Tomorrow’s Athlete: Who will you inspire?

community-_0Meet Tiffany Willett. She’s not a triathlete (yet), and her ties to Colorado are limited to family and her running coach, but she’s well on her way, and you may see her at a local triathlon event one day soon. Her story will surely inspire you, or someone you love.


A 40-year-old mother of three, originally from San Antonio, Texas, Tiffany has plenty of reasons not to be an athlete. Diagnosed with bothLupus (a chronic autoimmune disorder) and Rheumatoid Arthritis (a progressive autoimmune disease) as a senior in high school in 1991, Tiffany has spent most of her adult life (including three pregnancies) enduring pain, inflammation and fatigue that are the earmarks of those diseases. The humble life she and her husband (former pastor, now farm co-op manager, Darren) lead includes a full time teaching position as a Paraeducator. She teaches K-2nd grade students with learning disabilities.
With three young children, a full-time job, and debilitating diseases, Tiffany not only had little time for exercise, but she put on weight and battled depression. Especially living in the tiny farm town of Superior, Nebraska, where a daily fitness routine falls somewhere below earning a living and surviving the weather on the scale of priorities. In addition, she says she had a “whole life of eating issues, growing up in an environment of unhealthy body issues.”
But when the scale crept over 200 pounds she began to look for a solution. Like so many Americans, she was quick to jump on the diet bandwagon. “We tried juicing, we tried a vegan diet (which definitely helped), we did the South Beach Diet . . . and while there were results, I had a hard time maintaining the weight loss. And as I got older, I had more health issues. So I asked my local doctor if there was a pill I could take, and I was delighted when she gave me one!”
If only it were so easy.
After a short time, the Phentermine diet pills caused her blood pressure to spike (which required Tiffany to add another prescription to her array of medications), and she’d had enough. “About this time last year I came to the rude discovery that there was no pill I could take, no diet I could follow that was going to do it. It’s what other people had been saying all along – if you want the results, you have to do the work,” she says.
The on and off dieting and then the prescription diet pill caused Tiffany to lose weight and gain it back again, several times over. “That’s got to be so bad for you, to gain all the weight back like that,” she says. Concerned for her health, and seeking a smarter solution, she decided to start walking. “I was just walking on the gravel farm roads outside of town,” she recalls. “Just walking the dog, but going every day. And then I tried to pick up the pace a little, you know that funny quick-walk people do? It looked ridiculous, but it felt like I was at least working a little harder.”
From there, Tiffany kept adding challenges to her routine. “One day I thought maybe I could try to run, just run from here to that corner. Then I thought, OK, I can do that. I wonder how many girl pushups I could do? So I started adding those to my little routine, to my shuffle-jog little thing. I had a realization, ‘I can do this. I’m making progress.’” But she was a little lost. She didn’t have a specific goal. “That’s when my crazy aunt stepped in,” Tiffany says. “She does all this running, swimming, biking stuff in Colorado.”
In early June Tiffany posted on Facebook, “I ran today…and nobody was chasing me!” Her Colorado aunt responded, “This is awesome, Tiffany! Maybe a family effort for the Firecracker Run?” (The Superior Firecracker Run is an annual 10k/2-mile fun run on the Fourth of July.)
And the seed was sown.
“Immediately I wanted to, but I worried, ‘Can I do that?’” Tiffany recalls. “I was worried about looking chunky in front of people I know, all that inner chatter. I had to fight the voices that told me people are going to be laughing and all the negative stuff that goes around in your head. I said, ‘screw the people, I’m going to try it.’ I guess that was a big thing!”
Tiffany’s aunt helped her with a 4-week training plan that encompassed very gradual increases in walk-to-run ratios, along with goal setting exercises and some mental work. “I really wanted to be able to run the whole two miles, even if it was slowly,” she says.
On race day, Tiffany was successful. “I was shocked I ran the whole way! It was at a snail’s pace, but I did it. And that’s when I realized, you either want it, or you don’t. Working toward a goal like that, and achieving it, it puts it all in perspective,” she reflects.


Tiffany’s husband Darren took notice, and when Tiffany began contemplating her next goal, he joined in. They were thinking maybe a 5k. And up cropped another challenge, again from that “crazy Aunt” in Colorado. “She said, ‘You two commit to doing the work, and I’ll set you up with a training plan. Then we’ll pick a race and we’ll all go do it together,’” Tiffany explains.
Tiffany began working with a coach, Craig Howie of Howie Endurance Project, who put together a “take-away” training plan for Tiffany and Darren. The plan was sent by email each week, and helped them build gradually toward the 5k distance. The goal? A 5k Resolution Run, held the weekend after New Year’s.
“Working with Craig has made all the difference,” Tiffany says. “I haven’t even met him in person, but I feel like I know him, because he checks in with me so often and really cares about how I’m doing. At the beginning he asked me a bunch of questions about lifestyle and activity level, and of course I had some health stuff I had to work around, and limitations. But he checks in with me every week and we talk about what’s working and what isn’t, and there’s just something about having that plan on paper. Maybe I’m just very submissive and follow instructions really well . . .”
She continues, “But the accountability of having a coach check up on me was a game changer. At the beginning you’re so full of self-doubt. I felt sheepish talking about getting started and communicating with people who are doing big things. I felt embarrassed. But Craig is always extremely encouraging. All those pieces come together, and having something to shoot for made a big difference. There’s something about someone on the other end saying you did great. That’s such a good feeling.”
Juggling a disciplined workout schedule with kids and work has been a challenge. “I’m getting up earlier and earlier,” Tiffany says. “Every time the alarm went off this fall I told myself, ‘OK, this is worth it. You know if you don’t do it right now you won’t get it done.’ Plus, now I look forward to the emotional and mental boost – that’s a huge part of it.” Another bonus? Tiffany was able to go off her medication for high blood pressure. “High blood pressure is a precursor to stroke and diabetes – all those things go together,” Tiffany points out.
Tiffany and Darren worked the plan, and the plan worked. On January 4th they toed the starting line of the Resolution Run, and conquered the 5k distance, running the whole thing. Tiffany’s warm-up pace now is faster than her 2-mile race pace last summer, and she met her goal of 35 minutes. And Darren was able to run despite some back trouble the weeks leading into the race. At the end of the race Tiffany said, “It was the best feeling. I couldn’t help but smile when I saw the finish line. A breeze started and I had energy at the end from somewhere. I loved ‘getting after it’ over the finish line. I wasn’t expecting having that little reserve there – that felt great! That must have been the training kicking in.“


Tiffany has already set her next goal – running the Firecracker 10k this July. And Darren said, the day after the race, “I’d like to come back next year and be a hundred pounds lighter. Maybe even try that 15k . . .” Both are eager to continue working with Craig and HEP. “Here’s this coach and people like my aunt and friends who run and there’s really not an excuse.”


What’s Tiffany’s goal for the 10K? She says, in her full southern accent, “I just want to spank it like a red-headed step child!” Turning serious, she continues, “Really, I just want to keep getting stronger and getting faster. I just want to do it and be victorious and say I did it. Of course, I’ll always be worried about how my butt’s gonna look in my running shorts, but that’s just part of who I am.”
And what about venturing into triathlon like her crazy aunt? “Well,” she says cautiously, “My doctors would like that. They are always recommending swimming for the rheumatoid arthritis, and also low impact work. Biking would be the natural next thing to conquer. I wouldn’t say no to triathlon, but I’m here in landlocked Nebraska. I’d have to find a pool . . . it’s so hard to fathom, but do you dare dream?”
She continues, “If you don’t go after that goal you might not be letting anyone else down, but I would always know. I would always ask, ‘Did I try hard enough?’”
Those of you reading this are likely already triathletes; but perhaps you know someone you’d like to help. That is Tiffany’s one wish for others. She says, “If there is anybody who reads this that can bless someone else, I would encourage them. Anyone who is reading this who has the ability to help someone else with the challenge, with the resources. That made the difference for me.”

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