This is the first in a new series of occasional stories about members of the College Park parkrun community. We are thankful to Rebecca White for sharing her story, which shows how one person's resolve, combined with a supportive community, can make a world of difference.
My name is Rebecca Vandenbroeck White. I am 56 years old. I am a parkrun walker and volunteer at College Park parkrun. Over the last year parkrun has become a vital part of my living a healthy lifestyle.
Making a Choice
In August of 2018 I reached a crucial point in my life. I realized that at over 340 pounds I had a choice to make. I could either change the way I was living or face being housebound in a short period of time. It wasn’t just my weight that had caused this, but also an ever increasing lack of activity had left me so weak that I could not walk from my place of employment to the parking lot without stopping to sit. I could not stand for any period of time without my back screaming in agony. I could not even put on my own socks. When my family went to a museum, I had to be pushed in a wheelchair.
Most days I went to work, came home, lay on the couch, went to bed, got up and then repeated the same process. I’d come home Friday evenings and not leave the house again until the following Monday morning. Outside of family, work and Facebook I had no sense of belonging to a community. I was living in a self-imposed prison caused by obesity and lack of movement.
In August 2018 I started working out and logging my food intake. It was hard. It was frustrating. But being fat and out of shape was harder. I couldn’t lift five pounds. Honestly, I couldn’t lift 2 pound weights more than a few repetitions. But I began losing weight and getting stronger. I was able to take short walks. I felt hope, but I still felt isolated.
Making a List
One day I made a “bucket list” of things I wanted to do as a result of my new, healthier lifestyle and one of the things I listed was to participate in a 5K. I knew that was a long way off, but I put it on there next to going to the Grand Canyon, kayaking, and singing karaoke. A few weeks passed, and a high school friend posted on her Facebook page about participating in a 5K. I mentioned to her that I hoped to do that one day. Through the wonder of social media another old friend saw my post and told me about this thing called parkrun in Renton, Washington, and suggested I check to see if there was a local parkrun. I did and discovered there were a few within driving distance, with College Park being the closest.
Becoming a Lurker
I was interested in parkrun, but was it really for someone like me? Most of my workouts were strength training, stationary recumbent bicycling and water fitness. I didn’t run. I didn’t jog. And honestly, I still wasn’t walking all that much beyond the minimum required. So, I lurked. I read through the parkrun international website. I found College Park parkrun’s Facebook page. I even found a video of [co-event director] Colin videoing a parkrun with a GoPro. The route looked beautiful, and it was flat. Great! I saw smiling people. Great! Runners, walkers, families, babies in strollers, and dogs on leashes. Great! Hmmmm. Maybe this was something for me to check out. I figured I didn’t have to do the whole 5k, I could turn around if I wanted to. There was even a post on the parkrun Facebook page about someone who did just that, and when he was able to complete the whole event, people were happy for him. Cool!
In December of 2018 I registered for parkrun. Every week I read the Facebook page. Every week I watched the weather. Too cold. Too wet. Snow. Ice. It looked like there would never be a perfect weekend to go. Excuses, anyone?
Team Sloth: We’ll Get There When We Get There
Finally, I told myself to quit putting it off and I went. That was February 9, 2019 - one year ago. I had gotten a special shirt with the saying “Sloth Running Team. We’ll get there when we get there.” Two ladies saw my shirt and came over and introduced themselves. Lucy and Laurie really made me feel welcome, and the funny thing is they were first timers, too. What a gift. I found out the next time they are regular 5K and marathon participants but they had heard about parkrun and came to check it out. They’ve been regulars ever since.
Well, I’d love to say that I walked the 5k route with ease that day, that I have set personal bests (PBs) on a regular basis, and that I now run with the wind. But no. That is not my story.
That day I quickly found out how slow I really do walk - the sloth shirt proved to be prophetic. I was not prepared for the walk, or for the temperatures in the mid 20’s that morning. After a while I became concerned I wouldn’t be able to finish. I did not believe in myself. I was anxious. But I was not alone. The tail walker was with me. Misha had caught up with me and we talked as we walked. She never rushed me - she met my pace. And when I decided to turn back she took my picture so I could see how far I’d made it. I had gone one mile.
Tailwalker Misha took this picture when I turned back at the one mile mark, as a target for the next time I came back.
Of course, I had to walk back and at a total distance of 1.7 miles I stopped at Hump’s Crossing and Kim (subbing for Hump) gave me a lift back to the finish. I would need to learn how to dress for the weather and how to believe in myself.
The next Saturday I came back. The temperature was warmer than the previous week and the memories of the warm welcome were still fresh. I was not wrong to return. A woman I had met the week before walked almost the entire trail with me. Wow! Lori wasn’t the tail walker, and she definitely can walk faster than I can, but she chose to walk along and keep me company for the entire parkrun. Two others, Valerie and Lucy, came back out after they finished and met us along the trail and walked in with us. Basically strangers, but supporting me in a way that meant the world. Oh, I said “entire parkrun” didn’t I? Because on that day February 16, 2019 with a finish time of over 90 minutes I completed my first 5K. It was hard, but I just kept going one step at a time. Along the way and at the finish line, I was cheered and high-fived and it felt incredible.
Lori and Misha supported me the whole way
Complete a 5K - check!
A year has gone by now. I would like to say it has all been happy times, and mostly it has been. However, there were times when friction blisters or joint pain made it to where I could barely cross the finish line. But these physical pains were only part of it. The real struggle was dealing with crushing self doubt. That first week I did not realize the average finish time was under 40 minutes, and it had taken me more than twice that. When I realized how much of an outlier my time was, I again allowed anxiety to build up. I told myself I did not belong there. I was making the volunteers wait. They would resent me. They would quit volunteering if they had to wait so long in the cold, the rain, the heat, the sun ….
But, everytime I showed up, they cheered, high-fived, walked with me and came back out to walk me in. They told me in words and actions that I deserved to be a part of parkrun just as much as the 18-minute finishers. Others walked with me and helped me feel a part of the community - Andrea, Lori, Lisa, Valerie, Misha, Külli, Yancira, Anna, Ellen (with barkrunner Eli), and other tail walkers whose names I do not remember but whose faces are in my memory.
Since my first parkrun my times have improved. I will never be a fast finisher, but I set goals and have seen my times improve. On February 8th 2020, the one year anniversary of my first parkrun attempt, I finished in 70 minutes. It was a personal best and over 20 minutes off my first finish time.
In addition to walking, I have also volunteered many times. Photography is my favorite way to volunteer, but there are a variety of different volunteer jobs that I enjoy and that give me an opportunity to participate in and build the community I have embraced.
Filling my bucket
Of course, parkrun isn’t all there is to life, but it has sure added to mine. I have a community that I know will always be there, every Saturday at 9:00. On February 15 I will complete my 20th College Park parkrun. I have definitely marked completing a 5K off my bucket list. Although I haven’t yet made it to the Grand Canyon, I have been kayaking and I have sung karaoke in the past year. I continue to keep up other fitness activities - even adding in a weekly gentle round of racquetball with my son. I have now lost over 60 pounds and am working to lose more.
Through learning to quiet my self doubts during parkrun I find it easier to quell those negative voices in other parts of my life. Wanting to do better at parkrun yet having a distaste for treadmills, I started going outside more to walk. I have rediscovered my love of nature and hiking. I have taken up birdwatching and nature photography, and my life is no longer so insular. I am grateful for the second chance to actually enjoy the life I have been given.
Fill your bucket
If you have thought about going to parkrun, come along some Saturday. If you need an invitation, here it is. Come, see what parkrun is about. If you have come before but were worried that you weren’t fast enough, come back. parkrun is there for everyone. And, if you have an empty bucket, bring it along. We’ll help you fill it with fun, support and community.