Photo: Andrew McMurtrie Jennifer Cooper, left, and Sherry Coffield are not just two local mothers - at the end of this month they will be running in two marathons within 6 days to qualify to become "Marathon Maniacs". Cooper and Coffield will be running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C and the Rock'nRoll Marathon in Savannah, Ga.
DACULA -- The darkness is still dense outside the bedroom window when they arise. They pull the hair out of their faces, slide into some comfortable athletic clothes, lace up their tennis shoes and as quietly sneak out of the house.
Sherry Coffield, of Dacula, and Jennifer Cooper, of Lawrenceville, meet Saturday mornings at Little Mulberry Park in Dacula. The two usually arrive before the sun rises and wait until there's enough light to see the trail.
Sunday they will run The Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. and six days later run The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in Savannah in hopes of qualifying for an elite group known as "Marathon Maniacs." Avid runners now, they laugh when reflecting back on their un-athletic selves three years ago and how far they've come.
The starting line
Coffield and Cooper were not really interested in running in mid-2008. Coffield, a blonde, petite woman with an easy laugh and pleasant confidence, had just finished nursing her fifth child in 2008. Cooper, an upbeat, talkative mother of three, was focused on her autistic son, who had just been put on seizure medication.
Needless to say, neither woman saw herself going for a jog at that time.
Yet, one summer day Cooper, a self-proclaimed perfectionist, casually mentioned to her family that a friend of hers was urging her to train for a half marathon. Her dad scoffed, "Jennifer could never do that." After his remark she decided to start a running program called Couch to 5K..
"The very next day I dug a pair of old sneakers out of the back of my closet and I set off for the first day," Cooper said.
Although she pushed herself too hard on her second run and had to recover for six weeks, she eventually found her groove. She ran her first race in Loganville in December 2008 at the 5th Annual Jingle Jog for Autism 5K.
"My kids and my husband came out and cheered me on. It was really cool because I actually completed the whole thing running, even though I hadn't finished the (Couch-to-5K) program," Cooper said.
When Cooper approached Coffield in early 2009 to tell her she could start running too Coffield didn't think she could.
"She kept telling me, 'Sherry, you can run. You should do this.' I kept saying, 'Jennifer, I don't run. You don't understand. I have never played sports. I am not one of those people,'" Coffield said.
Yet, one day at the park after she had starting trying to lose weight Coffield thought to herself, "I wonder if I can run to that tree." All a sudden she just started running.
"I ran to the tree and I didn't die," Coffield said. "My kids literally stopped in their tracks and had their mouths hanging open, saying, 'Mommy ran!' I felt very convicted that my kids had never seen me run. That's how it all started. I went from tree to tree, bench to bench."
Past the first major mile marker
After Coffield began running Cooper kept encouraging her. Soon the friends decided to run races together, including the Dacula Annual Memorial Day 5K Run.
"I kept signing up for different races with Jennifer. Then I thought if I could do a 5K maybe I could do a 10K. Jennifer encouraged me to add a little mileage every time," Coffield said.
Her first 10K race was the New Year's Day Resolution Run in 2010. By this time Cooper had also received the coveted Disney's Coast to Coast Race Challenge medal for finishing the Walt Disney World Princess Half Marathon in Florida and the Disneyland Half Marathon in California in the same calendar year.
Dedication fueled by a close friendship and family
As their training increased and they decided to sign up for harder races, they continued to depend on each other for accountability.
"Jennifer saying, 'Yeah, you can!' was huge. I don't think she has any idea how much that meant to me. That little push and seeing her do it led me to begin believing in myself," Coffield said.
Cooper equally needs Coffield. She said Coffield is her motivation when she is tired or not feeling up to it.
"It gives you an accountability. On the mornings where we are supposed to meet at the park at 6 a.m. but it's cold and dark, I know someone is still out there waiting for me to come," Cooper said.
Coffield and Cooper, both 39, have children who are now interested in running. Reece, Cooper's 9-year-old daughter diagnosed with autism, has told her mom she wants to do a triathlon with her someday. One of Coffield's sons, Noah, loves to sprint.
"It's about being active and mirroring that for my kids. We have a whole bunch of health problems in my family: diabetes, knee and hip replacements, and my family is fairly sedentary. I feel like I'm changing that," Cooper said.
Pushing farther and harder
In a week both women will be running the Marine Corps Marathon (MCM) and then, just six days later, they'll run their second marathon, The Rock 'n' Roll Marathon. Running back-to-back marathons qualifies them as Marathon Maniacs. The minimum requirement, according to marathonmaniacs.com, is two marathons within 16 days.
Although both have run half-marathons and triathlons, this will be Coffield's first full marathon, which is 26.2 miles. MCM, which slightly varies from year to year, is known as "The People's Marathon" because it is open to all runners age 14 and above.
Coffield is slightly intimidated by MCM because if runners do not make it across the bridge (which is 20 miles into the race) by a certain time they cannot finish and don't receive a medal. "If we can beat it then we can finish and that will be incredible," Coffield said.
Cooper is not worried about Coffield making it, although she is worried about her own injured knee.
The two women finished their five-month training three weeks ago after running 20 miles one morning. Now, in preparation, they are tapering off so they can be rested for the big days ahead.
Progressing from being "the kid picked last in gym" and out-of-shape, busy mothers to marathon maniacs is no easy task, but Coffield and Cooper seem up to the challenge.