They say that a journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step, and for one member of the Marlboro Electric Cooperative family, that journey started six years ago when she laced up her walking shoes and headed to the local track with one goal in mind: to get a little healthier.
It worked, and then some. Today Debbie Cheek is not just a healthier version of herself, but she is also well on her way to completing a half-marathon in each and every state in the nation.
She said she was active through high school, but then as an adult, life got in the way. Between raising children, going to school, and working a desk job, she had become a bit sedentary. It took a wake-up call at age 38 to make her realize something needed to change.
“I had a medical procedure,” said Debbie, “and that triggered me to say, ‘I need to get in better health.’”
So she started walking with a cousin at the Marlboro County High School track. A year into that, she said, “I started wanting to run.” She signed up for a 5K race in Darlington, and completed it in September 2013. Shortly afterward, she completed her first half-marathon.
“I was surprised that I finished,” she said. “I remember crossing that finish line, and feeling such emotion. I was just in shock. I couldn’t believe I was able to do it.”
For those who don’t know, a half-marathon is 13.1 miles. That is roughly the distance from Bennettsville to Wallace. Debbie did a few more of the long-distance races, and with each one, her confidence grew.
“It took a while for me to get comfortable knowing I was going to finish and be okay,” she said.
As her confidence grew, so did her interest in distance running. She joined a run club in Hartsville and several running groups on Facebook, which opened her eyes to all the possibilities – and all the races – that were available to her. She ventured a little farther from home, completing her first out-of-state race in Jacksonville, Florida, in December 2014.
“Then I went to North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia,” she said. “I started traveling a little at this point.”
A race in Las Vegas, Nevada, in 2015 ignited a new spark in Debbie, and a new goal: she decided to run half-marathons in all 50 states.
As of now, she has 32 states under her belt and plans to complete all 50 by the year 2021. She averages running six to eight races per year, many of them with her daughter-in-law Hanna.
Besides the physical difficulty of running such long distances, this 50-state goal takes a lot of advance planning, organization and dedication – the same traits that led Debbie to obtain her bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate degrees while working, raising two children born 10 years apart, and maintaining a household with her husband, Keith.
“I’ve always been goal-oriented,” said Debbie, who is vice-president of administration and finance at Northeastern Technical College. “When I finished my doctorate, I said, ‘What’s my next goal in life?’ That’s really how this happened.”
So far, her 50-state goal has taken her to destinations both near (Darlington) and far (California). Most recently, she was in Mississippi in December, and next year she has plans to run in Arkansas, Utah, Minnesota, Kansas and North Dakota.
“I love seeing the country,” she said, explaining that she had never traveled much before embarking on this running journey, though she had always wanted to. “It’s amazing how beautiful all these places are.”
Some of her races allow her to spend “girl time” with a few of her running friends and her daughter-in-law. Others are family affairs. In October 2016, for example, her parents expressed an interest in seeing the Grand Canyon, so she found a race at nearby Lake Powell that allowed her to grant their wish. They also accompanied her to California for a race and a tour of Sequoia National Park in honor of their 50th wedding anniversary.
And in January 2017, she and Keith celebrated their own milestone, their 25th wedding anniversary, with a trip to Hawaii and – you guessed it – a half-marathon.
“My family has been very supportive. I could not have done it without them,” said Debbie, mentioning that her daughter Hannah, now a senior in high school, has conquered a fear of flying to accompany her on some of her trips.
Debbie keeps track of her running with cell phone apps, memory books, and a “Run 50” display in her home that holds all the medals she has earned in her races.
Each race has been special in its own right, but her most treasured moments are the ones when her family is by her side. “I’m always even more emotional when Keith is there at the finish line,” she said.
There is no doubt that running has changed Debbie’s life. It has allowed her to see the country, to make new friends she never would have met otherwise, and to create one-of-a-kind memories with her loved ones.
It has improved her health as well: “I don’t have any issues with the things that people tend to experience as they get older, like cholesterol,” she said. “I attribute that to running.”
And, it has given her something intangible: the self-confidence in knowing she can do whatever she sets her mind to do. “It takes power to get out there and run 13.1 miles,” she said. “I feel better about myself. When I run, I feel good. I just love it.”
She could never have imagined, six years ago at the high school track, where that first small step would ultimately take her.