Before Melinda Howard could run for Aiden, she had to run for herself.
Howard (no relation) had no athletic background, was overweight and approaching age 50. The self-professed “late bloomer” started running for two reasons. One was to lose weight and the other was to appease her younger sister.
Her sister, Anita Winger, wanted to participate in a C25K program offered by her employer, Mississippi State University.
“She wanted to participate in the program but not alone,” Howard says. “She asked me to do it with her. At this time, I was in the process of dropping a "few" pounds. The total pounds lost, over 3.5 years, ended up being 170 pounds. When she approached me about C25K, I had been visiting a gym and doing water aerobics three times a week and dabbling in some weight training. I thought the C25K would be a cake walk.
Starting out slowly but surely
At this time, Howard was still at least 100 pounds overweight.
“This kid was in for a rude awakening!!!” she remembers. “I’m here to tell you, running, carrying that kind of extra poundage is not for the faint of heart! WOWZERS that was tough stuff! If I hadn’t made that promise to my sister to do that program, I probably would not be a runner today. I’d still be in the pool doing my water aerobics (which is challenging if you apply yourself!) and lifting a few weights.”
From there, Howard continued her running. Anyone who knows Howard from her frequent positive posts in social media is also familiar with her “MFH” —"‘My Favorite Husband,’ he’s my only husband and we’ve been married 33 years.
Her husband has an online friend who is a race director for the Steam Whistle 12K, a New Year’s Day race in Hattiesburg, Mississippi. That presented Howard with her next challenge. Her 5K was in October so she only had a couple of months to prepare for the longer race.
“It had taken me 55 minutes to run that thing (the 5K) — speed has never been my friend — but I was intrigued by the 12K,” she recalls. ”Could I do it? Did I have enough time to train?”
She downloaded a 10K Hal Higdon training program, and received support from MFH and his friend.
“I owe a lot to this race director! She challenged me. She motivated me. She taught me the importance of always having a goal out there — to be working towards something!!! I owe her so much,” Howard says
Howard finished the race — DFL while running with MFH every step of the way. “He’s awesome and a very good runner!”
‘I wonder if I could run a marathon’
With a 5K and a 12K under her looser belt, Howard began to wonder just how far she could run. She completed her first half marathon during the fall of 2012, followed by her second just two months later.
"I wonder if I could run a marathon?" she wondered.
MFH had another running friend who was doing a 50-state challenge. The Howards decided to meet up with the friend for a race in Bar Harbor, Maine, one of his few remaining states “We checked it out and registered. He never did run that race but we had a terrific time!”
But something unusual happened on the way to Howard’s first marathon. She realized she could run longer. Before leaving for Maine, she had already registered for her first 50-miler.
“That’s kind of how I fell into ultra running,” she says.
Learning resilience at the keyboard
Howard is a frequent racer, though she has trimmed back her schedule to cut out shorter distances. She has run about 10 half marathons, 17 full marathons and has started 10 ultras. The 50-miler is her favorite distance.
“Not all ultras have met with success but that’s what happens when you run these long distance events,” she says. “If you’ve put in the work and you toe the line, IMO that makes you a winner. Soooo many things can happen in 50K, 50M and 100M. Just having the guts to get to that starting line speaks volumes!”
Where does she get the drive to run ultras? From music lessons during her non-athletic upbringing, of course.
“As a kid, sports had never been a high priority in our household but those 16 years of piano lessons seemed super important to my parents — not so much to me but they seemed to think it was important,” she recalls. “Maybe I learned my tenacity from those never-ending years of practicing piano? There’s got to be a silver lining somewhere in all those years of piano!”
Living in the south means the local racing schedule is condensed. “Our window for doing long distance events is small,” Howard says. “It may look like I’m running a zillion races but in reality, they’re all squished into a tiny window/racing season.”
Like many ultra runners, she uses marathons as training races for “A” goals. For example, Howard ran the 2017 Chicago Marathon as a training run for a December 100-miler and a January 50-miler.
“The saying that ‘Misery loves company’ is very true,” she says. “Would you rather run a 26-mile training run by yourself or with friends? Just yesterday I registered for a 50-mile race in December. That will be my last long training run for a January 100K. It’ll be tons of fun and a great training run! After that race, I’ll start my taper.”
Learning from DNFs
On her running journey, Howard has learned a lot from a mix of successes and DNFs. The taper is sacred. Respect rest days. Vision is a wonderful thing and not something to be taken for granted. She’s also learned about herself.
“I’ve learned that I’m tough! I’ve learned that I’m strong,” she says. “There aren’t many 56-year-old women on the trails attempting these distances. I like that! I’ve learned that I CAN do this! Isn’t that amazing!?! When I started running six years ago, I could barely walk across the room and couldn’t bend over to tie my own shoes because I was too big. Now I can run 50-milers. That’s some amazing stuff!”
Knowledge comes from experience, including moments that challenge our will to continue. Any runner who has a DNF listed by their name understands this challenge.
Rocky Raccoon 100 was Howard’s first 100-mile attempt.
“It was a rather dramatic DNF if I do say so myself,” she says, noting that she fell 10 times during the first 20-mile loop. “Now, I’m not the most graceful runner on trails but that’s a lot of falling even for me.”
As she crossed the timing mats, she was confused about why she kept falling. Then she realized what happened: she couldn’t see at all out of one eye.
“It was like looking through a foggy bathroom mirror after a hot shower,” Howard explains. “You can see but you can’t. There was no way I could run the roots at RR without my vision and that also explained the numerous falls on that first loop so I had to call it. DNF. I had trained soooo hard! I was seriously bummed. I was bummed but not out. This kid is determined to earn a 100-miler buckle!”
She consulted with an eye doctor, agreed to a plan and went into her second 100-miler attempt in December at Brazos Bend. “Let’s sum that race up to, what the eye doctor wanted me to do didn’t work. DNF Number 2 from losing my vision on the trails.”
In January, she sought redemption at a 50-miler in Florida. She had a new eye doctor and a new plan.
“Everything was going great until a fall in the dark had me lose my protective eyewear,” Howard says. “Once the glasses were gone, my vision was, too, after about a half hour. I DNF’d at mile 47.5 out of 50. Bear in mind, that DNF wasn’t my idea. I was due to pick up pacers for my last two loops but they kind of hauled me off the course. Funny when you look back at it now. I don’t give up easily.”
Then in early March, she completed a 50K in Laurel, Mississippi. “This time I had the glasses and something to keep the goofy things on my face if I fell,” Howard says. “I’m very happy to report I crossed that finish line WITH my vision. This kid was doing the happy dance! I’m optimistic in thinking we have this figured out. Bring on the 100-milers.”
MFH knew how important it was, too. He met her at the finish line, "Congratulations. I’m proud of you!" he told her.
Anyone who know Howard on social media knows she “runs for Aiden.” On her RoadID, it simply says IRun4Aiden.
“It keeps me focused on the real reason I’m out there grinding out the miles,” she says. “This is not about me anymore. This is for him.”
On April 9, Howard and Aiden will reach their three-year “matchaversary” through the IRun4Michael Program. There is a Facebook page where runners can sign up to be matched with a “buddy.”
It took eight months for Howard to be matched with Aiden.
“It has been life-changing,” she says. “Let’s be honest, running can be a very selfish sport — How much faster can I get? Can I PR this race? Can I ... “
But the buddy program shifts the runner’s focus to running for the buddy. “I don’t want to be a ‘dud’ runner for Aiden so my focus is to turn myself inside out for this kid and his family because I want them to be happy to have me as their runner! My goal is to get bling and eventually a 100-mile buckle for Aiden! He’s the absolute best!”
All the buddies in the program have a unique set of medical challenges. Some are children like Aiden. Others are adults.
“For some reason or another, they simply cannot run so you do it for them,” Howard says. “What an amazing program and incredible way to give back. I wouldn’t trade these three years with Aiden for the world. Love this kid and his family with all my heart!”
As Howard progresses toward joining the 100-mile club, she has some other challenges on the calendar, including the Barkley Fall Classic in September. “To say I’m absolutely terrified about this race is a HUGE understatement! This is going to stretch me to my absolute limits.”
Afterward, Howard returns for the third year in a row to the 50-mile race at Brazos Bend in December, which will be a training run for her 100K next January in Florida.
Looking back, Howard knows she has come a long way. And she has no plans to hang up her running shoes any time soon.
“I’ve learned that MFH and my kids love me and are proud of me and want to see me succeed,” she says. “THAT is what counts!”
Name: Melinda Howard
Hometown: Columbus, Mississippi
Number of years running: 6.5
Weekly mileage: I average around 50-mile weeks. I’m in a rest period of my training right now. The miles will be ramping up again soon. I’m enjoying the rest!
Point of pride: I have no idea?
Favorite distance: 50 Miles
Favorite pre-race training food/drink: Before a race I’m a big pizza/beer girl. #dontjudge
Favorite piece of gear: My Altra Running shoes
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: I’ve never, ever run with music. Not once.
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: IRun4Aiden
Where can other runners contact/follow you: