Kelly Whittaker is YORK family and the definition of a fighter. A 2013 Boston Marathon bombing survivor, she worked through that pain with the support of the Boston community she loves so much and is stronger than ever. That’s what we call #bostonstrong.
We love Kelly, her girlfriend Emily, and her dog Charlie. Read about this hard-working hustler in this week’s “Worth the Fight” spotlight...
MATT DOYLE FOR YORK ATHLETICS: What does the word “fight” mean to you?
KELLY WHITTAKER: The word “fight” means everything to me. Having a fighter's mentality, the hard work, the hustle it takes for someone when they have a goal. From the first steps in seeing that goal of working hard, whether it be training for something, a new job, or pretty much anything. It’s that hustler's or fighter's spirit. That mentality is the fight in all of us.
DOYLE: For you personally, what is your most important fight?
KELLY: I see a ton of clients every day. My job is to motivate people to get to their own fitness goals and that kind of varies from person to person. I see so many people every day coming in with, “I want to run faster. I want to lift heavier. I want to just escape from the daily nine to five grind.” I think each of us has our own fight. My personal fight is getting those goals, that fighter's spirit, out of every single person I see on the daily.
DOYLE: Tell us a little bit about your day-to-day, your job.
KELLY: I'm a full-time trainer at Barry's Bootcamp. I'm also a full-time marathon runner. I am currently training for my 26th marathon. Kind of crazy. But besides my own training, I teach anywhere from two to five classes a day at Barry's. I see a lot of people. Half strength training, half running. I get to do what I love. I get to train people to do that, too. It's a win/win for me.
DOYLE: Running marathons, 26 marathons, to the average person, the mental toughness it takes to get to the point where you can get your body to actually run a marathon, let alone 26. Can you take us through the process of fighting through the mental hurdles of being able to do that?
KELLY: There are a ton of mental hurdles in completing a marathon. I always say that running is 99% mental and then 1% or less physical. The second your mind wants to give up, your body's done. To me, that's really why I love running marathons. I think, every single day when I go out and train, it's really like a mental test for me. It's kind of you vs. you, which is my entire life. That's been what I look for in sports, and when I went to school, and when I was looking for jobs. I really embrace the individual spirit, but also the runners' community is so awesome. I'd say every day can be a struggle to get out there, but once I'm doing my miles, or my strength training, or my sprints, or whatever I have to do that day, just the feeling of accomplishment I have during it and after it, there's really nothing else that compares.
DOYLE: That drives the point home that other people we have interviewed have kind of come back to. It's one of the reasons why they fight and why they go through all the struggles and challenges of whatever it is their personal challenge is. It's to get that feeling, that high at the end, that feeling of accomplishment. Is that fair to say? Is that one of the reasons why you fight so hard?
KELLY: Oh, yes. For sure. I do fight hard, not only for myself and my own training, but I also fight really hard to lead by example for everyone I see. I think one of the biggest struggles that I've seen is not a lot of people really like to run. Most days, I don't even like to run. It's hard. My job, I think, is to try to make running more approachable for everyone. I just think that ... I've always said to my clients, “Running really does save lives.” It's like an escape from your day-to-day. It really shows you, when you put your mind to it, not only what your body can do, but mentally, it just shows you what you can pull out of yourself when you have these goals.
DOYLE: Who helps you in your fight? In your day-to-day?
KELLY: I'd say the sense of community I feel really helps me. I see so many people each and every day, and not only am I training them, they really help me, too. Like I said, I find that I have to lead by example a lot. A lot of times, I'll be teaching a class, and I'll leave. I'll be like, “The last thing I want to do is my own training.” But then, I just taught 50 people who work their asses off in the studio, and that is so motivating. There's really nothing else more powerful than the sense of community, which I think not only have we worked really hard to establish in the running community in Boston, but also at Barry's. Also, York has been such a huge supporter. I just think meeting people with similar mindsets or the completely different people these communities bring in, it's a really awesome sense of community.
DOYLE: Fights and challenges, some of our struggles by nature are difficult. Why do you do it? What motivates you to keep going, maybe when challenges seem almost insurmountable?
KELLY: I've always been a runner. Never really a competitive runner, just running for fun to finish. I was actually running Boston in 2013, the year of the bombing. I finished seven seconds before the first bomb went off. I was there for the entire thing. I actually have my bib number from that year on my shoes. After that, I really went through a really dark period where running was very far down on my personal totem pole. I was working a corporate job. I didn't want to run. I was kind of having an identity crisis. I didn't know what I wanted to do and I swore off running.
Then probably six months later, I found out that I got an invitational bib for the following year, so I was like, “I should probably do a couple of races to train for it. I can't not run this.” After I ran in 2014, I had this completely different mind shift. The sense of community that I felt that year and Boston all coming together, it was so overwhelming. I was like, “You know what? Running has always been a passion for me. I want to turn this into my every single day." I left my corporate job and started training full-time. I started training with a coach and really focused more on running and training people on my own. So I think that one incident single-handedly gave me this blank canvas to kind of have the ability to step back and say, “Wow, I need to redo everything.” And here I am.
DOYLE: What allowed you to take that chance? What allowed you to leave your job? What gave you the faith that, “I can go do that”? Some people might not take that chance.
KELLY: I keep coming back to this word, but I felt such a sense of community. I felt such a sense of support, even from strangers that day running. I was like, “You know what? I have so much support,” not only from my friends, but I met a lot of people that were going through similar things as I was in that year in between the 2013 Boston Marathon and 2014. I said to myself, “I have enough of a network that I really can't fail. I really want to take this leap.” Fitness in Boston is growing. Running in Boston is at the highest it's ever been, and that includes the support for the running community. It was kind of scary at first, but I was like, “I'm trusting my gut here. I just got to go with it.” And I never looked back.
DOYLE: The bombing obviously was a really intense experience that changed your life. You touched on your bib number and writing that on your Henry Mid Canvas. That’s really powerful. Can you tell us a little bit about why you chose to write the number on your shoe and why it has become so significant to you?
KELLY: I chose to write my bib number from 2013, the year of the Boston Marathon bombing, on my shoe, and then left the rest of my shoe totally clean because I considered that as the catalyst to my blank canvas, my starting over. I really embody the number more than the date or anything else because I think that, I've touched a lot on community, but personally, it changed me so much. This was my number. This was something that someone tried to take away from me that day. But now I just kind of focus on it as what was really the turning point in my life that drove me to this new, fresh beginning, this clean start. Something that's definitely shaped me, and I'll never forget it. I like to turn it into something super positive. It's what brought me here today.
DOYLE: After that event, you said that you stopped running for a while, right? It didn't feel as important to you. What was going through your mind at that time to kind of make you shut down what had, in the past, given you so much joy?
KELLY: What kind of drove me to shut out running as a part of my life was I was overcome with what is called “survivor's guilt.” I was just replaying in my head, not only the events of that day ... I mean, I was right there. I didn't even get my medal. I was pretty much in the trenches with all the horrific imagery that I saw that day. It stuck with me.
And in addition to feeling sorry for the people that it actually affected, I felt this sense of survivor's guilt that I could not shake. I felt it was so unfair that it happened to these people that were watching an event that I was part of. I just kept replaying in my head, “Why didn't I stop for an extra sip of water along the way. Because that would have been me. I would have been right there.” It just made running so unenjoyable to me. The thought of going out and being like, “Okay, I can walk away from this. I am still able to run.” It just wasn't an option for me for a very long time. I felt like going out and running would almost be like acting like I didn't care about what happened that day, so I kind of just shut it out.
But then you get this whole sense of, “Okay, that's what they were trying to take away from not only the runners but from Boston as a city that day. The second that I give up something that I've loved for so many years, the second they win." I just think one day you just have this mindset shift and it's like, “Okay, are you gonna sit here and be miserable for the rest of your life? Or are you gonna go back to doing the things you love?"
DOYLE: And you had that moment? Do you remember that moment?
KELLY: Yeah. I did have that moment. When I got my medal, I got to meet other people that were kind of in the same position as me. It was really comforting to know that I wasn't alone. I had other people, I had this community, this small little group of people that were in the same position as me. They were feeling the same way I did. Then when I found out that I got a bib number for the following year, it was huge because I was not a qualified runner before. I was a fundraising runner. So the idea of being gifted this number into one of the most coveted races, which everyone's clamoring to get into...I just felt so blessed. I was like, “I need to make the most of this."
DOYLE: That's great. What role does hard work play in your day-to-day?
KELLY: I think hard work is the forefront of everything, not only I do, but that I instill in my clients. I see such a range of athletes every day. I have people that have literally never set foot on a treadmill ever. People say, “I hate running. I can't even run for 60 seconds.” I have people that have gone to the Olympic trials that come to my classes. The range of athletes that I see, it's a huge range. I think one thing that everyone has in common when I see them is the hard work they put in. What you put in is what you're gonna get back. I am currently training to PR in one of the three marathons I'm doing this year. I love running. I was never born to be a very fast runner. I pretty much had to work my ass off to get there. Like I said, trying to lead by example is really what drives me. The hard work that I have to put in to lead by example. I mean, it's constant.
DOYLE: What role does positivity play in your day-to-day?
KELLY: I think I would be lost if I didn't stay positive. I have to be the positive face that people see when they come to take my classes. People come to work out to escape a million problems. They want to get away from their desks that they were just at for eight hours. They want to escape any problems they have at home. Or they just need 60 minutes where they can just sweat their asses off and not have to worry about anything else. The positivity that I put forward really affects how they work out. If I came in, and I was having a shitty day, and I let my clients see that, that is definitely not what they want to see. That being said, it's not like I really have to put on a false front. Being there and seeing people's sense of accomplishment when they leave and how hard they're working ... again, back to the hard work ... while they're in their 60 minutes with me, it makes it very easy to stay positive.
And positivity, for me personally, to be honest, wasn't always something that came very easily to me. I keep going back to this, but even before my life-changing experience [at the Boston Marathon bombing], I found myself kind of like a lost soul for a lot of my childhood and college years. I knew that I wanted to do something athletic, but it was not an option for me, so I felt myself kind of struggling like, “What do I want to do with life? What is gonna give me happiness?” I would go out and run for hours a day, but this was now ten years ago. No one really had a full-time fitness career. That just wasn't an option. So I suffered through a lot of corporate jobs that I really hated. I found myself sitting at my desk all day just wondering when I could get out and run. I felt very trapped. I found myself almost pushing people away because it was very hard to stay positive when you yourself are struggling to find balance internally.
I think after I made the decision to go on my own, and make this transition from the corporate world into building my own brand, and leaving everything to jump into fitness full-time, and have the opportunity to run every day, and do these things that make me so happy, I find it very easy to be positive now. I'm so fortunate to have a job that I love every day and get to meet people that I love talking with and working with every day. I know the lows, and now I know the highs. I think that balance is super important.
Kelly Whittaker, marathon runner, Barry’s Bootcamp trainer, dog lover, and fighter. Learn more about her on Insta @kjw227.