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Spreading the Bug

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Marathoning mom dreams of Boston while mentoring novice runners

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    FACE OF DETERMINATION — Brandi Parker hammering through one of the 52 competitive races she ran in 2018. Her current goal is qualifying for the Boston Marathon in 2020 and then maybe the granddaddy of them all – the New York Marathon.

Contrary to her last name, Brandi Parker doesn’t spend much time standing still.

In 2018, she competed in – and medaled in nearly all of – 52 races both in and outside the state, including 5Ks, half marathons and three full marathons.

You read that number right – 52.

And because she didn’t compete every single weekend, that means some weekends she raced on both Saturday and Sunday.

And one eventful Saturday, she competed in three different back-to-back races.

“I may be a little obsessed,” she said.

Starting from Zero

What makes Parker’s story even more remarkable, is that running hasn’t been a lifelong obsession for this 40-year-old speech and language pathologist and mother of three.

Yes, she did run track as a Kingfisher High School student back in the 90s, “but that was mainly so I could get out of school on track meet days,” Parker laughed.

“I would only sign up for the 100- and 200-meter dashes because that’s literally all I had in me to do and I didn’t really do any good at those distances,” she said.

But six and a half years ago, a work colleague told Parker about Couch to 5K, an app-based, eight-week 5K training program designed for non-runners.

At that time, Parker was carrying 40 extra pounds on her petite 5-4 frame and was highly skeptical, she said.

“I said I can’t do it. There’s no way,” she remembers. “She told me anyone can do it, so I downloaded it and started it that summer. At the end of eight weeks, I signed up for my first 5K that September.”

But that first exposure wasn’t enough to get Parker totally hooked on the running lifestyle.

“I did the app over two or three times and gradually it changed my mindset and I focused on being healthier and living a healthier lifestyle,” she said. “But I kind of fell off running as much.”

The Bug Bites

Then in 2015, a friend asked her to fill a sudden vacancy in her relay team for the Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon and run one of the 5K legs of the race.

She agreed to do it and started working on building her distance back up to three miles, then ran the 5K.

“The excitement of running in that race is unimaginable. I was hooked,” she said. “I decided right then to start training for the half marathon and in October of that year I ran my first one.”

For those of us who are still on the couch side of Couch to 5K, that’s just over 13 miles.

Then she stepped up her game to train for the full marathon.

Part of her encouragement came from her oldest son, Kristopher Parker, then a KHS track star, who fed off her enthusiasm and agreed to run a 5K at the 2016 Oklahoma City Memorial Marathon, while his mom was attempting to run the full distance – just over 26 miles.

“He ended up finishing first overall in the 5K, out of thousands of runners, and I finished my first marathon,” she said. “It was an amazing weekend.”

Parker jokes that although Kris continues to be a huge supporter, they never actually trained together.

“It didn’t occur to me at first that we physically could not run together because he is so much faster than me” she said. “He tried but finally had to say ‘mom, it actually hurts me to run at your pace.’”

Since the 2016 race, Parker has completed five more full marathons and nine half marathons, in addition to almost too many shorter races to count.

Her focus has shifted this year to longer races, with the goal of qualifying to race in the Boston Marathon in 2020.

She has a half marathon scheduled in March in Oklahoma City and in April she’ll run a full marathon in Geneva, Ill., a Boston Marathon qualifier.

“When I ran my first marathon, I looked at qualifying times for Boston and thought, there’s no way,” she said.

But she started working with a running coach online in June, dropping two and a half minutes off her 5K times and shaving 25 minutes off her personal best marathon time in a Wichita race last October.

Her official time was 3:56:47, just 16 minutes off where she needs to be to qualify for Boston.

“I have to qualify by this fall to be able to run in 2020, so I may not make it, but that doesn’t mean I won’t keep trying,” she said.

Repaying a Debt

Between running, her full-time speech pathology practice in local schools and being a mom to two kids still at home, Kolby, 16, and Briley, 9, Parker would seem to be pretty short on spare time.

Which makes her personal commitment to be the running coach for an entire community that much more remarkable.

Two years ago, she started offering free small-group training programs based on the Couch to 5K program.

“Anyone can do the app, but people tend not to do it on their own because it gets tough and it’s better if you have others for support and accountability,” she said. “I had done the program several times and I knew which days are the most difficult and when folks need an extra push.”

She’s done about four of the eight-week group trainings so far and then last summer started looking for people who might feel better training one-on-one.

“I knew there had to be people out there who would benefit from the program but who were maybe too embarrassed to join a group,” she said. “I found two of them last summer.”

That was in addition to the two groups she was also training at the same time.

“Basically, I was training people four times a day, three days a week last summer, in addition to my own personal training,” she said. “It was a lot of work but so rewarding.”

Her reward is seeing people who have never run before, many of whom are in their 40s, 50s or even 60s, actually finish their first competitive race.

“I really encourage everyone who makes it through the eight weeks to actually enter a race because there is nothing that matches crossing that finish line the first time,” she said. “There are so many people who do 5Ks at a walking pace that I promise everyone if they jog even a little of the distance, they won’t be the last person across the line.

“Running is the one sport that you can start at any age, in any condition and with absolutely no athletic ability,” she said. “Don’t tell yourself you’ll do it as soon as you lose some weight. Just start moving.”

Her infectious love of the sport has spread to people not even involved in her training programs.

“Lots of people are doing the Couch to 5K on their own and when I hear about that, I start sending them encouraging texts, especially on the days I know are hardest,” she said.

And she’ll continue to offer her training sessions at no charge, because, as Parker sees it, she’s the one with a debt to repay.

“It’s a commitment I made to God. When I was at a low point and really struggling with a lot, he brought me to running,” she said. “And at an age in my life when I should be getting slower, I just keep getting faster and that’s all due to God too.

“If I can help other people who are starting in the same place I was, I won’t stop doing that.”