Those who think of the phrase “the loneliness of the long-distance runner” when they hear the word “marathon,” haven’t met Bonnie Sexton.
Sexton, who will run her 40th marathon at Kalamazoo’s Borgess Run May 6, espouses running as a community activity that involves support, encouragement and camaraderie. She is the president of Kalamazoo Area Runners, the largest running organization in the state. It has more than 1,100 members and hosts seven training programs and six large-scale runs in the Kalamazoo region throughout the year (yes, even in winter), including the Kalamazoo Classic and the Turkey Trot. And leading the pack through all of these is Sexton.
Have you always been a runner?
I was a runner in high school and college — a sprinter and a long jumper, actually. I ran on scholarship at Liberty University through my sophomore year. After that I didn’t run regularly at all. I would exercise and work out and stay healthy and fit, but I wasn’t a runner. I had my three kids during that time and went to grad school, so I was busy with family and getting my career started.
In 2002, though, I started running to lose the baby weight after my third child was born. After six weeks, I entered a 5K and won my age group and thought, “Maybe this is something I could be good at.” You know, I enjoyed it and had fun because there was a lot of camaraderie with the other runners.
How did you become involved with Kalamazoo Area Runners?
I joined Summer Safari, a half-marathon and marathon training program that’s a partnership of Gazelle Sports and KAR. Everyone who joins that program becomes a member of KAR. During Summer Safari I met Rollin Richmond, KAR’s treasurer at the time. I would run regularly with his marathon group, and he started talking to me about available board positions on KAR. The vice president of membership position was open, and that’s how I first got involved.
Why do you like being part of KAR?
KAR has grown from 200 to over 1,100 members and I think it’s really the support and connection with other runners that are valuable to members. We provide group training programs and runs where members receive logistic support — like staying hydrated on the course — and social support from an encouragement standpoint. Our training programs have different pace groups and there’s a team leader with each group. Having a team leader assures everyone that you’re going to have someone that runs your pace and that you aren’t going to be out there all by yourself with no support.
People also want that social connection — they want to be with other people, run with other people, share those experiences with other people and share their milestones with other people. Many of the folks that are on those teams become lifelong friends.
You’ve served as KAR’s president since 2008. What keeps you at it?
From a leadership perspective, it’s great to be able to offer experiences that you know have been life-changing for people. Also, I have had the opportunity to collaborate on programs and our runs with all these other great community organizations like the Borgess Run, Gazelle Sports, the Kalamazoo Experiential Learning Center, Loaves and Fishes, Girls on the Run, the YMCA, the city of Portage, MRC Industries — the list goes on. It is amazing to see the power of collaboration and what can be done when you all come together to offer amazing experiences and nurture and grow this running community.
How often do you run?
When I am training for a marathon, it’s five days a week typically, and I will peak at 40 miles a week. In the off-season, I cut back a little, but I still run at least four times a week.
What do you do when you aren’t running?
I am the director of human resources and community relations at MRC Industries, which serves individuals in Kalamazoo County with developmental or intellectual disabilities, traumatic brain injuries, emotional impairments and mental illness so they can become independent at home, at work and in the community. I wear many hats — I do human resource management, marketing, public relations, community relations.
I also have two college-age kids at home and a daughter who is in the military, so I spend time with them.
What keeps you up at night?
I think being able to sustain KAR into the future and keep this wonderful running community and organization going and thriving. KAR is an all-volunteer organization, so we look to how we can sustain that as we bring on the next generation of runners.
People talk about all the breweries and how that makes Kalamazoo unique and special, but running defines part of what Kalamazoo is all about too. We want to keep this great running community as an important part of the fabric of our larger community.