Not even cancer could keep her from running.
Sherrie Owens had faced her share of challenges since she started running in 2007. From training injuries to freezing cold weather to deceptively hilly courses, all of it was part of being a competitive runner.
Being diagnosed with lymphoma, a blood cancer, was a massive obstacle that seemingly came out of nowhere. When the doctor told her she had less that six months to live, it was devastating.
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But just as she had when she started running, Owens kept pushing forward.
“I had a race the morning after I was diagnosed. I did cry, but I figured I wasn’t dead yet,” she said. “I was kind of feeling sorry for myself, but decided I was going to do it anyway.”
Owens, 60, is preparing to run her 50th half-marathon on Nov. 5. She has finished her treatment for lymphoma, and though there is no cure, she is in remission.
She has enjoyed great success on the race course, finishing 49 half-marathons, four full marathons and many other races. She has won her age group in multiple race series and individual 5Ks, and run a half marathon in just over two hours.
But the greatest joy has been using her own experience to help others reach their running goals. She’s mentored numerous friends and family members, helping them with tips on nutrition, running shoes and training that so that they can successfully finish their race.
But as she gets ready to run her 50th half-marathon, the reward of sharing in other people’s victories that has made the past seven years so special.
“It is kind of a payback for those who helped me,” she said. “I try to tell people who are just getting started, don’t sell yourself short if all you can do is walk. Go to your happy place. If you can never run, don’t sweat it. Just do what you can do.”
Since she started running, Sherrie Owens has had her share of successes on the racetrack. She has run four full marathons, keeping at it until she finished in under five hours.
When she crossed the finish line and saw her time of 4 hours, 58 minutes and 37 seconds in the 2012 Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, emotion overwhelmed her.
“It was freezing cold — temperatures in the 40s, raining, sleeting. Which was great, because I was sobbing, and no one could see my crying,” she said.
Sherrie Owens has completed trail runs and adventure runs, adding the uncertainty of dirt paths and nature trails to the race dynamic. She and David Owens have traveled throughout the country for races, the highlight being a marathon through Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida.
But the road has been difficult, too. She has run half-marathons in 32-degree weather, when it windy and miserable and over hilly, winding trails in the middle of a driving rain storm.
“She’s tough. She’s far faster than I am,” David Owens said. “She’s inspirational to me just the things she’s done through running.”
Owens’ running streak was inspired by a wedding. Flipping through photographs of her daughter’s wedding, she was caught off guard by how overweight she looked.
“I didn’t recognize myself as the mother of the bride,” she said. “I had a high-stress job as a nurse in a pediatric intensive care unit, and eating was my comfort.”
Even then, she didn’t immediately make lifestyle changes to help her lose weight. Not until her second daughter announced her engagement that she was motivated.
She altered her diet, worked on portion control and didn’t snack in-between meals.
Her husband convinced her to try running.
“I didn’t think I could do it,” she said. “I couldn’t even walk to the end of the block when I first started.”
Sherrie Owens hesitantly accepted his challenge, agreeing to run the Polar Bear 5K in 2007. But she wasn’t prepared for the rigors of running. She showed up to the race wearing a $12 pair of athletic shoes, which only hurt her feet.
She wore jeans, a sweatshirt and a parka to run in.
“I had no idea what I was doing. By the end of it, my coat was off. All I could think was, ‘Oh my,’” she said.
But Sherrie Owens was still determined to reach her weight loss goals. Running seemed to be the best way to do that. To that end, her husband again convinced her to run a race — the 500 Festival Mini Marathon, which David Owens had already run a few times previously.
Through training and diet changes, Sherrie Owens lost 60 pounds in six months. She credits “wogging,” her made-up term for walking and jogging, for helping her reach her goal.
Slowly, she progressed from wogging to jogging to running. At her fastest, she was running at a pace of 8 minutes 35 seconds per mile for a 5K.
Sherrie Owens first attempt at the Mini Marathon was brutal. She was unable to finish, skipping the portion around the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. Walking most of the way, she was eventually picked up by the “sag wagon,” the race crew that brings the slowest participants back to the finish line.
“I didn’t know how to train for it, so I didn’t do very well,” she said.
The following year, Sherrie Owens got serious about her participation. She signed up for the Bricks to Bricks training course, led by noted southside running coach Ken Long.
Long taught her about the proper food to eat as you train, what to look for in a running shoe and the best schedule to work up to 13.1 miles.
“That’s when it all made sense,” Sherrie Owens said. “We learned about all of the stuff that goes into making a successful athlete.”
One of the lessons that stood out in her mind was that no matter how old you are, no matter how slow you are, you’re still a runner.
That reinforced the idea that as long you were training and working hard, you were on the right course.
Sherrie Owens applied that same ideal when, after completing the Indianapolis Half Marathon in 2007 and the 500 Festival Mini Marathon in 2008, she decided to help others.
“Finishing a mini, you feel like you’re on top of the world,” she said. “In nursing, there’s a saying: ‘See one, do one, teach one.’ So I started teaching other people.”
Karen Wahlstrom was in Long’s class with Sherrie Owens, training to walk the 500 Festival Mini Marathon. She was immediately impressed by Sherrie Owens’ dedication.
“She was constantly pushing herself to build her endurance. Everything she would read or learn, she would share with me whenever we met up. She would try techniques or strategies; I would listen and try them too,” Wahlstrom said.
A friendship and mentorship formed. While Wahlstrom never imagined she’d been able to run even a few miles, Sherrie Owens motivated her to try. She was Wahlstrom’s “rabbit” — providing motivation to keep running faster and to push herself.
The two ran many races together over the years. Eventually, Wahlstrom wanted to try to run a full marathon. By then, Sherrie Owens had already completed two full races, and wasn’t interested in doing a third.
But seeing how much it meant to her friend, she relented.
“During that run, and others, it pushed me through tough times, knowing that she was right there — step by step,” Wahlstrom said.
Wahlstrom and Sherrie Owens completed the Walt Disney World Marathon together in 2013.
Jenny Justice wanted to do a half-marathon in 2012, and asked Sherrie Owens, her aunt, to run with her. They trained together, and Sherrie Owens was able to provide tips on improving her running form and pace without risking injury.
During the race, it was Sherrie Owens who took photographs of Justice, and put together a scrapbook to help her remember her accomplishment.
“I always valued her advice but it meant the world to me to have her next to me during my first half marathon,” Justice said. “I knew she was a much faster runner than I was and I know that can be difficult to run at someone else’s pace, yet she chose to stay with me the whole time.”
Sherrie Owens was diagnosed with lymphoma in 2014. She noticed that she was feeling more and more pain in her hips and lower body as she ran. The presumption was that the problem was orthopedic and would require physical therapy.
But an MRI showed that the cause was cancer that had infiltrated her bones.
The cancer had spread throughout her body, which led doctors to believe that she only had six months to live. But as her oncologist studied her charts and blood tests more thoroughly, it was determined that the lymphoma was more manageable than previously thought.
“It turned out to be a very slow-growing lymphoma, that I most likely had the entire time, from the very beginning of the time I started running, but it only became noticeable that last year,” she said.
Sherrie Owens’ commitment to running and fitness also gave her an advantage in treatment.
“The oncologist said that I was so healthy going into it, that I’d do very well,” she said. “It wasn’t the running or the dieting or the exercise that made me sick, it was all of that making me healthy so I could endure the treatment.”
Sherrie Owens was treated with an aggressive chemotherapy regiment, which forced the cancer into remission. There is no cure for her, but the lymphoma is slow growing and under control.
Meanwhile, she has gone back to running. Her triumphant return to competitive racing came on Oct. 10, 2015, in the Bedford 5K. She did the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon a month later, on the one-year anniversary of her diagnosis.
“It was very slow — frustrating. In my head, I was still the runner I was. So going back to square one was very difficult,” she said.
Sherrie Owens is still getting her pace back after her cancer diagnosis and treatment, which forced her to sit out nearly a year of competitive running.
“I’m trying to get my wheels back under me,” she said. “I have to let that person go, reinvent and start over. And I have to be OK with that.”
Husband: David Owens
Races run since 2007: More than 200
Triathlons and mud-athlons: 2
Full marathons: 4
Age group championships:
- 2013 and 2014 Indiana Timing Race Series
- 2013 DINO 5K
- 2014 DINO 15K
- 2016 DINO 5K
May 5, 2007: Attempted 500 Festival Mini Marathon; didn’t finish
Oct. 20, 2007: First completed half-marathon, Indianapolis Half Marathon
Nov. 7, 2009: Completed Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, her first full marathon
May 20, 2012: Fastest half-marathon, running the Geist Half Marathon in 2 hours 4 minutes.
Nov. 7, 2014: Diagnosed with lymphoma; told her life expectancy was 6 months.
Nov. 8, 2014: Ran a trail 5K, part of the DINO Trail Run Series, at McCormicks Creek State Park.
Oct. 10, 2015: First official timed race since cancer diagnosis at the Bedford 5K.
Nov. 7, 2015: Ran the Indianapolis Monumental Half Marathon, her first half marathon since being diagnosed with cancer extactly one year earlier.
Nov. 5, 2016: Plans to run her 50th half marathon.