Last year, as Colleen Murphy was driving down the road, her three-year-old daughter pointed out a runner. “Mommy, look. That girl’s running like you do.” Murphy beamed. “That’s awesome,” she thought. “My daughter sees me as a runner.” Her daughter didn’t know it, but just a few years earlier, Murphy never would have imagined that she could be described as a runner. Her daughter’s words confirmed the benefits of Murphy’s difficult journey—a journey that so far has included losing 120 pounds and finishing several ultramarathons.
On a typical day five years ago, Murphy would stop on the way to Walgreens, where she was a store manager, to get a coffee roll and a large iced coffee with extra cream and sugar. She would snack on one or two candy bars in the morning and then have fast food takeout for lunch. After work, she might meet friends for drinks before heading home to watch TV. Some days she would pick up takeout again for dinner. Other days, she would cook, but never anything very healthy. She worked six days a week, and although her work ethic earned her promotions, her unhealthy lifestyle was wreaking havoc on her body.
Then Murphy became pregnant. Her obstetrician told her that her weight made her a high-risk pregnancy. She was only 25 years old, but she weighed more than 250 pounds and was taking seven medications daily to treat a variety of health problems, including rheumatoid arthritis, a heart condition, celiac disease, and depression. Still, Murphy had never been told by a doctor that she needed to lose weight. The doctor’s words stung. Murphy walked out feeling depressed and alone, but she also took the message to heart. During her pregnancy, she gained only 20 pounds and she worked on healthier eating, incorporating fruits and vegetables into her diet. But once her daughter was born, she continued her sedentary lifestyle.
Then came her second wake-up call. One day, as Murphy was steaming squash to feed to her daughter, she looked at her own meal—pizza—and wondered what she would do or say when her daughter someday wanted pizza instead of squash. She had done some reading and learned that children of obese parents were more likely to become obese themselves, and she knew that she had to set a better example. She had lost about 20 pounds in the year or so since giving birth, but she wanted to make bigger changes.
Murphy soon accepted a friend’s invitation to go to a Weight Watcher’s meeting. At the end of the meeting, she stepped on the scale. She came home and said to herself, “This is the worst I’ve ever felt.” She decided to take pictures of herself as motivation and committed to change for herself and her daughter. She kept going to Weight Watchers. She got a food scale. She ate less. She also began exercising. She was too self-conscious to exercise in public, so she purchased some exercise videos to use at home and got up early in the morning to work out alone at her apartment complex’s small gym. It didn’t happen overnight, but the pounds began to come off.
In the summer of 2010, Murphy decided to try to run a 5k. To train, she walked up and down her one-mile street, adding in bits of jogging until she could run the whole way. Race day was the first time she had ever run with other people, but somehow she felt like she belonged. Even now, she has trouble describing the happiness she experienced as she started running. Her weight was down to 210 pounds (from a peak of 272 pounds), and she completed the 5k in under 30 minutes. A month later, she ran her second 5k, this time in under 28 minutes.
After that, Murphy never looked back. “I decide I’m going to do something, I put my mind to it, and I’m stubborn,” she says. “I’m too stubborn to quit.” In February 2011, she ran the Hyannis Half Marathon. She ran another half marathon just a month later. She continued to add mileage and gain speed, even qualifying for the Boston Marathon. Then, in February 2012, she ran the Cape Cod Frozen Fat Ass 50k, an ultramarathon on the beach in the dead of winter, on a whim. Murphy remembers crossing the finish line frozen. She was shocked to learn that she was the first female finisher. It was both her first ultra and her first trail race, and she immediately felt at home among the other trail runners.
Since that race, Murphy has become a member of the Trail Animals Running Club and completed a number of other ultras, including the Stone Cat 50 in the fall of 2012 and the Pineland Farms 50 last spring. The Pineland race was a training run for her most ambitious race so far: the TARC 100, held last June. During her peak training, she ran 85 to 90 miles a week (it was like having a part-time job, she says). In addition to running Pineland, she also ran TARC’s Don’t Run Boston 50k and the Boston Marathon on back-to-back days in April.
Even with all her training, the TARC 100 was a huge physical and mental challenge. Murphy suffered a partial tear of her quadriceps muscle, which made it difficult to run after mile 70. In the last 10 to 15 miles, in particular, running became unbearable. The race had started at 7 p.m. on a Friday, which meant that she ran into the night twice. The course grew more sparsely populated as runners finished or dropped. But Murphy’s stubbornness kept her going. She wouldn’t stop at mile 90. She’d come too far. When she crossed the finish line, the race photographer had already gone home. She continued to run, so focused on keeping her body moving that she didn’t realize she was actually done until a friend stopped her. She sat down, feeling woozy and then the world went black. Fortunately, she came to after a moment and the medical staff helped her stabilize her blood pressure and blood sugar. She went home and fell asleep, too tired to even shower despite having run through muck and mud for more than 24 hours. But she had made it. And she has the buckle to prove it.
Now Murphy and her boyfriend, Damian, are training together for the TARC Summer Classic. He’ll be running his first 50k, and she’s signed up for the 50-miler. While they rarely run together because they have to split childcare and other domestic duties, they share a commitment to one another’s success. Damian jokingly calls Murphy “coach” because she draws up his training plans. Fitness and exercise have become a family lifestyle. Murphy and her daughter are often spotted at the YMCA or walking on the trails at Mine Falls in Nashua, N.H., together. While Murphy says she’ll never push her daughter to run, she loves that they are active together. She hopes that, because they are laying a foundation for fitness now, her daughter won’t be the kid who, like her, will pretend to be sick so she won’t have to run the mile in gym class.
So, what does a typical day look like now for Murphy? She wakes up at about 5 a.m. and makes everyone breakfast. If it’s a weekday, she prepares lunches. She is now a personal trainer, so she’ll fit in a mid-day run between clients while her daughter is at school. In the evening, she prepares a healthy dinner (nowadays that means vegan and gluten-free for Murphy) and takes her daughter to play or swim while Damian fits in his run. On Saturdays, things are even busier, and she may be up as early as 3:30 or 4:00 a.m. to fit in a long run. While Sunday is more of a rest day for the family, it still involves active outside time and maybe a short run.
Murphy also continues to maintain a website about her weight loss and fitness. She initially started the website as a way to connect with others about her feelings and frustrations, successes and challenges when she was first losing weight. The site still serves that purpose, but it is also her way of helping others who are trying to achieve similar goals. While the site is time-consuming, she believes that it is worth it if it inspires just one person to keep going and believe success is possible. And she has at least some proof that the site has already done so—before they started dating, Damian, a former coworker of Murphy, read the blog for inspiration when he was trying to lose weight and start running.
Murphy dreams of someday running the Western States 100, the Badwater Ultramarathon, the Hardrock 100, and even the Tor des Geants, a 205-mile trail race through the Italian Alps. She also has the more personal goal of running 120 miles at a time to celebrate the 120 pounds she has lost. Given everything she has accomplished in less than four years, it won’t be surprising if she achieves all this and more.