Growing up with an abusive father and a mentally ill mother, Lu Jeffrey, 57, says she married at 17 to run away from her problems. Little did the Mobile, Ala. native know that running—literally—would shuttle her through life's ups and downs.
Lu took up the sport on a whim, when a friend urged her to enter the Mobile Azalea Trail Run in 1979. "It took me 21 minutes to run two miles," Lu remembers. "But what mattered was I completed it." She made up her mind to run further and faster at the same event the next year.
Back then, running was tough for women in the South. "It was unheard of for women to run," Lu says. A mother of two young children, she trained herself, reading up on technique and building her endurance with long runs.
When she lost a child during a third pregnancy, running helped Lu grieve. "I was writing down everything I was feeling, and I was running and running and running," she says. Soon, she was strong enough physically for her first marathon, and emotionally to tackle another challenge: She got a divorce.
The breakup led to poverty, single motherhood, and finally, the decision to go back to school. "I didn't think I was smart enough to go to a university," she says. "But my sister said, 'Go."' She graduated with a physical education degree and married a man who was a runner like herself. As she entered more races, her speed picked up, too. "That's when the trophies started," she says proudly.
Lu was making professional strides as well. She worked at fitness centers, then as a health educator for Native Americans. At 40—an age when many women are settling into their careers—she decided to get her nursing degree. She was 42 when she finished, working all the while at a Mobile hospital.
These days, Lu is semi-retired. But she still runs, racing with the Hot Flashes relay team, and logging up to eight miles by herself on a good day. Scores of women, like Lynn Gerald of Tucson, Ariz., who nominated Lu for a Spry Inspiration Award, count her as their "running mentor." And she's now inspiring a new generation of runners through the children's running club she's helped launch in Mobile. Working with community leaders, Lu creates incentives to get kids to enter local races, and helps train the children herself. Thanks to Lu, kids can now sign up to run the Azalea Trail Run, the very race that set Lu on this course years ago. "You can see real joy when they cross the finish line," Lu says. She knows just how they feel.
Growing up in a dysfunctional family was "madness," Lu says. Now, she finds inspiration within herself. Her advice for staying strong in body and mind:
- Maintain a healthy weight. Lu weighs in regularly, eats several small meals throughout the day and tries to limit drinking sodas.
- Learn from the past. Knowing she has a family history of addictions made Lu work harder at breaking bad habits of her own, like smoking.
- Keep a sense of humor. You gotta laugh, Lu says. "Running and humor save me!"
- Stay open to new ideas. A self-described "seeker," Lu studies world religions to see what she can learn from each one.