by Elyse Wild | photography by Two Eagles Marcus and Gina Grover
Each year, on a brisk April morning, thousands of women convene at Calder Plaza in downtown Grand Rapids. A discernible buzz fills the air as they make their last preparations for what lies before them: a 5K, 10K or half marathon. For some of the women, the day marks their first race; for others, it is one of many. For Holly Visser, co-director of Gazelle Girl All Women’s 5K,10K & HalfMarathon, it is a day when she weeps.
“Something happened when they ran away from the start line,” Visser recounted of her first race as co-director. “I realized that these are my women, and I care passionately for them. I want to see every single one of them transformed in some way every time they come to Gazelle Girl.”
Her profound words are wrapped in the sincerity of her voice; a voice that greets everyone with the excitement of an old friend; a voice that believes in the greatness you don’t yet know
The Start Line
Gazelle Girl was born from the minds of Bridget Meyers and Tiler Payne in 2012 as means to celebrate Title IX, the federal civil rights law passed in 1972 that mandates equality in education and athletics that receive federal funding. The law was groundbreaking in that it allowed women entry to organized races from which they were largely banned. Today, 57 percent of all runners who participate in race events in the United States are women.
“Title IX gives us the right, so why wouldn’t we use that and stand in that in a physical way?” Visser remarked. “The physical benefits always just naturally bleed over into that sense of being bolder with your choices. Everything ripples out. It is my truth. It is what gets me out of bed every day.”
Visser’s heart is embedded in the race she passionately oversees. She was on the first advisory board for Gazelle Girl, when the idea was merely a concept. Until 2017, her first year acting as co-director, she was a legacy runner, having crossed the finish line each year since the inaugural race. She ran the race at her daughter’s side for her daughter’s first half marathon; and in 2016 she ran as a pacer, helping other runners achieve their time goals.
An avid runner, Visser has lost count of the number of marathons she’s completed, but she emphasizes that she started just like everyone else: One step at a time.
“In the beginning, I did what I could because it was hard,” Visser expressed. “But then you press through that hard boundary, and it starts to become this thing, this high — runner’s high. And then I started running a lot of junk miles.”
When Visser experienced Iliotibial Band Syndrome, a common injury among distance runners, she picked up biking and swimming and joined an all-women’s triathlon group. In doing so, she hoped diversifying her workout routine would alleviate her symptoms. While she kept pressing on to one physical feat after the next, Visser was unsatisfied. At the encouragement of a friend, she tried yoga. She found the practice to be transformative to her life as a runner, bringing her the physical relief she needed and the spiritual connection to running she desired.
“I loved it,” she commented. “It made my body feel so much better when I ran again. It was truly balance: yin and yang. I got so much more out of running through yoga.”
Now a certified yogi of seven years, Visser brings her insight from the mat and deep understanding of the metamorphosis one experiences through running to her role at Gazelle Girl, as affirmed by her co-director, Kristin Aidif.
“She is so passionate about helping people reach their goals and be healthy,” Aidif remarked. “She has this incredible effervescence and ability to build relationships.”
The Full Experience
Now in its sixth consecutive year, Gazelle Girl stands as a pillar of women-only race events. Participation in the race has grown with each passing year; in 2017, the event saw 3,941 women running the course, which weaves through the streets of Grand Rapids and takes the half-marathon runners along West River to Fifth Third Ball Park. Visser testifies to the electricity that emanates from the crowd during race day.
“It’s incredible,” Vissers stated. “If you’ve never been to the start line, even if you are not a runner, I invite you to come down and take in the start and the finish. It’s pretty powerful.”
“There was something that got her to the start line, and it will carry her through to the finish line; it will ripple through the rest of her life beyond the experience of Gazelle Girl.”
Visser’s vision is grand: She wants Gazelle Girl to be the premiere women-only race event in the Midwest by 2023, and she is well on her way to realizing that ambition. After her first race day as co-director, she asked herself, “Where do we go now?”
In seeking the answer, Visser was drawn to the runners. She conducted focus groups to discover how to enhance the Gazelle Girl experience for participants.
“When I first started running, a water, a banana and a t-shirt were acceptable,” she expressed. “Now, runners want to have a full experience.”
From the focus groups, Visser observed that many runners were unaware that Gazelle Girl is a nonprofit, with 100 percent of proceeds distributed among four charity partners: Grand Rapids Opportunities for Women (GROW), YWCA, Girls on the Run Kent and Muskegon Counties and the Gazelle Sports Foundation. Visser’s solution was not to simply make the partnerships more visible but to bring Gazelle Girl, the runners and the charities together. She partnered with local businesses to create an event surrounding each charity, including a recovery yoga workshop in downtown Grand Rapids where participants learned about the YWCA’s programming and a progressive workout on the lakeshore, during which runners learned all about GROW.
For Visser, shining the spotlight on the charity partners was just the beginning. Under her leadership, Gazelle Girl partners with the Grand Rapids Urban League’s Girls Rock program to remove barriers to health and wellness faced by women in less affluent sectors of Grand Rapids.
Gazelle Girl provides women participating in the program — which has yet to be named — gear,
a weekly running buddy, a training schedule and free race registration.
“I am really proud of how we were able to make a small ripple out into the community in a beautiful way and bring access to movement and hopefully change lives,” Visser expressed.
We Got Soul
Visser speaks of Gazelle Girl not as just a singular event during which women gather to lace up their running shoes and log some miles, but as a philosophy that has the potential to permeate the lives of all who participate.
“Every woman who shows up at the start line is uniquely and wonderfully created,” Visser expressed. “There was something that got her to the start line, and it will carry her through to the finish line; it will ripple through the rest of her life beyond the experience of Gazelle Girl.”
In her mission to expand the impact of Gazelle Girl, Visser emphasizes that the race is for anyone from the seasoned marathoner to the most novice runner. To those who greet running with hesitance, Visser says this: “Forward is a pace. Put one foot in front of the other. Take the first bold, courageous step and commit to yourself that you will do it, and believe you will do it.”
Gazelle Girl offers runners free training programs leading up to the race, which Vissers says “takes all of the thinking out of it.”
“You just have to show up and commit,” she commented. “You become a family with the people you train and run with every week. You get to know each other’s lives, and you show up because they are going to show up, too.”
As Visser reflects on race day, the emotion swelling in her heart is palpable. She speaks of the profundity of the finish line; she is committed to receiving each woman exactly where they are when they cross over, whether it be a with a high-five of celebration or a hug to console tears of disbelief at what theyjust accomplished.
“That transformation is what happens when they take their last few steps up to the finish line,” she expressed. “It goes back to this: It is the greatest gift you can give yourself, and no one else can give it to you.”
Visser is quick to praise the efforts of the volunteers who pitch in to make Gazelle Girl what it is. The Expotique, taking place the day before, has anywhere from 80-100 volunteers to set up, tear down and help runners navigate picking up their packets. Race day sees upwards of 200 volunteers handing out water, acting as course marshals, manning spirit stations and more as runners flow through the streetsof the city.
“It takes tribe,” Visser said. “I truly believe that everything good in the world moves forward when shouldered together.”
In strengthening the mission of Gazelle Girl and expanding its reach, Visser helped to craft a mission statement to steer the organization as they move forward: I am more than a woman. I am more than a runner. I am a Gazelle Girl, and we got soul.
As Visser reflects on the mission statement, she breaks out in a radiant smile.
“We are better together. There is so much more when we moved forward as a sisterhood and
Gazelle Girl All Women’s 5K, 10K & Half-Marathon takes place on April 22 from 8 a.m. to 3 p.m. at Calder Plaza. The Gazelle Girl Expotique is held at the J.W. Marriott on April 21 from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. For more information, visit gazellegirlhalfmarathon.com.