OKC Marathon: Age is just a number, not a barrier, for first-time half-marathoner
Susan Russell-Stewart has crossed lots of things off her bucket list.
Running in Canada.
"But doing a half marathon?" she said dryly. "This was never on the list."
It might not have been a lifelong goal, but a half marathon is exactly what Russell-Stewart will be doing Sunday at the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon. She'll do 13.1 miles for the first time.
And she'll do it at 70 years old.
On Marathon Day, amazing stories of personal triumph are plentiful, but few could be as inspiring than Russell-Stewart. The spunky, white-haired woman who is quick with a hug is a life-loving reminder that age is but a number.
"This woman is so full of life," said Amy Downs, who leads the Red Coyote training group Russell-Stewart has been a part of since January. "She has more energy and excitement than people half my age.
"I want to be like Susan when I grow up."
Russell-Stewart has lived an accomplished life. She spent decades in education, starting as an elementary-school teacher in the Oklahoma City Public Schools during desegregation, then going to the central office to do staff development. She wanted to teach the teachers.
"It was always, 'How could I have the greatest impact?'" Russell-Stewart said.
She then took the human-relations side of her experience into the business world, and by the mid-90s, she was working at Continental, a plastics company. From her office in downtown Oklahoma City, Russell-Stewart felt the concussion of the bomb at the Alfred P. Murray Federal Building on April 19, 1995.
Soon after, she started working for Project Heartland, which provided mental health services to those affected by the bombing. Her work took her to a familiar place — schools.
The children of Oklahoma City were once again her focus.
"The impact (of the bombing) was really tremendous," Russell-Stewart said. "You had a child who lost their mother, but she was the homeroom mother, too. So, all the kids experienced a really direct and serious sense of loss."
Victims of trauma are still her life's work. Now with Family Builders, she works to stop the cycle of abuse and violence in families in Oklahoma. She teaches parenting classes, does batterer's intervention and oversees child abuse prevention programs.
Hers is a life well-lived.
Last year as Russell-Stewart prepared to turn 70, she decided that she wanted to do seven 5K races. She had always walked with a friend in her neighborhood, and they had done 5Ks over the years. She thought seven of them in the year she celebrated seven decades of life would be fitting.
Russell-Stewart gave her finisher's medals to her nieces and nephews last Christmas.
"Aunt Susan," one of her nieces asked not long after, "what are you gonna do this year?"
Russell-Stewart was feeling pretty good about her 5Ks and hadn't given any thought to what she could do next.
"I think you need to do a half," her niece said.
"Do a half?" Russell-Stewart said. "I dunno ... my feet hurt."
"Then you need to go to Red Coyote and have them fit you."
Her niece wasn't giving it up, so Russell-Stewart agreed and went to the running store for new shoes. While she was there, she recounted the story about her 5Ks and her niece coming up with the crazy notion about the half marathon.
"On Saturday, our training starts for the Memorial Marathon," Russell-Stewart was told.
"I'm not a runner," she replied.
"We have a walking group."
"I'm not that fast."
"We have a spot for you."
Suddenly, Russell-Stewart found herself signing up for Red Coyote's half marathon training program. She was still questioning her sanity when she showed up for the first training.
Then she met her group leader. Downs is a survivor of the bombing, having been trapped in the rubble for hours before being freed. After she recovered, she lost 200 pounds and started running and biking.
Downs has inspired many.
But she found inspiration in Russell-Stewart.
"I've never heard a complaint from her," Downs said.
Recently, their group did a walk that lasted 2 1/2 hours. Russell-Stewart was coming back from a stress fracture in her tibia, but Downs said even as she was wanting to go home and take a nap, Russell-Stewart said she was off to spend time with kids involved with Family Builders. There'd be coloring. There'd be games.
"I am thinking, 'What? She is ... 70! Shouldn't she be going home to take some Geritol and go to bed?'" Downs said. "Nope, she is just warming up for the day."
Russell-Stewart doesn't see any of this as extraordinary, and yet, she's had plenty of people tell her what she is doing is special. It caused her to think about how we can impact others without even knowing it.
She hopes maybe that happens when others hear her story.
"No one is too old to have goals to achieve or too old to make a difference," she said.
While doing a half marathon was never on Susan Russell-Stewart's bucket list, she does have a goal now — she wants a half marathon personal record. To get that PR, she plans not only to finish the race this year but also to do it again next year.
"This is the baseline this year," she said, with a twinkle in her eye. "Next year is the PR."
Jenni Carlson: Jenni can be reached at 405-475-4125 or email@example.com. Like her at facebook.com/JenniCarlsonOK, follow her at twitter.com/jennicarlson_ok or view her personality page at newsok.com/jennicarlson.