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Hartselle Enquirer

Running for my Life

Hartselle native J.D. Byars . | Special to the enquirer
Hartselle native J.D. Byars . | Special to the enquirer

Lauren Estes

Hartselle Enquirer

For some, running is a stress reliever, for others it might be a quick break from life, and for a handful of people, it can be a health saver.

Former Hartselle resident and current South Alabama vocal talent J.D. Byars said he wanted to boost his health, and he found a new passion with running. 

“I just really wasted most of my 30’s,” Byars said. “My weight was north of 250 pounds and I was going into a 42-inch waist. After dieting to below 190 pounds, I wanted to improve my health with exercise so I just hit the streets and began running. I ran a half-mile and worked-up to longer distances. I really enjoyed the solitude and feelings after each workout.”

Mother of two, (and two bonus kids), Kerri Southern said running stepped into her life when her weight loss journey plateaued.

“I’ve always been in the gym and I like to change it up with different routines and trick my body,” Kerri said. “I also love to write, so I enjoy keeping a journal. I keep up with what works and what doesn’t. I also trick my body by eating different things and see what works for my body. I don’t diet, I do this as my lifestyle. So when I started, my goal was just to run a 5k and so I started out like many people do and followed the couch to 5k plan.”

Southern said as she was following the plan, her concern with weight loss began to vanish and her love for running became apparent.

“When I began, I was doing the walk–jog-run, walk-jog-run thing and like many, I did lose weight, but then my focus became how good I felt after running and how much energy I had,” Southern said. “Running became my lifestyle and something I looked forward to doing. It wasn’t to lose weight or anything like that anymore, it was because I truly enjoyed it and the way it made me feel.”

Byars story was quite similar, but his goals in running quickly

changed for the drastic as he began training for a half marathon instead of a 5k.

“I actually intended to make the Life Without Limits 5k in Florence my first actual race, but as I trained and improved my endurance, a race organizer suggested I shoot for the half marathon version of the same event,” Byars said. “It seemed like an overwhelming distance but as I researched it, I thought, why not. I bounced the idea off a few friends and they urged me to shoot for the 13.1 miles and try it. I got so excited about that first race. Afterwards I immediately dedicated my training to go for the full 26.2 miles. I chose the Country Music Marathon in Nashville presented by the Rock & Roll Series benefitting St Jude’s in Memphis. While training, I developed dreaded shin splints but kept the pain to myself and just tried to tough it out. I picked a second half marathon to insert midway through my full marathon training and ran the Mercedes Half in Birmingham. I will never forget it because it was 27 degrees at the start and when I finished, my right leg hurt terribly. I finally had it checked out and discovered I had ran that last race with a large stress fracture across by right tibia. I had already risen north of $1,200 in charitable sponsorships for the upcoming St Jude’s race and was upset that my doctor was shutting down my training. I was determined to run in Nashville and told him I’d be the fasted recovery he’d ever seen. He doubted me, but I returned to action in four weeks. I dropped back to the half and ran 13.1 miles with my wife, Beverly. We had a ball, but I knew I still wanted to complete a full.”

For Kerri, running quickly became a time that she looked forward to, as with each race, she would attempt to set a new personal record (PR) for herself.

“Running for me was no longer about weight loss, it was no longer about feeling like I had to do it, it was about what I could accomplish during that race or training run,” Southern said. “It became my time by myself and my time with the Lord. It was a time to appreciate the weather. It slowly became my lifestyle and something I both needed and wanted to do. And let me say this, if I can’t go run or workout, but especially run, I’d get weird. It would really mess with my mood. It’s crazy how happy a run would make me feel. I don’t just love the energy it gives me after. I love the way I feel during the run because I know it’s getting me steps closer to my goals.”

Byars has since dabbled in other things, including National Physique Committee (NPC) shows as a men’s physique competitor, as well as, has reached his goal of completing a full marathon, but it wasn’t without an obstacle to overcome first.

“After moving to Mobile, completing two bodybuilding competitions, I decided to run again and trained for a half marathon in Pensacola,” Byars said. “I told myself, if that goes well and I didn’t get hurt, I’ll keep training for a full. All was well and I signed up for the Big Beach Marathon in Gulf Shores. It seemed perfect. It was close and the course was flat. My training went smooth and I would often drive down to Dauphin Island, arriving before dawn on Saturdays, and complete my long training runs. I could get 18-22 miles down there with great scenery. For the medium mid-week runs, I preferred the campus where I work at the University of South Alabama. Training went great until two weeks out when I developed a respiratory infection.”

The doctor recommended that Byars rest and take prescribed antibiotics, so he did. However, on race day, the medicine he took did not fare well with the limits his body was about to be pushed to.

“Race day started perfect and I felt great. Then, 16 miles in, trouble hit via cramps,” Byars said. “The medication caused my muscles to release hydration too quickly. The pain started in my hips and spread to my knees. Three miles later, my lower back, glutes and shins ached terribly. I was still seven miles from the finish and my wife, Beverly, who is also an avid distance runner, was waiting just a half-mile ahead to encourage me. I didn’t want her to see me in pain because I feared she would insist I quit. I toughed out a brisker jog as we met but I know she was aware something was not right. As I pushed on, I debated if it would be healthier to throw in the towel or risk serious injury and continue. I could only envision my children at the finish line and I absolutely did not want Jake and Stella Beth to see me quit. I decided to make it a teachable moment, or so I hoped, and fight through the pain and complete it regardless. I hoped they had understood how hard I trained for almost eighteen weeks and appreciate the cost of achievement and might apply it to a set-back they may have somewhere down the road. I didn’t want them to see me cry either but when I finally crossed the finish line, I couldn’t help it. I played high school and collegiate football and never hurt as bad as I did that day. The pain was horrible from my chest to toes, but I finished it.”

The similarities between the mindsets in connection to fitness of both Southern and Byars are this: Prepare, work hard, invest in a support system and don’t give up.

“Races and training for them will be a good running experience if you set your own personal goals,” Southern said. “I love how my family is supportive and love going to my 5k races. They get to enjoy food and entertainment and always cheer me on. One thing I love that my husband does is to find the toughest part of the course, whether it is a hilly portion or incline, and he will stay at that point while I run. When I get there, he will be yelling for me and pushing me. Those moments change your whole mindset. Running is very physical, but it is even more mental. Your mind is what controls your body. Accountability is very important, but you also have to remember, there will be races or training days where it’s just you and there isn’t going to be anyone there to cheer you on. It’s what you accomplish when no one is around that makes you great, and betters you when you have people there.”

“Lots of people ask about the bodybuilding and wonder what kind of discipline it takes, I honestly reply that it requires half of the commitment of running a race but ten times the psychological toughness and discipline,” Byars said. “Lifting weights and cardio sessions really are not that bad. Obviously it requires 5-6 workouts per week and waking up early to do cardio, but the diet it extremely grueling. Overcoming cravings while eating essentially the same food seven times a day for 12-15 weeks often have me considering ‘I quit’ as an option. Folks ask why I do it. It is not so much the aesthetics and enjoying the final mirror version myself, and it is not the trophy. I try to embrace the tough road to the finish and the lessons I learn about myself. I actually enjoy the test and the challenges. I find out what I am truly capable of even when the goal seems so out of sight. My first show: I could not wait for it to be over with and to just dive into some real food. Now, I try to enjoy the journey and the process. What I like about running over bodybuilding, the training requires a plan but it is not nearly as strict and structured. With running, you just have to get your miles in and you can obviously eat a lot more since the calorie burn is so high. It’s routine to burn almost 2,000 calories on a single weekend long run.”

Both runners encourage anyone considering taking on this feat to first find a running plan that the individual can stick to based on their goal, and then to be fitted and purchase shoes suggested for their needs.

“I would absolutely encourage someone to try a distance race, but only after that consult their doctor,” Byars said. “I would also stress the importance of visiting a recommendable running store staffed by professionals who can fit them in the perfect shoe. We are all built different and have different strides and landings. The great news: there is a shoe for everyone and the Internet is full of great training plans and tips. Lots of new runners like to connect with a training group and prepare together. While I train exclusively alone, I really like the idea of females running in groups when possible. I absolutely love the fact that Beverly enjoys running and gets that time alone, just her and her AC/DC, but I worry about her. I always ask her how far she is going and since I know her pace almost the second, I can time her return and where she may be in her route. There is even great location tracking apps now that could help in the event there is an emergency.”

“For those who can’t understand why they are ‘paying money to run’ I explain it like this, I enjoy finding races that are used as fundraisers for good causes,” Southern said. “Depending on the race, some are geared toward raising money for a foundation, a school or something of that nature. I know I could go anywhere to run, but it makes me happy to know that my money is being used for children with cancer or for women with breast cancer. The events that actually have people at the race that the money is being raised for and I see them, it’s so motivating to know I’m running for them. It makes it all worth it.”

For information on races in your area, visit runningintheusa.com/Alabama.

Would you like to be chosen to share your fitness journey of running, cycling, weight loss, etc.? Email lauren.estes@hartselleenquirer.com .