by Bri Kilroy | photography by Elyse Wild
For 12 years, a group of individuals have been named Fifth Third River Bank Run Road Warriors to act as ambassadors of the country’s largest road race, taking place on Saturday, May 13 in downtown Grand Rapids. These Road Warriors are not selected for their running prowess or their finishing times, but for the personal stories they share regarding what running means to them. Once they are selected, they commit to a training regimen to prepare for the 25K, blog about their experience on a weekly basis and choose a local charity for which to raise money on their journey.
In the months leading up to the 25K, 10K and 5K, Coaches Joann Karpowicz and Amy Polega serve as guides, mentors and prime resources for this year’s Road Warrior team, made up of nine women and four men with diverse backgrounds and a dynamic range of athleticism.
We caught up with the women of this year’s Road Warrior team for a glimpse into their motivation, preparation and how each embodies their own definition of a runner.
“Running isn’t about how far you go. It’s about how far you’ve come.” -Rory Beth Novosad
Sarah Gust | Age: 38 | Race: 25K | Charity: Van Andel Institute | Post-race indulgence: Beer!
Mantra: Get comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Gust was gearing up to take on the 2016 Fifth Third River Bank Run 25K when an injury forced her to alter her goal, and she ran a combination of the 10K and 5K instead. Five months later, last October, she ran the full Grand Rapids Marathon and is on track to revisiting this year’s 25K.
“I love to challenge my own idea of what I think is possible for myself,” Gust said.
Being a Road Warrior or even a runner wasn’t something Gust dreamed of back in 2014.
At 416 lbs and “slowly dying,” she decided to commit to a healthier lifestyle, starting with bariatric surgery. Her next life-changing decision came on a treadmill when she challenged herself to run for 30 seconds. Gust admits she hated it, but says the sense of accomplishment she felt afterward kept her striving for more.
Three years later and serving as a Road Warrior her second year in a row, she is a regular at community training events like the Perrin No Problems training runs and Hills & Hops. Gust’s personal sense of her role as a Road Warrior disputes the popular image of what a runner is (tall, lean, fast) by representing the runner who may be “last of the pack” but will also “never give up.”
She doesn’t just embody the resilience it takes to push through 15.5 miles of running, but she also displays the patience it takes to succeed, fail, and love yourself through all of it. Gust shares her training experiences through her Road Warrior videos on YouTube. Experience her contagious determination, never-give-up attitude and positively down-to-earth humor on her channel, Sarah Gust.
Carrie Seeley | Age: 51 | Race: 10K | Charity: Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation | Post-race indulgence: Doughnuts!
Mantra: Set goals that scare and excite you at the same time.
The goals Carrie Seeley sets for herself meet a certain criteria: they scare her. By challenging herself to accomplish things she didn’t think she could, Seeley has run a 10K, maintained a 75 lb weight loss and owns the title of a 2017 Road Warrior.
“I want to represent the ‘I can do it’ philosophy,” Seeley said. “I’m currently signed up to do the Grand Rapids Half Marathon in October. This definitely scares me, but knowing what I will feel like when I’m done invigorates me.”
Exercise motivation appeared to Seeley a couple years ago, when a photo of herself made her choose “not to remain in that physical shape any longer.” She joined Weight Watchers and was drawn to running because it was inexpensive, and she could do it without the “all eyes on you” company one receives at the gym. The fact that it wasn’t easy drove her to keep working at it.
These days, Seeley has built her mileage and aims to conquer her second River Bank Run 10K. Even with the improved stamina, Seeley acknowledges that there are days when it’s difficult to get up and run, but her solid balance of pushing through doubt and taking a rest when she needs to keeps her growing as an athlete.
“I think when you’re older, you just know if you don’t let your body rest it won’t be as good,” Seeley said.
Seeley is three years older than she was when that photo shifted her mindset, yet she glows with a youthful energy that wasn’t present in the past. Follow her journey as she tacks more accomplishments to her list by visiting her Facebook page or her Instagram @carrie_seeley.
Roxanne Kiesling | Age: 33 | Race: 25K | Charity: YMCA of Greater Grand Rapids | Post-race indulgence: Red wine and Italian food!
Mantra: Mind over matter.
“Sometimes, my fiancé will see I’m stressed out and he’ll say, ‘Roxanne, just go for a run.’ I’ll go for maybe a couple miles and feel so much better.”
Roxanne Kiesling started running a few miles at a time because it was therapeutic for her. In 2011, when her friend’s cousin died of cancer at age 11, she signed up for the American Cancer Society’s DetermiNation program, which raises funds toward finding a cure for cancer by having members dedicate their race participation to the cause. Kiesling set her sights on the Rock ‘n’ Roll San Antonio Half Marathon and utilized the program’s training and supportive running community to extend her miles.
Now with a couple of half marathons beneath her feet, the former Texan has endured training with the other Road Warriors through a Michigan winter to condition herself to take on the River Bank Run 25K.
“The 25K (15.5 miles) is the point between what I’ve already achieved (13.1 miles) and a full marathon (26.2 miles),” Kiesling said regarding why she’s tackling the 25K.
The Road Warrior accountability pairs well with Kiesling’s motivation to achieve her next goal, but she also admires the number of stories she’s heard about why people run. Aside from the strength of camaraderie, Kiesling finds strength in the mental clarity running provides. Her passion for health and education is reflected in her goals as a Road Warrior, wanting to portray her love of running as a natural way to manage stress and anxiety. She also loves to run because “I love to eat and drink whatever I want.”
Rory Beth Novosad | Age: 35 | Race: 10K | Charity: Van Andel Institute| Post-race indulgence: Anything filling with carbs!
Mantra: Running isn’t about how far you go. It’s about how far you’ve come.
Rory Beth Novosad is a wife, mom and 2017 Road Warrior. Being part of a team serving as River Bank Run ambassadors through a hefty time commitment and training might seem like another thing crowding the busy woman’s schedule, but Novosad considers running her “me time.”
“I try to use it as a time to clear my mind,” she said when asked what she thinks about while running.
The activity was one she and her mom had in common and, after losing her mom to Pancreatic Cancer last year, Novosad uses it as a way to honor her memory and push herself further.
“I think how I can continue doing this and she can’t,” she said. “Running was something we both had in common and I’m not going to take that for granted — It gives me the courage to keep going.”
Novosad’s role as a Road Warrior encourages individuals to make time for themselves. Using exercise as time for herself gives her the ability to stick to a 4:30 a.m. wake-up time followed by a Beachbody: T25 workout. To achieve that superhuman ritual, Novosad sleeps in her workout clothes because “it’s one less excuse not to workout.” Getting up in the morning is something Novosad admits is the worst part about prioritizing a workout into her schedule, but guarantees how you feel afterward obliterates those first few minutes of lethargy. She reserves her evenings for running with the Road Warriors and has deemed Friday her rest day.
Novosad designs her workout in a way that challenges her while allowing her to enjoy what she’s doing. She combats trepidation people have toward running by revealing it’s not about forcing yourself to run really fast or work out until you hate it.
“Just run the way you enjoy and have fun,” she said.
Annette Yeiter | Age: 54 | Race: 25K | Charity: Team RWB | Post-race indulgence: Pizza or a cheeseburger!
Mantra: Don’t let what other people think decide who you are.
Annette Yeiter was on the track and cross-country team in high school, managing to place here and there. She geared herself up for her first half marathon after taking a 20-year hiatus from running. She’s completed three marathons, four River Bank Run 25Ks, the Muncie 70.3 Triathlon, and her knees crack when she bends down “probably from jumping out of too many airplanes” during her time in the military. Surprisingly, Yeiter hesitated applying to be a 2017 Road Warrior because “I didn’t think my story was interesting enough,” she said.
Yeiter views her role as a Road Warrior as one that encourages people to try things out of their comfort zone and is part of a team that makes sure with every courageous stride one chooses to take to challenge themselves, they are backed up by a community of support and celebration.
“I want to inspire you to meet your goals,” Yeiter said. “Whether it’s getting your best time or running for the very first time, I want to offer my support. I once had an aid station worker run up a hill with me because she saw I was struggling.”
Despite her history on the track team and the breadth of completed races beneath her feet, Yeiter’s current experience as a Road Warrior is just now altering her definition of what a runner is to where she’s beginning to accept that she is one.
“A runner is someone who runs,” Yeiter concluded, explaining there’s not a quota one has to meet for distance, speed or money spent on active attire. “If you think about doing something, just put yourself out there.”
Sarah Koehn | Age: 24 | Race: 25K | Charity: Pine Rest Christian Mental Health Services | Post-race indulgence: Always a doughnut!
Mantra: Work hard, play hard.
Running used to be a time where Sarah Koehn would eliminate the imperfection she felt within herself, competing against all the “enoughs” she felt she wasn’t. Now, four years after she boldly sought help to combat the poor relationship she had with exercise, food and herself, she uses her long runs to “think about all the things I’m going to eat when I’m done running.”
The search for a new hobby drove Koehn to apply to be a 2017 Road Warrior, and her search for the next challenge compelled her to sign up for this year’s River Bank Run 25K. Although her longest race at this point has been a 10K, Koehn is confident that she has the physical ability to run the 15.5 miles that make up the 25K, but she knows she mentally wouldn’t be able to do it without the accountability.
“The running community is so much bigger than I thought,” Koehn said, underlining the important role the Road Warrior team has played in her getting out of bed every Saturday morning for a run. “If it weren’t for them, I’d never get a long run in or actually put on pants or shower before 10 a.m. on the weekends.”
At this point in her running journey, Koehn has completely revised the reasons why she runs and represents someone who does this activity strictly because she loves it. Many hesitate to start running because the initial perception is that they’ll hate it and, yes, trying to cram what should be months of stamina-building into a short period of time yields results, but Koehn show that you can train for races and, more importantly, you can have fun while doing it.
“Life comes first; running second,” she said.
Discover the joys of training for a massive road race, the zest it gives everyday life and the refreshingly hilarious and relatable views Koehn has on running, food and self-acceptance through her Road Warrior blog at Runsonwine.wordpress.com.
Solmeris Hernandez | Age: 32 | Race: 25K | Charity: Helen DeVos Children’s Hospital Foundation | Post-race indulgence: Latte!
Mantra: You got this!
Solmeris Hernandez enlightens us with a running term that is commonly used among the 2017 Road Warriors: Virgin Miles–the miles you run that are further than any you’ve ran before. The final 2.4 miles of the River Bank Run 25K are Hernandez’s virgin miles, which she’s excited to conquer on race day.
Running the 25K has been a dream of Hernandez’s since getting hooked on races after her first 5K (also River Bank) in 2015. Her journey toward a healthy lifestyle began in 2012 when she was diagnosed with Polycystic Ovary Syndrome (PCOS) and unable to have a second child unless she changed her habits.
“I stopped eating out, started eating more vegetables, and made time to make my own meals,” Hernandez said. “You have the opportunity to take care of yourself and, if you can’t do that, you can’t take care of others.”
A few months after improving her diet and working her way from jogging to running on the treadmill, Hernandez learned she was pregnant with her second child. She is now the mother of a 9- and 4-year-old and finds motivation in setting a good example for them.
“Working moms can make time for themselves,” Hernandez said, stressing that her kids are still young and need taking care of, but she never uses her title as a mom as an excuse not to make time for her health.
This is Hernandez’s second time as a Road Warrior and she is honored to share it with the men and women who make up this year’s team. Through the camaraderie, she’s experienced an undeniable difference in her speed, strength and techniques; but more than anything, she’s experienced a huge decrease in stress. Visit and find inspiration through Hernandez’s Instagram @solmeris05 or posts on her Facebook page, where you can see the glow of less stress reflected in a selfie with “11 miles baby!” running along the bottom.
Shannon Shen | Age: 27 | Race: 25K | Charity: Conductive Learning Center | Post-race indulgence: Pizza!
Mantra: You’re going to have a great run!
One of the first things Shannon Shen noticed when she moved to Grand Rapids in 2015 was how often she saw people running, even in winter when the sidewalks are treacherous with slush and ice. The frequency of runners jogging by her apartment urged her to start running regularly again. Having some races and a max running distance of 10 miles in her athletic history, Shen made a goal to complete the River Bank Run 25K.
Shen finished the 15.5-mile race in 2 hours and 34 minutes and, while that’s a victory that sticks around long after the race is over, Shen realized a decrease in her running motivation now that it was behind her. She resurrected her drive by joining a Gazelle Sports run camp, which exposed her to the populous running community made up of countless variations of body types, running speeds, goals and stories.
“I didn’t know these kinds of groups existed for amateur runners like myself,” Shen said, thrilled at how encouraging it was to run with others rather than alone. “I was impressed with all the different body shapes and the amount of positivity everyone had.”
Shen’s enjoyment of running with a team drew her to applying to be a 2017 Road Warrior and aid in unearthing the misconception that runners fit in a certain category.
“Anybody that wants to be a runner can,” she said. “If you run, you’re a runner.”
Being surrounded by an incredibly inclusive running community and a team that strengthens one another with each passing mile gives Shen a contagiously positive outlook on running and encouraging others. She makes sure to project that attitude every time she crosses paths with another runner to combat the general look of dread and exhaustion most runners are associated with.
“I’m a positive runner,” she said. “If I’m not feeling great before a run, I’ll just say, ‘Shannon, you’re going to have a great run!” Glimpse further into Shen’s running outlook by following her Instagram @rapidrunner.
Jamie Nye | Age: 41 | Race: 25K | Charity: Conductive Learning Center | Post-race indulgence: Pancakes!
Mantra: Enjoy where you are.
Jamie Nye is adding her 9th 25K River Bank Run to her list of completed races, nestling it among five full marathons, a half Ironman and several 10-milers, half marathons and 5Ks. If Nye were to show these accomplishments to her high school self, she laughs in agreement that her younger version would walk away shouting “Never in a million years!”
The activity that took Nye from being 80 pounds heavier and unable to jog a quarter mile in gym class to tackling runs with double-digit distances, spurred from her speeding up her morning walks.
“I just wanted to get my walks done a little bit faster,” she laughed, usually motivated by having to get to work or back home at a certain time. “I would run to the next stop light and, eventually, strung those together to equal a couple miles.”
Determined to fight her genetic background of “short, overweight ladies,” Nye began her radical lifestyle change with breast reduction surgery, shedding weight that was causing damage to her back and posture over time. She also joined Weight Watchers and began tracking what she ate, eliminating the temptation of meaty fast foods by adopting a vegetarian diet.
“I always try to be as fit as I can for my body,” she said. “I want to represent someone with running as part of their lifestyle. It’s one of the most important things I do, but it’s also not the only thing I do.”
Even though putting as many miles as Nye does under your feet does wonders for your physical health, there is still the possibility of injuries. Nye’s experienced injuries that have forced her out of racing for a few years, which opens the floor to excuses of why she shouldn’t run any more. Rather than allowing injuries to defeat her, Nye respects the healing process and embraces other activities that keep her physically and mentally fit.
Although Nye’s number one goal is to not get injured again, her experience provided her with a profound appreciation for focusing on the good things happening in her life and staying present, a practice that inspired her mantra: Enjoy where you are.
You can see some of the beauty Nye captures during her journey on her Facebook page along with photos of her and the Road Warrior team with smiles so inviting that you immediately want to join them for a run.