A post-Katrina running success story

Alex Baker, local artist and owner of DNA Illustrations along with husband Dave, has taken up running to improve her overall fitness. She started running after Dave and her best friend Keely Carlisle trained together for the Asheville Citizen-Times’ annual Half Marathon.

“Keely’s husband and I took our collective kids to watch them run and to meet them at the finish,” Baker says. “As I was watching Dave and Keely run by, I decided that I wanted to be out there too.”

Baker says she had “put on weight” and had trouble sleeping after leaving New Orleans — and Hurricane Katrina — behind.

“Katrina was the gift that kept on giving, and I didn’t feel like myself,” she says.”On a whim, I signed up for the Couch to 5K program with the Asheville Track Club at Carrier Park. It was hard,” says Baker.

“And I will never forget the first time I tried to run for a minute, because I thought my heart would explode. I nearly dropped out of the program. I got shin splints. It was miserable,” she recalls.

“But I saw people much larger and/or older than me who kept showing up, week after week. I didn’t want to let them down.” Baker ran her first 5K and started running with Keely and a neighbor. “With them, I trained for my first 10K and then my first half,” she says. “I dropped over 20 pounds, but the goals started becoming less about weight loss and more about running itself. And I was sleeping through the night.”

Baker insists she’s neither fast nor an athlete but says running has given her a level of fitness and serenity she’s never before experienced. “I have asthma, and speed is difficult. But I’ve figured out where my plateau is, breath-wise, and I if stay under that, I can run for hours,” she says.

“I’m in much better shape than I ever was in my 20s or 30s. I can’t call myself an athlete with a straight face, even though I’ve done eight marathons. For me, running is a mental vacation. I don’t run with music or audio books anymore. I let my mind wander and eventually I don’t think about anything at all, except to notice the cadence of my footsteps.”

Baker’s running odyssey has presented great challenges, though. “I’ve had highs and lows,” she says. Two race bibs — numbers pinned to competitors’ shirts during races — are taped to the wall behind her desk. “In my worst marathon experience, my training went to hell, and everything went wrong. I got the worst time and I spent half the race wanting to drop out,” she says of one bib. “And a second bib where I kept on top of my training, and everything went well. I got a PR [personal record] and ended the race feeling fantastic. The bibs remind me that I will get out of [training] what I put into it.”

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