Crystal Harper used all the strength she had to beat cancer. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma at the age of 25, this local meteorologist tried to keep up her active lifestyle for as long as possible but naturally found herself getting weaker and struggling with her endurance and stamina. When she finished her last chemotherapy treatment in 2017, she felt relieved yet scared.
"I knew getting back in shape was going to be a top priority during my recovery, but I didn't know where to start," Harper says. "I didn't know what my body was capable of or how hard I should push myself. There were many times that it was hard just to walk to my kitchen to get a glass of water. I would actually get out of breath from something like that."
Instead of giving up, Harper regained her confidence through running, which she says has helped her both physically and mentally.
"Life after cancer has been so much harder than I ever expected it to be, but no matter how bad I felt on a given day, I always felt better after a run," she says. "Running allowed me to clear my mind and just have time to myself to think. It's also really easy to track your progress with running and see improvements in a short amount of time. It gives you such a boost of confidence when you reach a goal that you've been working toward, especially when that goal is something you never thought you'd be able to do."
Harper is one of millions of people who have benefited from a sport that can be done at any age, stage or place. Numerous studies show that running can help prevent cardiovascular and Alzheimer's disease, increase bone density, maintain weight, fight depression and stress and adds years to your life. Of course, Coastal Virginia runners have the added appeal of beautiful scenery, a variety of accessible trails, moderate temperatures most of the year and a very strong community.
"I started running when I joined the military, but only because I had to," says Harper. "I used to hate every second of it, and I only did it often enough to keep myself in shape. I started to enjoy running a bit more shortly after moving to Coastal Virginia." Harper cites supportive running clubs and the encouragement of fellow local runners in developing her dedication to lacing up.
One of those inspirational runners was Glenn Edwards, who Harper met during her recovery when she joined the North End Run Club in Virginia Beach.
"I was terrified to show up to the first run because I did not know anyone," says Harper. "Something made me give it a shot, and I'm so glad I did. The running community in Coastal Virginia is incredible, and I have met so many amazing people simply because I decided to step out of my comfort zone and give running a shot."
Edwards started his own running career in 2014 at 53 years old. After experiencing a significant heart issue his doctor advised him to get out and exercise. When he began he couldn't run more than a few yards, but by 2016 running had become a passion instead of a chore.
"I have never felt better," Edwards says. "I see my cardiologist yearly, and all indications show positive results on my activity level, my heart, etc. I have lost over 42 lbs since I started running. It takes a decent amount of time to get in shape to run up near 55 miles a month."
Edwards completed 14 races in 2018, including his first half marathon in March last year. He runs with the North End Run Club every Tuesday night, the smaller group the FOMO Crew on Thursday nights, and does long runs with other groups on the weekends.
"The running community by far has been the most rewarding personal experience I have ever had," says Edwards. "I have met and become friends with hundreds of local runners who strive every day to be the best and bring the best out in me. It is the most positive uplifting experience one could ask for."
Local runner and fellow cancer survivor Carla Serex uplifted Harper when they met through November Project, a free workout group in Coastal Virginia. Serex began running 11 years ago. As a military widow, she raised her daughter with a steadfast dedication but eventually realized she had none of her own hobbies, so she started running.
She now runs several times a week and competes in all kinds of races, including marathons. After a few years she joined the J&A Training Team and says she found a family of friends she treasures.
"I have been on the training team for nine years now and couldn’t even imagine training for races on my own again," Serex says. "Life is constantly throwing curve balls, and the lessons I learn training with these incredible people allow me to face each obstacle with mental strength that is priceless."
Harper also joined the J&A Training Team with the encouragement of head coach Ryan Conrad, who realized at 14 that baseball or soccer weren't for him, but the sense of camaraderie among his cross country teammates was priceless. He ran competitively in college and now logs five to six days of running per week and motivates his 200-plus-member training team.
"Everyone in life, no matter in what aspects, wants to have a sense of belonging to something," Conrad explains. "Running is no different. There is power to building a community of like-minded people who will show up and push each other through a long run when it’s 20 degrees in January with winds howling at the Virginia Beach Oceanfront. It’s inspiring! When surrounded by other runners you’ll push a little harder and prove to yourself things you didn’t think were possible."
Harper says that's exactly what Conrad did for her. As soon as they met, he convinced her to push her running and recovery by committing to training with his team for her first half marathon. In October she completed the 13.1-mile Crawlin' Crab race on her birthday, less than a year after finishing chemotherapy, and considers it one of her proudest moments.
"Thinking back to the beginning of the year when walking a short distance was difficult to me and seeing how far I've come makes me so grateful for what my body is capable of doing after everything I went through last year," Harper says. "Crossing that finish line was one of the most amazing feelings."
While she's currently not race training, Harper still consistently runs a few times a week, preferably at the beach, and relies on the support system she has found as part of the sport.
"What keeps me going it is the people," she says. "Coastal Virginia has an amazing running community full of the most genuine, supportive and caring people you'll ever meet."
5 Expert Tips on Picking the Proper Running Shoes
Knowledgeable runners know that good shoes make a huge difference. Not only can they help you run faster, but the proper footwear can also prevent training injuries that can stop you in your tracks. But with so many options out there, it's hard to decide what's best for your feet. So we asked for advice from expert Jonathan Harris, who has 12 years experience coaching runners and triathletes from beginners to elite. He has completed eight marathons, dozens of half marathons, an Ironman and three 50Ks.
Here are Harris' five tips on selecting the best shoes and why that's important:
1. Get your gait analyzed professionally. Having someone watch how your foot functions will make a world of difference in your running, probably more than anything else. You can find out how much pronation you have and whether you have neutral pronation, over pronation or under pronation, also known as supination.
2. Always size up from what you measure on a scale, usually a half size to a full size, (look for a thumbnail width from your toe to the end of the shoe). Your feet will swell the longer you are on them. You don't want your toes to be touching the end of the shoe. Bruised toenails are not a rite of passage for runners.
3. When trying to find the perfect shoe, know that it should feel good right out of the box. Shoes these days don't need to be broken in. If something about the shoe is bothering you right off, it may not be the right shoe for you. Also just because your best friend loves a shoe, it may not be the best fit for you because you have different feet.
4. Most shoes are going to last about 500 miles. When you are running the midsole foam will compress, and after too many miles when you take the shoe off the foam will decompress but not to what it was originally. Eventually the shoe will not have anything left to decompress, and you will be running on a thin layer of foam. Your feet, knees and ankles will let you know when your shoes are done.
5. Also consider your socks. Always look for wicking material, nylon, spandex or wool when purchasing socks. A lot of people don't think about that when running. A good pair of socks will help eliminate blistering because it will keep sweat away from the foot. This will keep the foot drier, making your feet cooler in the summer and warmer in the winter. Cotton socks aren't really a good option because the moisture stays there and doesn't dissipate. If you think about it the sock is the barrier between the foot and the shoe, so it's always good to invest in a good pair of socks.
Jonathan Harris is a USATF and RRCA level 1 coach, USAT- and Ironman University-certified Triathlon coach, AFAA-certified personal trainer and Precision Nutrition Sports nutritionist. He co-owns Fat Frogs Triathlon Team in Chesapeake. He can be reached at JonathanHarris22@gmail.com or FatFrogsTri.com.
Seasoned Runners Share Their Secrets on Getting Started
"Just show up. Get an app for Couch to 5K, stick with it, find an accountability buddy to run with. You will be crushing your goals before you know it."
—Glenn Edwards of North End Running Club
"If you're at all interested in running, you just have to start. My best advice would be to join a run club or show up to a November Project workout. There are run clubs in every city here, and you can always find someone to join you on a jog and hold you accountable on your fitness goals. It probably will be a bit intimidating at first, but I have never met anyone who has regretted it. Step out of your comfort zone and just give it a shot. My second biggest piece of advice is to invest in a really good pair of running shoes to prevent injuries. I'm speaking from experience! A good pair of shoes is essential."
—Crystal Harper, runner, WVEC-TV meteorologist and cancer survivor
"Becoming a runner doesn't happen overnight. Start slow and easy. Most people can't go out and run seven-minute miles right out of the box. One thing people don't understand is that in order to run better, they have to run slowly. Slow running will build endurance, develop stronger skeletal and muscular systems and help your body recover more quickly from the stress of running. I also recommend learning a good efficient form from the beginning. People don't think about it, but good form can make a world of difference. I've worked with so many runners who I start off by videotaping so they can see what they look like while running. We break down their form and find little things here and there that they can improve, and then they come back to me and say it's like a whole new experience. Good form can help prevent injuries, make your faster without exerting any more energy and just feels better."
—Jonathan Harris, owner of Fat Frogs Triathlon Team
"We all have scars. It may be that someone told you that you’d never be a runner, you were the last one picked in grade school for the team or you didn’t make a team that you tried out for. Turn those scars into stars and make your dreams come true."
—Carla Serex, member of the J&A Training Team
"Think of one word: YET. Everyone has doubts when they begin—can they run 2 miles without stopping, can they find people to run with, etc. But when you add the word YET to the end of those thoughts it changes everything. Example: I haven’t run 2 miles without stopping YET. I haven’t met a running friend YET. When you begin running know that it takes time, but everyone has been in your shoes before. It takes time, but the benefits are endless."
—Ryan Conrad, head coach for the J&A Training Team
Roll With It
Muscle Maintenance Is Crucial For Running Recovery
It's natural that race training and long runs come with their share of aches and pains. One of the easiest and most affordable treatments comes in the form of a foam roller. Done right, rolling acts as a deep tissue massage and can be used as a great warm-up prior to a run and or an even better recovery tool to ensure your tired muscles are prepped to get moving again more quickly.
When rolling remember that some discomfort is normal. When you hit a tender spot, stop and concentrate on the area with very slow back and forth movements until you feel it soften or release.
A dedication to daily rolling can reduce inflammation, injury, scar tissue and joint stress and also improve circulation and flexibility.
Here are a few important muscles for runners to target when foam rolling.
Iliotibial (IT) Band
If you are interested in local race training, we recommend the following resources to find upcoming race calendars, running groups and training plans: