Runner Inspired By Hero With Autism

Just a few years ago Fargoan Jena Johnson was obese, out of shape and looking to make some healthy steps in her life.

So she stepped into running.

Most runners, unless they are inherently gifted with perfect stride and pace, understand the struggles of starting out. Walking comes naturally, but once the gait gets kicked up a notch, things get a little interesting, awkward and challenging.

Starting small; finishing big
In the beginning stages of her training regimen at the time, a challenge came Jena’s way.

“My friend coerced me to run in the Fargo Marathon 5K one year,” Jena says. “I laughed out loud and told her ‘I can’t run a 5K.’ ”

Well, she did, and in less than 30 minutes, to boot. The typical average 11-minute-mile runner will jog a 5k from start to finish in 34 minutes or so.

Jena I Run 4 Reagan Reagan CROPPED Reagan, 6, is Jena’s running hero. The two were matched in a program called Irun4Michael, a group that partners athletes with people who have limited physical capabilities.

Big strides
Today, Jena’s down more than 100 pounds and runs a very respectable half marathon time of two hours and 13 minutes. That’s about an 8-1/2 minute mile.

But what she’s lost in weight, she’s gained in gratitude since joining the I Run for Michael program and met Reagan.

“I Run for Michael is a program that matches athletes with people who, for medical, physical or other reasons, cannot participate in physical activity,” Jena says.

Now Jena dedicates her workouts less on losing weight and more to honor her little hero, Reagan, including the ones that begin early in the morning in cycling class, followed by a BodyPump session and a six-mile run.

“She’s my hero. She has things that we have to do on a daily basis but with a challenge because she has autism,” Jena says. “So when I feel like giving up, I think about Reagan, who is limited in what she can do.”

Jena before and after blog image
LEFT: Jena before her running transformation. RIGHT: Jena running the Fargo Mini-Marathon.

Virtual connection
As with many Irun4 participants, matched partners usually don’t live in the same city. While Reagan lives in North Carolina, it doesn’t stop Jena from staying in contact virtually.

“She lifts me up physical, but also emotionally as well,” Jena says. “I had a bad day and she wrote back with a video: ‘Hi Jena, I love you have a good day.’ ”

The two friends send photos back and forth. They talk about what Reagan does in therapy. Jena talks about running.

“She just learned to wash her hands by herself,” Jena says. “Most kids can do that. So the limitations she has compared to what I can do is so inspiring.”

Jena with mini Marathon medal

Jena’s running tips
When it comes to running, motivation can be high or non-existent. But as a veteran runner, Jena has a lot of sage advice on getting started, keeping on when the road seems impossibly long, and embracing the runner’s high.

First timers
* “Get an app. You can decide goals and moderate for your levels and goals.”
* “If you’re running a longer distance, plan and pack well. Bring a water pack, and energy chews.”
* “If it’s your first 5K, remember it’s more a mental game than physical body. Tell your body you can do it and you’re halfway there.”

Lonna Whiting is an editor in the Communications department at Blue Cross Blue Shield of North Dakota.