Doug Early isn't the most experienced runner among his racing friends, but he perhaps has the most to gain.
The Cedar Lake resident began running about five years ago to help him battle substance abuse issues. After spending three years in federal prison, Early says he was determined to become a different person.
"It helped to clear my head and work toward a goal," he says. "I knew that I had to make a change in my life, and running was the first step toward that."
Though many of his running mates do not know why running is a big part of his life, they serve as a support group to him.
"Every time I go out for a run, I know that I am a different person than I was in the past," Early says. "I credit running with helping me save my life. That is why I love to run."
Though each runner has his own specific reasons for hitting the pavement, those who compete often share the same excitement the morning of race day - seeing friends at the start line, sprinting to the finish and feeling a sense of accomplishment that can only be experienced by those who have challenged their physical and mental abilities.
Deanna Grimes has done more 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons than she can remember.
Add to that eight marathons, and the Merrillville resident is a pro at hitting the pavement. Yet it was her struggle with managing her weight that first propelled her into running.
"I couldn't get my weight to budge much more, so I knew I needed to step up my work outs," she says. "I did a Couch to 5K program on my own, and once I did it, I realized how much I enjoyed the running."
For Grimes, the solitude of running frees her mind and body from stress.
"I love the time I get to think," she says. "Even if I am running with a group at that time, to just go out and let any stress of the day go is the best part about running."
While many runners face their own personal struggles head on, others compete in distance running events to raise funds and awareness for others – many of whom are unable to compete.
In 1999, 75 Northwest Indiana runners began two challenging tasks – training for the Chicago Marathon and raising money for the participants of Opportunity Enterprises, a non-profit in Valparaiso that strives to help individuals with developmental disabilities reach their fullest potential. That first team raised $37,000, and a tradition was born.
“Since 1999, our OE Running Program has become our agency’s largest annual fundraiser, with more than 3,000 OE runners raising over $1.5 million for children and adults with disabilities over the year,” says Lindsay Ellis, development associate with Opportunity Enterprises.
Now, between 200 and 300 runners participate each year in the Chicago Marathon. Proceeds raised by Opportunity Enterprises at this year’s event in October will go toward All About Kids, the organization’s early intervention program.
“Our runners become passionate about the cause when we connect them to knowledge about the program they’re raising funds for,” Ellis says.
Another local organization, Calumet Regional Striders, has introduced several runners to one another, creating a network of support for novice and experienced runners alike.
William Stalhandske, of Demotte, says he follows the group's race schedule and joins as many as he can. His newest goal he is running toward is finishing 50 marathons in 50 different states.
"I started this goal in 2009 and have completed 23 states and 27 full marathons," he says.
He advises new runners to not be discouraged by age, physical condition or schedule constraints.
"I have made a ton of new friends that I consider life-long, and they have helped me reach new heights physically and mentally because I've met goals and set new ones, too."
Tammy Bucko is training for a feat of her own—a 50-mile race at the Woodstock Festival in Pinckney, Mich., in September.
"I love challenges and the tougher the challenge the better," she says.
Her advice for other runners—never quit, especially before you start.
"Do not let your fears hold you back," Bucko says. "You will never know if you don't try—you have to keep working at it."