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Wunderlich details the transformative wonders of running

Barry McNamara
01/18/2019
Janis Wunderlich (right) is shown competing in her first marathon, running alongside her sister.
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MONMOUTH, Ill. – At age 35, Monmouth College art professor Janis Wunderlich had high cholesterol and was overweight. Not helping matters was that she was “completely unathletic.”

“My 2-year-old was faster than me,” said Wunderlich, who is in her second year on Monmouth’s faculty.

She decided to do something about her health, and her story might just be the inspiration others can use to make a lifestyle change in 2019.

“My doctor recommended that I take up exercise,” said Wunderlich. “At that point in my life, I had never even owned a pair of tennis shoes. I was completely unathletic.”

Fast forward to today, about a dozen years later: Wunderlich has completed 10 marathons, including qualifying for and competing in the Boston Marathon.

“Running has become so much a part of my day,” said Wunderlich, who logs between 5-10 miles a day, usually in the morning. “It’s my coffee.”

The “steps” Wunderlich took to get from no tennis shoes to running 10 marathons offer some practical lessons for individuals looking to make a change in their fitness level. Sean Schumm, chair of Monmouth’s kinesiology department, said Wunderlich’s steps provide “the framework that generally works.”

She found an accountability partner. “Having a partner made a huge difference,” said Wunderlich of her workout buddy during the first years of her new commitment. Added Schumm, “Another name for that is ‘intentional community.’ People think ‘I’m more likely to keep going if someone else is going through this with me,’ and that’s a huge thing. It’s not that people don’t know that running or exercise is good for them – it’s getting their behavior to change.”

She started small. “We used city blocks as our measurement,” Wunderlich said of her and her partner’s early ventures. “We’d walk the longer blocks and run the shorter blocks. As we got more into it, we switched to running the longer blocks and walking the shorter blocks.” Schumm said that strategy is spot on. “My rule of thumb when getting started is to start too easy – easier than you think you need to. Short term, we can do a hard workout in the moment, but as we get older, we can’t recover as easily.” So just like you wouldn’t want to put too much salt in a dish before you’ve tasted it, you don’t want to work out too hard before you know your limits. You can always add later.

She gradually progressed. “Eventually, we didn’t need those little rests,” said Wunderlich. “And we went from running two miles, to running three miles, to running five miles. And I transitioned to having multiple running partners,” keeping a regular workout schedule with several different people. Schumm said another rule of thumb applies for progressions. “No more than a 10 percent increase in time or distance per week,” he said. “You might feel that’s excruciatingly slow, but that’s the way to do it. ... Your cardiovascular system adapts faster than your legs. You might think, ‘I know I can do more than I’m doing,’ but then you get a stress fracture because your legs weren’t ready for that amount of time or distance yet.”

She set a big goal. “I decided to ‘reward’ myself by running a marathon for my 40th birthday,” she said. And it was a reward. “I was so happy when I finished it. It gave me so much self-confidence. ... I have a journal entry from when my sister ran a marathon. I thought it was impossible for me to do something like that. I wrote that I wouldn’t be able to run 26 miles, ever. And now I’ve done it, and I’ve done it 10 times. We think things can’t be done, but then the impossible becomes possible.”

After Wunderlich got into running, she lost 40 pounds, which she’s kept off.

“It’s also positively affected my heart rate and helped me lower my cholesterol,” she said. “My doctor told me this is the best gift that I could give myself.”

Schumm said the reason lies in the heart.

“The more you run, the stronger the left ventricle in your heart gets,” he said. “It gets bigger, and it has a bigger capacity to pump blood. So your heart can pump more blood with each beat. You still move the same amount of blood, but your heart can pump the blood better.”

Related to that is that regular exercise has an anti-inflammatory effect on the heart. “The big culprit of heart and cardiovascular events is inflammation,” said Schumm.

As people consider increasing their fitness, Schumm issued an important reminder: “Performance and health are not the same thing. You cross the threshold when you try to do too much.”

Schumm said studies by the American College of Sports Medicine say that 150 minutes per week of moderate exercise (such as fast walking) or 75 minutes of vigorous exercise (including running) provide the lion’s share of health benefits. Going much beyond those markers before your body is ready can do more harm than good.

“Don’t focus on the speed or time or distance you want at first,” he said. “Just decide, for example, to run at least two days a week for 25 minutes to get started, and the weight you’re trying to lose or that 5K you want to run will take care of itself in time. Once the behavior is ingrained, then you can shift your focus.”

On Thursdays, Wunderlich is part of a walking/running group that meets in the late afternoon on Monmouth’s campus. Organized by educational studies professor Brad Rowe, the group includes as many as 12 participants. Faculty and staff – including a pair of the College’s senior administrators – make up some of the group, which also includes local school teachers.

“Some are runners, some are walkers,” said Wunderlich. “We usually pair up in groups of two or three, matching up with someone who runs around your pace. It’s a great way to meet new people.”

“It’s not really a training group; it’s a social running group,” said Rowe. “One of the things we want to do with it is make it as inclusive as possible. The primary purpose is to build and maintain a community.”