With a little help from my friends, I ran

Two years ago my co-worker Kathyinvited me to join her for the Montana Women's Run. For Kathy - eight months pregnant, and the mother of a 3-year-old daughter - participating in the race on Mother's Day weekend was becoming a family tradition.

"Montana Women's Run?" I quickly responded. "No, thank you. I'm not a runner."

I hated running. Every time I tried, I got out of breath in less than 10 minutes, my face got red, and I got a cramp in my side. I was obviously not in as great shape as I thought I was. So, I opted for the gym: weights, spinning, Pilates, even step aerobics - anything but running.

But Kathy offered an alternative.

"Look at me," she said, patting her expanding belly. "Do I look like I'll be doing much running? We'll walk."

"You can do that?"

"Sure you can."

"Well, how long is it?"

"A couple-three miles," she replied. "It's a lot of fun. You'll see."

Not being a native Montanan, I wasn't sure what "a couple-three miles" meant. Is it two miles? I contemplated. Is it three? I figured that, if I were walking, even six miles wouldn't be too bad. So I was in.

I needed a support group, however.

"I want to support Kathy, but I am not suffering on my own," I told my friends on the phone. "You guys have to come. I'm signing you up."

So, there were four of us: Akvilina, my Lithuanian friend; Irina, my German friend; Patricia, my French friend; and me (I am originally from Ukraine). We were all new to Billings and had quickly found each other, as foreigners often do. We'd formed a close group for coffee-shop talks, girls' nights out and, well, for doing such crazy things as running a race. We called ourselves "The United Nations of Billings."

On the morning of the race, as I got up early and kissed my sleeping husband goodbye, I wondered if I was out of my mind. It was cold and dreary outside, with a drizzling rain. Perfect weather for sleeping in, I thought while driving downtown. But my supportive friends were meeting me by the Cactus Rose, a shop where the race was to begin, and it was too late to back out.

The sight of the race was overwhelming. Men and women, toddlers and teenagers came out that morning covered in rain suits and plastic bags. Despite numerous attempts on my cellphone, I couldn't find Kathy and her daughter. It was remarkable that the rest of my recruited crew waited faithfully for me in front of the shop.

"I'm freezing," Irina said as I approached.

"I don't know if I can do two miles." Akvilina said, with a worried look on her face.

Patricia was optimistic. "Oh, come on, you guys. It'll be OK. We are just walking."

Energized by the music and the crowd, we made our way to the starting line.

A man in a blond wig was holding up the starting gun, ready to begin the race.

In an ironic twist, unknowingly and unintentionally we placed ourselves in the front with the "serious" runners. When the gun went off, we were swooped up by the moving wave of spandex, race numbers, and running shoes. I looked around to spot my friends, but they were long gone. It took a moment to adjust to the change of plans, but there was no question - I was running this race.

I had to slow down a couple of times, from a jogging pace to a fast walk. Catching my breath, I was grateful for the cold weather and freshness of the rain. When I crossed the finish line, my sense of accomplishment was overwhelming. My friends waited for me, and for the next two hours at the McCormick Cafe, over well-deserved crepes and French toast, we boasted about our achievement and made promises for next year.

"We're going to train," Patricia said with determination.

"Train? This was a one-time deal," I resisted. "I am not much for running, you know."

"Yes, but you can do it. Little by little," she insisted. "I'm going to."

"Well, maybe just in the summer." I was giving in. "It's hard to go to the gym when the weather is nice."

"Besides, we can meet some people this way," Irina chimed in. "You know, get involved in the community."

We agreed to run every Monday afternoon on the west side of Billings. At first I dreaded the coming of each Monday. I still got red faced and out of breath, but the companionship of my friends carried me through the difficulty of adjusting to a new sport. Pretty soon, I started running more - often adding a little distance each week.

The time came when I began to feel the fullness in my lungs and the strength in my legs. The aches and pains went away, and my mind was freed to relax and wander off.

When my friends were not running beside me, I thought about having moved to Montana - how it had changed me and brought me a new perspective onlife. I contemplated why I live in this beautiful state. It wasn't because my husband dragged me here against my will from the East Coast, as I originally thought.

It was because Montana was meant to become a part of me, to offer me its wide horizons, its trails, its corn fields. So that without realizing it, I would become hooked on the outdoors, on skiing, running, and hiking - all the things I didn't do in my life as a "city girl."

The next year we signed up early for the Montana Women's Run. Our group has grown to include Yolanda from South Africa, and Pam and Lori, the new American members of "the UN of Billings." This time there was no need to stop and catch my breath during the two-mile course. The sun was shining and the grass was green. Billings was ready for summer.

At the finish line, as I was saying hello to friends, taking pictures, and waving to five-milers passing by, I realized that I had become a part of the community. I still may not say "a couple-three miles," but I am ready to say: I am a Montanan, and I am a runner.

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