Kayla Jeter has always been athletic: she was a professional volleyball player after a stellar high school and college career, and moved onto coaching at the University of Cincinnati. But running became an important part of her life when she was caring for her dying mother and was embraced by the running community. Since then, she’s helped that community grow through the 100 Miles of Summer challenge, and as Run Community Lead for AG1.
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After Kayla’s father passed away in 2016, she moved to Chicago and divided her time between there and Cleveland, where she’d grown up, to care for her mother, who had been diagnosed with breast cancer. While she was living in Cleveland, she heard about a local run club, Run with the Winners.
“I needed to go for a run,” she recalls. “I was like, ‘Okay, I’ve never gone to a run meet up. It sounds really intimidating because we’re all running together, it feels like practice to me, and I don’t have that type of experience.’ But I was like, ‘I’m just gonna go because I need some type of space from taking care of my mom who’s going through a really hard time and I need to just see other people.’ So I remember going to this friend meet up and everyone was not only super welcoming and kind, but ran with me.”
As they were crossing a bridge, “I broke down in tears, which is great, but really tough while running. I was getting worked up, and in that moment, I was like, ‘Wow, I can’t do life alone. I can’t get through what I’m going through alone. And there’s people out here who are generally just interested in me as Kayla to help me through this and don’t want anything from me.’ And from that I was just hooked on being part of something that was bigger than myself that gave back to the people that invested in it.”
When she moved to Chicago, Kayla challenged herself to cover 100 miles between May 1st and August 31st. “When I first moved here, I didn’t have a car. I didn’t know the city. I was too confused to take the bus. So I was like, ‘Let me just explore the city by foot.’ And initially, it started just to explore my own neighborhood, to get to know where I am. And a lot of former athletes were like, ‘Hey, I have a really negative relationship with running, but I want to get into running and this sounds like something I can at least try.’ Right? One hundred miles over the course of four months. Which, for me, volleyball courts are 30 feet, so 100 miles over four months sounds like, ‘I don’t know if I’m gonna be able to do this.’”
People started sharing that they were doing a challenge called “100 Miles of Summer,” and it grew gradually over the first few years. Then the pandemic happened and the challenge exploded during quarantine. When she saw how rapidly it was growing, Kayla set 100 Miles of Summer up on Strava in partnership with Lululemon, and this past year, over 260,000 people took part. “It’s really beautiful because the challenge is not geared towards avid runners. High level, active, consistent runners are gonna eat up [100 miles] in two weeks to a month, you know what I mean? It’s designed to get people to be part of something and challenge themselves in a way they haven’t before, feel supported in it. And also see that they can do hard things.”
That’s the virtual community of 100 Miles of Summer. Kayla also created an in-person group for runners of all levels, whether they’re participating in the challenge or not. “This past year in Chicago, we did monthly meetups. ‘Runner revivals’ is what I call them. We start with a dynamic warm up. We get into the walk/run which is really like run for a half mile, stop, have a prompt that we open share on, have that connection moment, run back, have a cool down, eat some good food because that’s how I run. It’s a holistic experience. The running is what gets us there, but it’s not the part that’s most important.”
It’s not that Kayla doesn’t enjoy competition. Last year she ran three of the World Major marathons: London, Berlin, and New York. But, she says, especially for beginning runners, “It’s really intimidating thinking that you always have to be striving towards something and you can’t just do it because you enjoy it. You have to be working towards a race or working for a PR.”
“There’s nothing wrong with having goals, by any means,” she continues. But, “I struggle with goal setting in general, not as someone who can’t see a higher idea or version of myself, but in my life, in four months, my mom went from being completely healthy to dying. And for people to set goals for 365 days on the first day [of the year], it’s kind of a slap in the face to life, right? Who are we to feel like we have so much control and all-knowing of how the next 365 days are going to play out to set these goals that are going to perfectly unravel? Because the reality is that they’re not; life is going to happen.”
She advocates for a more realistic plan. “If we use an all-or-nothing approach to setting goals, meaning, ‘I’m gonna set this goal of working out five days a week’ and then you miss one, you’re doing yourself a disservice as far as your ability to show that you can commit to creating your own consistency. If you’re driving your car and you get a flat tire, if we were to apply the all-or-nothing thinking people have to goals, that means you’d slash your other three tires. That’s insane. You would not do that. You would fix the one. You’d pull over, like, ‘Okay, what do I need in this moment to get the car going? What changes do I need to make? Let’s patch it up and let’s keep on going.’
“But there are people, myself included, who set these goals of, ‘I’m gonna read a page every night’ and the one day that I stay up too late or maybe there’s an event and I can’t read, I’m like, ‘Oh, I’m never gonna be able to finish this book; I’m just going to close it and put it off to the side.’ So I think we need to show ourselves more grace as far as what our goals are and give ourselves the space to assess not only the plans we make for our goals, because I believe that goals are only ambition until we actually create a plan around them, but also what systems do we have in place throughout our day to help us achieve those goals, and knowing that we can always pivot the plan.”
Ultimately though, especially in running, it’s the process that’s important, not the outcome. “The way that I think running in particular is positioned is that it’s very race-forward, it’s very pace- forward, as far as the marketable standpoint of it. But when we look at running in places where the ground itself is actually sacred and the ground itself is actually rooted in culture, there’s a different connection to what running is and what it brings up to you and how it’s experienced. I can’t think of the quote directly, but it’s like, ‘Running is like dancing with the earth; it’s a prayer to Mother Earth and Father Sky,’ and feeling and embodying that and feeling your humanness in your body.
“I think when you take away the performance side of it, which is a very Western culture, and the hype and all the things that come along on one side of it, and get into the actual cultural ties, and experience connectedness, it’s changed running for me. And that’s why I feel very fortunate to have entered running through a space that was spiritual with my mom. And everything through life for me has required a village and that’s how I always want it to feel. So I feel honestly frustrated sometimes when I see the state of running where it is now and how it’s become super popularized and hype-beasty, and really influencer-driven or run influencer, if you will. There’s so much more and that’s what I want people to experience.”
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