Grandmothers do their fair share of running here and there to stay active and connected to their personal lives and to their children’s families. One moment they may be providing a casserole for a church supper and the next hour attending a grandchild’s dance recital or batting tee game.
You’d be hard-pressed to find another grandma as dedicated to "staying on the run" as Kari Cunningham. In addition to her job as a pharmacist, the 60-year-old Cunningham juggles her commitments to family and friends with an unbridled passion for competing in half-marathons. As a matter of fact, she’s undertaken a self-imposed goal to run one of these races in all 50 states. You know what? She’s not that far from the finish line.
Growing up in West Ashley, Cunningham never played sports at Middleton High. She first dabbled in running while in college, but only because a friend was doing it. It wasn’t until her children were teenagers and she was in her mid-40s that she laced up some running shoes with a purpose.
Dedication and determination
In 2000, Kari entered the Isle of Palms Connector Run. She would run a variety of 5Ks (6.2 miles) in the area and often performed well in her age group. “I did it just to challenge myself,” she says.
In just a couple of years, that challenge turned into a commitment. After participating in a majority of the shorter races, she decided in 2005 to enter the Folly Beach half-marathon. This was a 13.1-mile race. At the age of 46, she finished first in her age group. “I was just determined to do it,” she now says when looking back.
That determined spirit also allowed her to complete the Disney Marathon, which is 26.2 miles. To me, that’s not a race, that’s a trip. Again, though, for Kari, this was another goal and though it took her four and a half hours, she crossed the finish line.
She decided to zero-in on the half marathons. The primary reason? “You can run and still do stuff afterwards,” she laughs.
Initially, most of her races were run regionally. The races were accomplished in North/South Carolina and Georgia. Then, she started moving farther and farther up the East Coast. Before long, she realized she had run a 5K in every state from Maine to Florida, and she had the T-shirts to prove it.
It was then that this road runner decided to add another goal to her to-do list.
Miles to go, before I sleep
Cunningham has 13 more states to run races before she can total all 50. She’s saving Hawaii and Alaska as the final two. Five more races are planned starting in September when she goes to Wyoming. After that, it’s Washington, Oregon, Rhode Island and Arizona.
“These trips are really my vacations, it’s how I spend my extra money.” If they’re vacations, they don’t last very long. Typically, she will fly or drive into town one day before the race. She runs the race and finds something fun to do after the race is over, then leaves to come home the following day. It’s quite a way to see the country.
Not every location is scenic and a lovely experience. In Detroit in May, it snowed. After the race, Kari stood in a doorway, cold and shivering, as she tried to call Uber for a ride back to her hotel. In Cincinnati, it poured rain the entire race and in Salt Lake City, runners were bused to the top of a mountain. “I don’t know how to run downhill,” Kari recently recalled. “All my training is done in the good old, flat Lowcountry.”
She enjoyed the Rock‘N Roll Race in Vegas. It was held on The Strip at night. Just a couple of months ago, Kari ran in New Mexico on her 60th birthday.
For a lot of us, setting and accomplishing goals are part of our past, not our present. Kari Cunningham is an excellent example of someone who found a hobby she enjoys and figured out a way to continue to challenge herself along the way.
As she likes to say, “It’s part of the adventure.” Her children and her grandchildren can’t help but be proud. As we all age, it’s easy to lapse into conversation that eventually devolves into our life expectancy. This grandma has no time for that. Instead of talking about "kicking the bucket," she’s preoccupied with completing her personal bucket list.
Good luck, Kari, just a few more states to go.