Back to Fitness: Perseverance


When I was a veterinary student at Virginia Tech in 1998, golf was cheap. As a student, you could play 18 holes for $7, and so even though I was a terrible golfer, I found myself playing regularly and enjoying some great outdoors time. 

Adjacent to the on-campus golf course is scenic Duck Pond Drive, and if you walk along the pond for a while you will find both a historical marker as well as an engraved wall paying homage to Mary Draper Ingles and the Draper Meadows Massacre of 1755. In short, one of the first non-native settlements in this part of the country was Draper Meadows, a small community located right where the Virginia Tech campus now sits. In 1755, in part because of the French and Indian War that was going on, Shawnee Indians attacked Drapers Meadow, killed several residents, and kidnapped Mary Draper Ingles and her two young sons, her sister in-law, and a neighbor. They were ultimately taken all the way near present day Cincinnati. Incredibly, starting in October of that same year, Mary Draper Ingles escaped captivity with another woman and traveled on foot 800 miles back home.

A friend of mine knew the history well and recommended that I read Follow the River by James Thom, a novel depicting Mary Ingles’ incredibly journey. Granted, there are likely many liberties taken in the novel, however the fact remains that her escape and travel home is an amazing testament to what the human mind and body can do.

Consider some amazing facts:

She traveled 800 miles on foot through what was then completely uncharted wilderness. 

Incredibly, she paid attention to the rivers the Indians followed and somehow remembered all of the turns to get her back home to familiar territory.

She started her journey in October and finished in December. 

All she had were her clothes, a tomahawk, and a blanket. 

She and her fellow escapee foraged for all of their food over this 2-month period. 

She did all of this after a great period of mental distress – seeing several of her family members massacred, being held captive by the Shawnee, and then never knowing if she even had a husband to come home to (he had indeed survived). 

As I consider writing this column each month, my goal is always to share something that may be a bit of a catalyst for someone who is looking to relight the fire of fitness in his or her body and soul. As much as we often look to elite athletes as examples of how far human potential can reach, elite athletes are admittedly not nearly as relatable as the stories of the “every person” who goes out and does something incredible. I argue that we can take that one more step back and look into history to find some incredible examples of perseverance, and Mary Draper Ingles is an incredible story of perseverance.

Perseverance, in fact, is a goal I think we all share. 

Persevere – to persist in spite of counterinfluences, opposition, or discouragement. (Merriam-Webster)

At a basic level, we just want to persevere in life. It often seems that every day is filled with counterinfluences, opposition, and discouragement, but we persist. Exercise and getting fit is a great way to learn perseverance, and you don’t have to be an elite endurance athlete to experience this. However, I think all endurance athletes can agree that persevering in anything is one of the most transformative experiences you can have.

Note that almost any definition you read for the word persevere has two parts. The first is some version of “to finish” – i.e., you completed what you set out to do. The second part is some version of “despite challenges,” i.e., even though it was really hard. 

I find that above all else, the thing that keeps me training and racing in my running is this feeling of perseverance. Putting myself in a difficult situation and persisting. Not necessarily winning or setting personal records, but persisting at whatever event I started out on. 

I find that the lessons I learn from persevering in sport carry over perfectly to the rest of my life. My job is very challenging and I need to persevere every day despite a multitude of “counterinfluences, opposition, and discouragement.” Parenting is extremely challenging, and I find that my wife and I need to persevere every day in spite of numerous “counterinfluences, oppositions, and discouragements.” You get the point. 

So let’s bring this back to Mary Draper Ingles. Here is an 18th century woman who traveled 800 miles in cold November and December weather wearing moccasins and a dress and foraging for her own food. She was obviously incredibly strong. 

Let’s imagine for a minute however, that we were sitting with her a year before she was kidnapped. Imagine telling her a story of a regular ol’ Irish woman like herself who escaped from Indian capture and walked home through 800 miles of wilderness. What do you think Mary Ingles’ reaction would be? 

“Wow, that’s incredible. I could never do that.” That’s my bet. I’m imagining that she would never have believed herself to be capable of such a feat. 

We humans are a tough lot, and we often don’t give ourselves enough credit for the amazing things we can accomplish if we are motivated. Mary was motivated to get back home to her remaining family, and she relied on the ability that all of us have—to persevere. 

Each of us has our own motivations and reasons for staying fit or not. But don’t ever say you didn’t stick with something because it was too hard. That is rarely a thing. If you disagree, just take a minute and remember Mary Ingles, and your innate ability to persevere. 



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