Updated: Apr 4, 2021
by Rachel Olexa, April 2021
My name is Rachel Olexa- I am a broken but beautiful creation of God who has chosen to enter the dark spaces in my mind through the discipline of running and exercise- when I emerge I have a freedom that has always evaded me.
As a child and adult I was morbidly obese- I still hate these words. Deathly fat- unhealthy- lazy- undisciplined- no will power- overeater- unhealthy- fat failure- non athletic…. all of these terms and worse were burned into my mind at a young age and I believed that my obesity was a permanent condition and my fault. I didn’t believe that I could play sports. The mile run at school was my biggest fear every year as well as getting weighed in front of my peers. One year I refused to be weighed in front of my classmates and was spanked in front of them, and then still forced to be weighed in for all to see. I believed I was a loser.
Even though my self esteem was lacking I frequently endured through various physical challenges that seemed to surprise my teachers. I once tried for over an hour (unsuccessfully) to do a handstand in gym class without giving up. I missed the bus once and so then walked the four miles to school. Looking back I wish I had seen the quality of perseverance in myself earlier, however it would be nearly 30 years later before I truly embraced endurance and perseverance as God’s greatest gifts to me. These thoughts and memories all returned to me during long runs when my mind had time to go deep into its recesses, where all the pain dwells. Pain is processed through solitary journeys into the unknown.
As an adult, I weighed around 300 pounds. I was a mom, volunteer at church and a talented singer. I still felt empty and unworthy, judged about my fatness nearly everyday. To be fat in America is a horrible thing. Like race, obesity is something that you cannot hide and people immediately pass judgement on you, assume you are lazy and that you eat massive amounts of food. Generally, this is NOT true. As a fat person I pretty much ate like everyone else that I knew. Inside, I felt like I needed to prove my worth every single day. Initially that is what drew me to running. I wanted to prove to everyone else that I wasn’t lazy!
I joined a running group at church and was met by extreme love and kindness and no judgement the group was called “No one runs alone”, and true to their word- even though the first week I could only jog from the door to the end of the driveway, someone always stayed with me. I was in complete awe of them. Most were running 3-5 miles and long runs on Saturday of 8-10 miles- a couple of them were training for marathons (26.2 miles). I was inspired by their stories and encouraged by their strength. I wanted to be able to run like they did, and to be kind and inspire others. My journey of running began to transform me from someone trying to prove themselves to someone I wanted to be.
The last 16 years have been a struggle with depression, loneliness, and the struggle toward losing weight. Each time I went out to run I tried to beat my distance or time out in the road by a little bit. I ran my first continuous mile on a Thanksgiving morning during a turkey trot race, and then started improving my 5K time. Eventually, I added a half marathon, and completed my first marathon in 2011 making the time cut off by one minute. Each time I increased my distance, I doubted myself. I did not quit, no matter how much I wanted to and was able to complete each race, although I was often last. I spent many days walking, giving up for that moment but still moving forward. Each failure taught me that failure is just an opportunity to do better- not a reason to quit!
Last year a friend asked me if I wanted to try an ultra marathon- a 100K. I calculated the distance (62 miles) and immediately said no thank you. I am slow, I was barely able to run a mile in under 13 minutes. Covid had increased my depression and I knew that getting through the winter would be especially tough because I have SAD (seasonal affective disorder) and without a job I feared I would just lie in bed depressed most of the time. A still quiet whisper in my heart said do it, it will give you a reason to get out of bed! A coupon code from my friend for $17.00 off the registration fee enticed me just enough and I signed up.
The last five months of training have been very difficult, the snow came and my depression worsened. I had a training plan to follow which added miles every week averaging 30-40 miles per week. I wanted to give up. Every morning, it took everything in me to get out the door and when I went out I hated the first mile every time, but after each run was complete I felt better. I joined the Kroc center so I could run on the track indoors, taking away any excuses, even though that often meant running 200-300 laps around it! I told everyone I knew that I was training for this race and posted it in social media- instant accountability makes it less likely that I will quit because I still worry about people thinking I am lazy- but what others meant for harm- God restores to help me! I kept repeating to myself “never ever give up”.
Race day morning I spent some time praying and crying in genuine fear. None of my training runs went beyond 30 miles. The race doubled that distance. I was scared of failing. I was scared of being last. I was scared I wasn’t good enough. As I took off from the start I visualized the course in my head. I remembered the day before as we drove it how far it actually was- it took an hour and a half to drive the course- I doubted myself and on the first hard part of the course I stopped to walk and gaze out over the vastness of the ocean- I was reminded through the birds flying overhead of the verse”they will run and not be weary” and I took off again. As I came through the 26th mile ahead of my fastest marathon time I started to believe I could possibly complete the race in under 20 hours, my goal was to complete it in 24 hours. I kept going and felt great! The 37nth mile a terrible lightning storm came through and we were pulled off the course for over an hour. Each minute I sat in the car it became easier and easier to entertain the thought of quitting. Mentally and physically I had gone farther than ever before so I justified that quitting would be ok, and that many people truly thought this distance was too far. Finally the race directors let us go back on the course and I reluctantly went out to complete the last 25 miles.
Battling my own mind is so hard. I kept finding things in the distance and told myself once I reached that place I could walk, but before I got there I would pick the next thing in the distance. I would tell myself- after the next song you can walk- then a gospel song came on that lasted over 11 minutes! God reminded me that I am stronger than myself because I am being transformed, renewed and changed.
After seemingly eternal sleet and fog blizzard conditions my headset in my ear said, “you have completed mile 58.” Something in my brain shifted and I knew that all I had left to run was a 5K- only about 3 miles, which at one time seemed so unattainable but now I could practically run in my sleep. I took off with renewed spirits even though my feet were blistered and I was chilled to the bone…. at last the finish line was in sight! I began to cry and shout “See I am good enough, I have always been good enough…..” then cried out “I just didn’t believe it yet…”
I sprinted the last little bit of the race waving a palm branch and singing “Hosanna, in the highest may our king be lifted up, hosanna!” To God be the glory- from the depths of depression or addiction or financial ruin or relationship problems you can emerge stronger, better, even happier than before! It won’t be easy to set a goal and achieve it- but if I can do it SO CAN YOU!
Yesterday, I got my first Covid vaccination. As the nurse looked at my arm she said “wow, you must be an athlete of some kind, you have really muscular arms.”
“Yeah,” I said quietly as my eyes welled up with tears. Athlete. Athlete. A word that I never thought would be used to describe me! I am a product of slow and deliberate changes in my nutrition, exercise habits and listening to the pain in my body. These changes have morphed me from being anchored in my failure to running failing forward as an athlete.