For the past 28 years, Janice Casper has been running.
It started in Korea, where she and her older brother were Army brats. To engage the 10-year-old girl, a running coach challenged Janice to beat her brother’s mile time. When she clocked a 6:19, he invited her to join the Cross Country team, running in two-mile events all around the countryside.
Back home in the United States, Casper had to wait until high school to run competitively again, but the coach there soon came to rely heavily on her in the 1600 meter and 3200 meter races. Riding high on a strong teenage career, Casper took the summer off-and found that she then had to fight just to make the women’s squad at Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas, as a walk-on.
The other recruits had been training up to and after their graduations. Where she’d been the best of a small group in high school, Casper soon felt overwhelmed by the demands of the sport at the collegiate level.
“It was tough, mentally, to go from being the best in my high school and the worst on the [college] team,” she said. “I got homesick and went home and just ran alone and tried to do races.”
Yet in rebuilding her confidence as a runner, Casper never lost her enthusiasm for the sport. Instead, she channeled her disappointment into setting and achieving smaller, more manageable goals-5Ks, half-marathons-as much as she could do while training solo. The euphoria of hearing shoes hit pavement and feeling her body mechanics shift into rhythmic gear began to take on an emotional resonance. Whatever else was happening in her life, as long as Casper had an open road upon which to lace up and set out, she was contented.
“When I run, I feel free,” Casper says. “It brings something out in me that makes me want to try harder every time I run. I’m not competitive with others, just myself, so the feeling of accomplishment when I meet the goal that I set myself is satisfying.”
On the open road, music is her best friend, Casper says: “It kinds of zones me out and I just run.” The benefits of that Zen-like state, in addition to achieving a runner’s high-the well-documented endorphin rush that comes with a good run-also helps clear her head. Whether it’s the time alone or the extra blood flow, Casper says that often, “I will be finished with a run and I’ll be finished with the problems that I had.
“I’ve given myself time to think,” she says. “I’ve been running 28 years, continually, and there’s always something I can learn from running.”
Another thing Casper eventually learned was that she could only get so far training on her own, and joined a local runner’s group, the Dallas running club. Now, she says, the benefits of partnering with comrades who can help push her forward has deepened her training to new levels.
“I really enjoy running because the people around me love running,” Casper says. “There’s no comparison of a support group compared to your running buddies.”
Working as an OR nurse at Baylor Regional Medical Center at Plano, Casper has filled out her rolodex of fellow road warriors with the names several coworkers with whom she rises in the early hours four to five times weekly to tackle some pavement.
“I have running buddies from work and from the running club,” Casper says. “There’s always someone to run with now. If I’m having a bad run, I know they’ll help keep me focused and [help me to] not lose sight of my goal.”
The Baylor bunch is out running at 4 a.m. three times a week and includes a couple of nurses, a couple of scrub techs and a surgeon. Getting their run done in the morning means the rest of the day can be dedicated to work and family. On off-days, Casper can push her bedtime back from 7 to 9 or 10 p.m., but regardless of the weather, “we all work out together and train together,” she says.
“If I’ve got my morning run done, I’m ready to go,” Casper says. “I feel more energy when I do run than the days that I don’t,” which she says aids her in the operating room, where “anything can change in a minute.”
Running early also keeps Casper’s schedule from interfering with those of her two teenaged daughters, Kianna, 14, and Lila, 13, both of whom will be participating in track and field at school for the first time this season. Although mom encourages them to run, she knows enough about the adolescent psyche to be careful not to oversell it.
“We went through a phase where they were doing it because they were trying to please me; I want them to do it for the fun of it,” Casper says. “Now both of them have come out and said they want to try out for track. Both of them are very excited because they’re finding the happiness in there.”
For Casper, goal-setting is a component of that happiness, and one of her life’s goals had been earning a spot in the Boston Marathon. After six years, she finally hit her qualifying time at the Houston marathon, a local gatekeeper race at which east Texas runners can make their benchmark times. After weeks spent building up mileage, Casper had done it. Qualifying in 2010 meant that she could run the Boston Marathon in 2011, and when she lined up at the starting block in New England, she couldn’t stop grinning.
“It was a dream come true for me,” she says. “I felt like I was floating on air for 26.2 miles. You’re standing at the start line and you know every person there has worked really hard to accomplish this goal; those 26,000 people are there for the same reason, and everyone has worked really hard to get there.”
Unlike running a “normal” marathon, Casper says, when she was counting down her mileage she was mentally pinching herself: “This is mile one…of the Boston Marathon…this is mile two…of the Boston Marathon.” She remembers spectators lined up for every stretch of the race, cheering on the runners, and when she finished, Casper bought her Boston Marathon jacket, which she likens to earning a varsity letter.
This year, Casper is training for the Houston marathon with a running coach for the first time. She says the help will refine her training program and give her someone to which she can report her times-someone to make her accountable. Next up after that, she plans to run a 30-mile trail run-but not before hitting Houston on January 15.
“The Olympic trials are being run the day before,” Casper says. “All the elite runners in the world will be in Houston.”
When she describes the company in which she will be standing, watching the heats, getting a sense of the field, you get the feeling that Casper is already on that road in her mind, counting down the miles, breathing through each one, taking it all in.