Marathon.
“As I ran, I thought of each mile as a different year of John’s life,” Rachel said. “When it was over, I felt accomplished, and it did help in a small way. It was one way I used to heal.”
Rachel’s son, Morgan, is currently a senior at Seneca High School and found running to be a good coping mechanism for him, as well. Two years ago, he joined the cross-country team, which inspired Rachel to come on as the assistant coach. Together, running helped both mother and son begin to heal.
Multiple studies have found exercise to be an excellent, all-natural remedy for depression because it stimulates nerve cell growth in the hippocampus. For those grieving the loss of a loved one, exercise may not sound like an appealing option, but even just five minutes a day of walking can help, said Dr. Michael Craig Miller, assistant professor of psychiatry at Harvard Medical School in an article for Harvard Health Publishing.
Rachel’s advice is to start small, find an accountability partner or running group to join, reward yourself with new workout clothes, and get a great pair of running shoes from a professional. She recommends The Runaround in Joplin.
“Running plans like Couch to 5K are good because they ease you into it,” she said. “The more you do it, the easier it becomes.”