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‘Happy Grandmas Running’ tear up the pavement across America

MADISON — Some dream of retiring to the tropics and spending the rest of their lives in leisure. One group of local women, however, have hit the ground running on a different path—and they don’t plan on stopping anytime soon.

The core group, who have adopted the name “Happy Grandmas Running,” consists of a few women who have been traveling around the United States to run unique races that not only keep them in shape, but also allow them to have fun, new experiences together in new places.

“Our theme is that we don’t really care about our time, per se,” said Kim McCandless. “It’s about crossing that finish line, and it’s all about the bling because we’re very particular about races, too. We look for races that have really, really cool medals.”

While the time isn’t everything, the women keep track of their personal records and have a little friendly competition when they run in the same age bracket. According to Sue Gibson, McCandless is the fastest of the bunch.

“I’m the photo taker at the end,” McCandless said. “I get there faster.” To this, Gibson laughed and acknowledged that she provides some extra motivation for the rest that come through. “If we’re having a hard time, she’s standing at the end yelling, ‘keep going!’”

McCandless said they started out running 10Ks but decided to kick things up a notch and try running a half marathon. She ran her first half marathon in November 2012: the Huntsville Half Marathon. Gibson followed soon after with the Mercedes Half Marathon in Birmingham in 2013.

“We kind of started the tradition with that one that anyone who was running their first one, that one of us would run the last mile with them to kind of encourage them and keep them running,” Gibson explained.

In April 2013, Gibson and McCandless decided to travel across state lines and try the famous Oak Barrel Half Marathon in Lynchburg, Tennessee. The race’s “monstrous” Whiskey Hill was a doozy, but they made it. “Some people run it, most people walk it because it’s that steep,” Gibson said.

Linda Brewster, who is not yet retired and still works for NASA, ran her first half marathon later that year. Since then, she has been taking on half marathons with McCandless and Gibson when she can.

“When you sit and think, 13.1 miles is a long way to go,” McCandless said. “Then, after you do it, you go, ‘That’s not so bad.’ Then it gets in your blood, and then you start doing it more and more, and then it’s like, next thing you know, you’re really hooked.”

The trip to Lynchburg was also the catalyst to a new goal for the women: run a half marathon in all 50 states. “We started doing all the states that we could drive to, and then we got to a point where now, we’ve got to start to fly, so that’s what we’re doing now,” McCandless said.

While researching interesting half marathons across the country, Gibson came across an Alaskan running cruise that they ended up booking two years out. When they finally went in 2015, Alaska captured Gibson’s heart. “That one was just—oh my goodness—phenomenally beautiful,” she said. “… We thought, ‘how cool is that to get our race—our medal for that—and have a cruise.’”

Their thirst for adventure led the Happy Grandmas Running to Hawaii as well, which ended up involving an Amazing Race-style expedition where they ran around Hawaii in grass skirts, racing to each stop on their journey.

The women said they enjoyed running the Kona Half Marathon in Hawaii. CONTRIBUTED

Gibson said these types of running trips have not only helped them further their mission to run in all 50 states, but they have also helped them form friendships with those they meet along the way.

In 2017, the women flew out west for a special—and challenging—opportunity: run three states in three days. “That was interesting but it was a lot of fun because it was beautiful countryside,” McCandless said. The trifecta of back-to-back races included Utah, Idaho and Wyoming. While the women enjoyed the closeness of the races, they hit a snag driving over to one of them.

“We’re on these country roads, and all of a sudden … I mean, the cows were just all over the road, so I had to come to a complete stop,” said McCandless, who was driving. That’s where Brewster, who was the passenger, stepped in to help. Having grown up in New Mexico, this was not her first rodeo dealing with cows. After a few minutes, she had ushered the cows out of the roadway. “That’s been a famous story for us,” McCandless added. “She not only runs, but she herds cows for us.”

Aside from other unique stateside races—including Ohio’s Amish Country half and the Great Turtle Trail Run on Mackinac Island in Michigan—a few of the Happy Grandmas Running have expanded their running maps beyond the U.S., inspired by the running cruise company that took them to Alaska.

A couple years ago, Brewster and McCandless ventured to Italy with their running cruise friends and have also participated in the company’s Caribbean running cruises. In June, they will take on Iceland for the first time.

Until then, the Happy Grandmas Running will continue their quest to conquer their stateside goals. In January, they ran the Hound Dog Half Marathon in Elkmont, Alabama. In March, they ran the Alamo in San Antonio, Texas. In April, they will take on the inaugural Canaan Valley Half Marathon in West Virginia. “Anything with ‘inaugural,’ we like to do those, too,” McCandless said. “We’re big on bling, big on inaugurals.”

In March, the Happy Grandmas Running took on the Run The Alamo Half Marathon in San Antonio, Texas. CONTRIBUTED

Gibson said her husband, a former marathon runner and cross-country bicyclist, has been a big support to her and the rest of the Happy Grandmas Running. Though he does not come along to every race, he provides his support—and photography skills—when he can. “When I go do a race, a lot of the times … I do it for my husband because he was my inspiration to keep running, and he used to go out and run with me,” Gibson said. While he cannot run with her anymore, Gibson said she likes to give him the T-shirts she gets from the half marathons she runs. “I’ll take it and get it in his size, so that’s my gift to him because he still inspires me to go out and go run. It’s like when we did the three states in three days, I came home and I said, ‘I can’t believe I did that.’ He said, ‘I knew you could.’”

The women not only spend their time running half marathons. Avid tennis players and active members of the Huntsville Women’s Tennis Association, which also happens to be how they met, the Happy Grandmas Running also receive support from their tennis friends. They said their group of tennis friends is as strong as their group of running friends, and they are “lucky that we overlap both activities.”

“We’ve inspired a lot of other tennis people (to start running),” McCandless said. “… We tell them, ‘Come on, you can come with us. You can walk.’ … We try to motivate as many people as we can to play tennis and to run.” When they are not running a half marathon, chances are the women might be at a tennis tournament. Brewster stays busy as captain of several teams.

While their friends and family give them plenty of support, perhaps the women’s greatest support sometimes comes from each other. They all touched on times when they were unable to run the whole time, often because of an injury, or found themselves running out of steam toward the end but had a friend or two right there beside them.

“We work towards supporting each other, and if one of us is sick or not feeling well, we try to help the other one get through it because it’s all about the finish line, and it’s all about getting the bling,” Gibson said.

“When I twisted my knee at a tennis tournament and I couldn’t run, and then we had those three races in four weeks, and she walked every single one with me,” Brewster said.

This is something true for most of the running community as well, according to Gibson. “We just kind of encourage each other to keep going,” she said.

And keep going, they will. In addition to their goal to run a half marathon in all 50 states, the Happy Grandmas Running also take on as many half marathons as they can. McCandless said she is working to run 100 total races. In conjunction with their goal to run in all 50 states, the women are members of a 50 States Club for runners and recently attended their annual banquet in Ocean City, New Jersey, which included a half marathon opportunity as well.

“We went to the banquet, and we see what kind of bling you get for completing your 50 states or completing your 100th half marathons, or maybe you did all the continents or whatever—they give awards for that,” McCandless explained. “Now, we’re really excited and really motivated. (Gibson) keeps saying, ‘We’ve got to hurry up because we’re getting old.’”

Gibson said she has run in almost 20 states, and McCandless is nearing the halfway mark at 25. She is also inching closer to her halfway mark for 100 half marathons.

It surprises you what you can do when you just decide that’s what you want to do,” Gibson added. “I never would have guessed that I would have done a half-marathon, much less now I’ve got (almost 20) states.”

While the women are already busy running, exploring and trying out unique eateries at their destinations, they are still looking to the future. For 2020, they are already eyeing the Mt. Rushmore Half Marathon. Of course, the local races will always have a special place in their heart as well.

As members of the Huntsville Track Club, which McCandless said also helps them stay motivated, the Happy Grandmas Running participate in local favorites like the Liz Hurley Ribbon Run, the Cotton Row Run and the Bridge Street Half Marathon. Running through the lights at the Huntsville Botanical Garden is one of their favorites, and Brewster said McCandless won the first Rocket City Half Marathon.

Gibson said runners need to stay consistent with a training program to keep participating in big races. “We try to stay motivated and stay on track because if you ever stop, it’s harder to get back going again,” she said. “It’s easier to just stay with it,” Brewster added. “It’s good for you.”

While the women will stretch before a race and occasionally load up on carbs the night before, they said consistent running is the key to their success. With their goal to stay motivated and take care of their bodies, the Happy Grandmas Running have become a few of many older runners who prove that age doesn’t necessarily dictate a runner’s success.

“You’d be surprised—the older some people get, the faster they get,” McCandless said. “I keep thinking we’re going to move into another age bracket, and we’ll have it easy, but no. There’s runners out there … they’re beating the 30s and 40-year-olds.”

With each other’s company and a little friendly competition, the road ahead is filled with opportunity for the taking.

“It’s a very close-bonded community when you get out of the runners of the area,” Gibson said. “It’s like the tennis community—we all know each other, just about, even though there’s hundreds of us. Very attached—almost at the hip sometimes. We encourage each other, motivate each other and just keep going.”

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