“Since running found me I go wherever it takes me” Cheryl Miller

While running there are many lessons that we learn about ourselves mentally and physically. We learn what extreme limits we can push our bodies to, how to mentally block out the unnecessary noises on race day, focus on the goal at hand and what’s right in front of us one step at a time, one mile at a time. But what some of us tend to learn the most while running is for some this can bring extreme happiness and joy.This month Mid Strike was fortunate to chat with one of those runners that is able to find such joy and peace in running, her name is Cheryl Miller and she runs with the quote of “Since running found me I go wherever it takes me”. 

MSM: Welcome to Mid Strike Magazine. Before we get into the good stuff we usually like to start these Q&A’s with an introduction into who the runner is. For our readers, who is Cheryl Miller?

CM: First I just want to say thank you for the opportunity to speak with you, I really appreciate it.    Growing up I was extremely shy and the ability to speak up and talk today is something that I’m grateful to have developed. 

Cheryl Miller is really a work in progress.  She’s a runner, a Mom, an attorney, and an advocate.  I think sometimes the best way to know who someone is, is to ask others how they would describe that person.  So I did just that— I asked a few people within my circle and the responses I got were: wicked smart, generous, outgoing, funny as hell, a builder, a bulldog, an amazing mother, an amazing partner, a talented professional, a nature lover who connects spiritually with her surroundings, and an adventurous writer.  I cannot confirm nor deny whether any of these people received a check for their kind words.

MSM: I always like to say we always meet each other as runners as we’re in the midst of our journeys when we’re essentially hitting somewhat of a stride for Cheryl, where did your journey begin? 

CM: Running definitely has a special way of defining and highlighting our journeys, not only as runners but as people.  Where it began is a tough question, because my running has had different and amazing influences and flavors.  If I go waaaay back, my running began in the first grade.  I went to St. Anthony’s Catholic School in Union City, NJ, and during recess I would get chased by the same two bullies—every, single, day.  So I would run circles around the playground the entire time, and I guess the teachers thought we were just playing but I was running to keep from being picked on.  I then got into the habit of running home from school when my grandfather would pick me up—he was a supervisor in the building where we lived, so I would run straight into Washington Towers, and up into his office where I’d sit at his desk and wait for him to catch up.  One day he asked me “where’s your team?”  and I told him I didn’t have one.  So he asked me to invite Miriam, an Egyptian girl who lived nearby, and Jason, a Black Student with special needs who lived in our building to run home with me each day.  So I did, and we raced into his office every day where he always had some little sort of surprise for us, whether it was pens, or candy, et cet.

When I got to Junior High I was drawn to sports but I really wanted to be a Field Hockey player.  I just thought it was so cool that you could run around and swing a stick wearing a skirt!  I learned I was pretty fast on the field, but sports that required equipment were a tough thing for my family to support since we struggled financially.  Everything in my world was a hand me down, including the field hockey stick that I borrowed from the school shed every day.  The coaches eventually allowed me to bring it home, and I hated the way that made me feel—it’s hard to explain.  The new track coach saw me in the halls one day and got me to come down and try out for the track team.  They had asked me to come out for cross-country, and I said no, repeatedly.  I was intrigued by the track though, so I went down and I did try out.  I made the Varsity team, and from that point on Coach LaBianca started to set big goals for me—that’s when my running became serious.  I was running to break school records, running to win state titles, and running to get noticed by college coaches.

When I got to Georgetown University I actually wound up leaving the Track Team for many different reasons— it was one of the hardest decisions of my life, but not one that I regret.  I did what was best for me at the time—in part I needed to heal from the ankle that I had re-injured yet again, and in part I needed to help my family.  Running did not have all of the sponsorships that it does now, so I went to work to help support my family back home.  At one point I was working 6 different jobs at once just to keep everything going.

My running journey picked back up at the encouragement of my partner when I became pregnant.  He knew what a big part of my life it was, and he believed it could be a tool to help me handle post-partum stress.  So, I ran up until I was 7 months pregnant, and then once I was cleared to run by my doctor, I ran my first 4 mile Turkey Trot 2 months after giving birth.  I connected with an awesome running group, a formal coach, began training and now I am at a point where I am setting some new running goals, and some new life goals as well.  This third phase of my running has brought me much joy!  I am not nearly as fast as I used to be, but I absolutely love lacing up and getting out there. 

MSM: We can do so many things to have an active lifestyle, to be healthy and well both mentally and physically. Running isn’t an easy sport to get into yet it has grown tremendously over the years, exploded actually. Marathons sell out at an insane pace, lotteries entries are a dime a dozen yet we all love running. Why did you choose to run or how did running find you?

CM: When Coach LaBianca encouraged me to try out for the Track Team, I resisted at first.  I was scared.  I still get those jitters every time I step up to the starting line.  I’ve always had a bit of an imposter syndrome, and back then I was just a 7th grader lining up with high school girls that I absolutely idolized.  When practice was over I would catch Jackie Joyner-Kersee, or Flo-Jo on TV and I was in awe.  They were women who kind of looked like me and I was attending a predominantly White school.  I wasn’t sure of where to look to for my heroes prior to that, but when I began running there they were. 

Shortly after I joined the track team my mother died of HIV/AIDS.  It was really tough because you didn’t talk about AIDS back then, and if people did talk about it, it was always in such a negative, awful way. There was silence, lies, and the complete lack of compassion that many people exhibited.  Running found me during this time and gave me a place to cope with my feelings—everything got settled out there on the track.  On my worst days, I ran my fastest times, I harnessed all of that crazy energy I would feel and just run.  I think I still run my best on the days where the odds are stacked up against me, or life has come down hard.  For me, running is an amazing mental health tool—it can make you feel whole again.

MSM: You’re a pretty avid runner, ALWAYS running, give us a peek into your race experiences and some of the races that stood out as most memorable.

CM: I had many memorable race experiences but two from high school really stand out as well as my most recent 10k.  First, the  New York State Championship meet my senior year of high school really shaped me.  It was my last shot at becoming State Champion, I had trained 4 years leading up to it, I had college scholarships riding on it, and I ran that race for my mother.  In the weeks leading up to the race I developed a bad stress fracture in my ankle, which became a bad, partially broken bone.  I remember my high school was really concerned about my injury, and I had to get clearance to run from a doctor.  At the start, the doctor did not want to sign the paperwork clearing me to compete—he said running on a broken ankle could have a long term impact on my life.  I told him yes it would—kids like me rarely had a shot at college, and I needed this one chance to win states.  I told him if he would sign the paper I would give him my first place medal in return.  He signed it, but at the request that I keep my own medal.

I ran hard, not caring about my ankle, and while I won I was upset with my time.  I wanted to break the New York State Record.  My coach was so happy, and when he looked over at me he wasn’t sure what I was feeling so he told me to go take a lap behind the stadium.  That’s where I ran into a young woman from an opposing team that I had ran against my entire high school career—she was upset too.  We shook hands and spoke for the first time, and I tried to console her.  I remember her saying, “Your team really respects you. Everyone respects you when you’re out there and it’s amazing.”  Her words sat with me, and I’m thankful for that interaction to this day.

The second race that sits with me was the 800 at counties my junior year where I got completely boxed in and I missed making it to States. I had trained so hard, but I learned that training is only one aspect of preparing for a race.  So much is mental, so much is having a race strategy you intend to fully execute.  I hesitated during that race for a spit second and it cost me, but it drove me to work even harder as a senior.

Finally, I ran a 10k in Phoenix Arizona at the beginning of May.  I had never run that distance and had not raced in nearly 20 years.  It was wild to me that everything came back—the smells the feelings, the 50 bathroom breaks, my severe dislike for pins and pinning numbers to myself (it’s so awkward I can never get the race number to hang straight).  It was the first time I had really run with other people since COVID.  I got the the staggered start and I thought—what am I doing?  I must look silly.  There were many younger runners and I had doubt, but I just went out there.  That race reminded me that there’s still a girl who wants to compete deep inside.  Hearing the cheers from the crowd reminded me of all that I love about the running community, and I’m glad I put myself out there, even if I was rocking that older age group.

MSM: As a city guy we’re used to running on crowded streets, sidewalks, alongside cars and parks, but I noticed that your running takes place in places that are non urban. Mainly in the trails scenery wise I’m sure there’s some beautiful scenery. Also as a city runner we tend to shy away from the trails. What are some of the benefits of trail running?

CM: I grew up in the city, and I still love city running—those concrete sidewalks, alleys, bridges, parks, and tunnels are trails too.  For me a trail marks the passage of someone or something, and the city streets where I grew up tell their own unique story:  the streetlights mark certain things, the bodegas and apartment buildings reflect different parts of history. Those are urban trails.

My current adventures have taken me away from city running and onto country/rural trails that wind through mountains, along rivers, and through state and National Parks.  The benefit is being able to explore new places—new surroundings help to keep my training fresh and interesting.  Each trail I’ve chosen also marks the passage of others, ancient cultures, wildlife–  it’s prompted me to research the history of these places.  The different trails have exposed me to different elements as a runner—from changes in elevation, to different pathway surfaces (some dirt, gravel, smooth rock, sand).  I’ve had an opportunity to work on running hills, flats, fire roads—all of it gives me info I can save for any future races I might attempt in these areas.  Each state I have run in has also thrown different weather challenges at me, from dry heat, to humidity, to snowy hilltops.  It’s forced me to dive deeper into my learning about nutrition and hydration, and given me an opportunity to see how my body responds to running in different environments.  I think the most dramatic for me was running in the desert heat of nearly 100 degrees one afternoon and running in sub-30 degree weather with snow the next day—totally different gear changes!

MSM: We can also add the word adventurous to your personality as you’re currently on a run journey, traveling to all 50 states. When and how did you decide to make that a challenge and what are some of the states you currently visited.

CM: When my son turned 1, my partner and I started to explore unique ways to expose him to different cultures, experiences, history and life lessons.  We also wanted him to spend time with his grandparents, and to experience nature.  I never traveled as a kid and it’s something I wanted him to experience very early on.  So—we researched buying an RV and next I knew I was on the road, marking off interesting places to stop and visit.  We didn’t know how we would like RV travel but all of us have loved it—even the dog!  We firdt started to explore in our home state in November and once we got the hang of it started traveling non-stop in December.    

As I write this we are on state 22, and have covered the Southeast, Southwest, the West, the Pacific Northwest and much of the plains states.  We’ve had some incredible hikes in places like the Grand Canyon, Bryce Canyon, and Sequoia National Park.  We try to do things that we can experience as a family, and the things that Little Brad can’t handle yet we mark off for a time when we will return.  Making it a run journey evolved organically—I wanted to train while we traveled and each workout sort of just unfolded before me.  Some were tough—some places given time constraints had me running in the RV park where we were staying, but other runs were amazing, with incredible views of oceans, mountains, valleys—it’s been a one of a kind experience.

MSM: As you travel from state to state, how do you plan your trips and run routes? Did I follow correctly where you mentioned there are some days where you go entirely off of feel? No planning, just find a path or road and run?

CM: It depends—I do go off of feel but there are some key elements I look for when we decide to stay in a particular area.  Because my partner is working full time from the road we try to find places that have adequate Wi-fi.  Next, I usually research local running spots and reach out to running groups in the community to get input on safe places to run, interesting trails to check out, what tracks might be open, et cet.  I’ve made so many wonderful new friends, have joined new run groups, and had unique experiences thanks to the help of others—it’s been amazing and I’m truly grateful.

“My current adventures have taken me away from city running and onto country/rural trails that wind through mountains, along rivers, and through state and National Parks.  The benefit is being able to explore new places—new surroundings help to keep my training fresh and interesting.  Each trail I’ve chosen also marks the passage of others, ancient cultures, wildlife–  it’s prompted me to research the history of these places.  The different trails have exposed me to different elements as a runner—from changes in elevation, to different pathway surfaces (some dirt, gravel, smooth rock, sand).  I’ve had an opportunity to work on running hills, flats, fire roads—all of it gives me info I can save for any future races I might attempt in these areas”. 

Cheryl Miller

MSM: Mental health and wellness is something that is very important for you, where you use running to find your piece. At what point in your run journey did you grasp your peace while running. 

CM: As a young runner, I was still processing my mom’s death, and my running was so focused on winning—I would not say I had grasped my peace yet.  I was running to win, and anything less than first place had me upset.  I was very hard on myself in high school and in college.

I don’t think I grasped my peace until I returned to running after giving birth to my son.  Pregnancy is hard on a woman’s body, and I learned to be more loving and forgiving to myself.  My runs became much more connected to nature and being outdoors, and being outdoors makes me feel whole.  Becoming a mom also encouraged me to share my running story with others, and doing so has added a level of peace to my running that I never imagined.  I’m still focused, I’m still competitive, and I still train hard, but if I miss a day I know I will come back stronger and better tomorrow.

Shifting from being a 1500 runner to logging more miles has also been a peaceful experience—I never thought I would enjoy distance running or the trails, but somewhere along the way something clicked and I love being out there.  I love getting lost in my thoughts, and lost in the beauty around me.  Being out in nature is an amazing feeling for me, it gives me good vibes all around.

MSM: Staying on the topic of wellness for a bit as you’re also a mental health advocate. Mental health and well being is something we don’t necessarily talk about when we should. The more conversations we have with each other the better understanding we will have with each other. What are some of the things you’ve continued to do to be an advocate while helping others?

CM: Mental health is often a “back burner” topic, and it upsets me that we don’t move it to the front of the stove and have the tough conversations that we need to have.  When a celebrity commits suicide it seems we flock to social media to talk about how their song/movie/or time we met that person changed our life, and how tragic it is that they’re gone.  It’s not enough to say it’s tragic, or to dedicate a month where we use hashtags to recognize mental health.  These issues deserve attention every day and need to be spoken about in an authentic way that promotes information sharing and enables people to get the resources that they need.  Part of this includes a conversation about our health care system.  I think there are also outside front burner issues that have a huge impact on mental health including social media, racism, and COVID this past year—these areas have impacted our mental health, whether we want to admit it or not. 

I am constantly looking for ways to use my voice and continue to advocate on the subject.  Some of the things that I do include but are not limited to:

  • Sharing my story and working with companies like Hoka who care about these issues to get more dialogue out there.  I think it’s important for me as a Latinx athlete to share my truth so that people can connect with me know they are not alone.
  • Asking  for better research around mental health and how vulnerable populations may be struggling more with certain mental health issues.  I’ve been reaching out to different organizations to see how we can better expand and update our research regarding mental health.  
  • Sharing Mental Health resources on my Instagram page and through other social media platforms.  I do my best to post resources for others.  There are many great organizations that are making a difference that I didn’t know about when I was younger.

MSM: Advocacy also comes with having a voice to speak up on issues that we and our communities struggle and fight with. Gerrardo Rodriguez of Team Wepa mentioned a few months back that we (the diverse run community) should have a seat at the table in the run community. Being “Polarican” and running in areas that are non known to be the most diverse places on the map do you feel at times just getting out to run essentially helps to defeat the narrative on what runners should “look like”?

CM: I do feel that it helps, and I try to put myself out there not only with running but with wakesurfing, travel, camping, hiking, swimming—all areas that seemed so out of reach to me as a kid.  Not only because of my background, but also because of the place I grew up.  As a low-income city kid surfing seemed like something so far out of reach.  I want to show kids that they can do big things, different things, regardless of where they come from. 

I actually got into NASCAR because my nephew, who happens to be Dominican, loves it.  He knows all the drivers, the history, et cet—he’s only 8 years old but can recite to you who won what race when.  I wanted him to experience the Daytona 500, so we got tickets and spent a week on the infield at speedweek learning all the ins and outs of racing.  He got to wave to some of the drivers, meet their families—it was an amazing experience for all of us.  I actually think NASCAR drivers share some similarities in the way they approach their sport and the way many of us approach running.  Instead of rotating shoes, they’re rotating tires, and they are in it for the long haul.  I ran every morning on the road track and grounds at Daytona, and on my last day an older Caucasian guy and his granddaughter started shouting “You are awesome!!!  We’ve watched you all week and you’re so fast!”  His granddaughter turned to him and said, “I want to be like her and run like that.”  That was cool to hear, I actually teared up afterwards.

I’ve had some tough experiences too.  I had someone shout at me to “stop running from immigration” and that comment stopped me dead in my tracks during a mile time trial on the road.  I thought about how many other women like me and young girls get hit with comments like that.  They say sticks and stones may break your bones but names will never hurt you—I disagree. Sometimes the names hurt worse.

My time in Daytona really encouraged me to branch out and explore different places to run as well as more trails in and around our National Parks.  I would hear people shout “Hoka girl!  We just saw you at Bryce Canyon keep it up!”.  I’m grateful for the positive energy that has kept me going.  There are running organizations that I’ve directly reached out to, to try to volunteer with or become more engaged with some have responded, but many have not.  In my heart I hope they’re just that busy.  The ones that do get back to me have been great to work with and to be a part of.

MSM: Hoka Flyer which is a new venture/journey you’ve been on over the past couple months, opening new doors and new adventures. How did you and Hoka come together to form this relationship?

CM: I reached out to HOKA to share my story, and they were one of the few running organizations that immediately reached back out and wanted to chat.  They have been an amazing brand to work with, and my extended Hoka family through the Flyer program, their athletes, Global Ambassadors and their coaches has been an amazing source of support, inspiration, training advice, and good vibes. I am extremely thankful to have the opportunity to work with them.

MSM: As you continue to travel to each state have you ever found yourself timing it perfectly where you’ve been able to run a race? 

CM: I’ve only managed to time a race perfectly once—it wasn’t quite perfect—our engine broke down (not ideal, lol) and our entire rig had to be towed to the nearest service center in Phoenix, AZ.  I saw that there was a 10k race to benefit veterans in Phoenix, so I signed up, ran it, and placed first in the women’s division and second overall.  It was the first race I had run after nearly a 20 year hiatus, and I had never raced a 10k before, so it holds a special place in my heart.  That medal reminds me that even though I’m getting older I can still do tough things and challenge myself.

MSM: For our readers, how can we continue to follow Cheryl and your journey? 

CM: That’s really kind of you to ask.  For now, you can follow me @gypseejourney on Instagram—I have some other projects and surprises coming out, but I’ll keep everyone updated there.  I’m awful at social media but I do my best to respond to messages and requests there.

MSM: Any last words for our readers that you’d like to share for our readers? 

CM: Just a big thank you for listening and best wishes to you as you pursue your own running journey.  I truly enjoy helping people, so if I can ever be of help to you don’t ever hesitate to reach out.  You will have all sorts of ups and downs with running, and you may need to take a break from it the way I did, but know that it’s always there for you when you want to return, and know that your running will evolve as you yourself grow.

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