Grief inspired this woman to become a runner and a police officer. Years later, she’s eyeing her first-ever 50K.

I’m a police officer, a mother of seven children—five of whom are now adults—and a runner. I started running in my 20s to stay in shape between pregnancies and childbirths and I never stopped. Well, I rarely stopped.

In my late 30s I competed in several running events, including off-road races (like the Xterra Trail Run Series) and triathlons. I did well and my achievements landed me a few fitness modeling gigs and a spot on a cooking show where I was highlighted for my parenting and athletic achievements. That was before my divorce and before my career in law enforcement.

Going through a divorce is catastrophic for anyone; going through a divorce with seven children under the age of 15 without an income of your own is life-altering in more ways than one can imagine. At the age of 40, my life incurred a paradigm shift. I became a single parent and a police officer.

In my opinion, law enforcement is one of the noblest professions one can pursue. The men and women who choose to leave their homes and families on a daily basis fully aware of the fact that they may never return are by far the most courageous individuals I have ever had the pleasure of knowing. The work of a cop entails long shifts (most longer than 12 hours), overtime, unusual hours and nights and days spent out in the elements. What you may not know about this job is how difficult it can be to stay in shape in a profession that derails your health at every turn. Policing is mostly a sedentary job spend behind the wheel of a vehicle or siting behind a desk writing reports. If one is stuck on overtime and working a 16+ hour shift, well, you do the math. There is little time left in a 24-hour day to take care of one’s health, let alone sleep.

Starting my career at the age of 40 and as a single mother posed many challenges for me. It was running that kept me sane. On my work days I would arrive at work two hours before my 12-hour shift so I could get in a run with my beat partners. We used the treadmill, the local track and some local hills to crank out our running programs, and we competed yearly as a team in the annual Baker to Vegas law enforcement relay race.  My days off were reserved for long runs and rest when I could get it—not an easy thing to do with a large family. Running was my stress reliever. I could process life and the challenges it brought me. I worked out many personal, spiritual and psychological problems on my runs. Running was my church, my own personal sanctuary.

In 2011, I decided to get in a late run following one of my son’s baseball games. I set out on a good 6-miler just before sunset. The course was familiar to me and the pace was effortless; an 8 minutes-per-mile pace maintained over 6 miles was easy for me back then. As the sun started to set I was approaching my halfway mark when I was struck by a drunk driver traveling at a high speed in a Ford F150. In those days I ran with the flow of traffic, a habit I’d picked up in triathlon training. The truck struck me on my left femur and the impact spun me around 90 degrees. I hit the passenger side mirror of the truck with my head, causing me to fly to the right onto a soft shoulder, where I was left for dead.  By the grace of God, a good samaritan stopped to assist and provide medical aid until the paramedics arrived.

My practice of running with music playing in my ears probably saved my life that day. I didn’t hear the blow I was about to receive, so I didn’t react. My body was warm and loose; I never stiffened up, which prevented further injury. The location of the setting sun kept me from seeing the headlights that were heading my way.  It is humbling to realize that if I had turned even a little the outcome of my accident would have been completely different; had I turned and faced the driver I would not be alive to write this story.

I eventually healed from the concussion, stitches, contusions and multiple soft tissue injuries and I got back to running as quickly as possible. Even so, I struggled with the mental side of my recovery. I no longer felt comfortable running on sidewalks or roadways and it took almost two years before I could ride my road bike again. Prior to getting hit by that truck, I never noticed how close those cars were to my bicycle or my running path. The accident made me acutely aware of the danger that existed on the roads, so I stayed inside more times than I care to admit.

In 2012, I was diagnosed with a thyroid condition. My weight soared while my energy waned. I was cold all the time and I could barely get out of bed to go to work. I assumed the fatigue was due to my long hours working in the detective bureau, so I trudged on. Eventually the fatigue became so severe that I knew a doctor’s visit was in order. It took several months to determine the exact amount of medication I needed to keep my thyroid at a normal level. I know there are many woman out there who can empathize with this ugly battle which wreaks havoc on hormones and the endocrine system. According to the Office of Women’s Health, “Women are more likely than men to have thyroid disease. One in eight women will develop thyroid problems during her lifetime.” The disease is real, and it definitely changes life as one knows it. I couldn’t run much during this time, so I walked—a lot—instead, but it wasn’t the same. I missed running so much and I longed for the days I was leaner and capable of scaling roads, hills and trails.

My life since 2012 has been a roller coaster ride of sorts consisting of a job change, a couple of moves and several of my kids moving out of the house. I have three kids in college, one college graduate and three still at home. Three of my adult children have also enlisted or previously served in the United States Armed Forces. Being an almost empty nester has given me a new perspective on life. I am transitioning to a life that will include more time for me and less time with my children. It’s bittersweet. In the fall of 2018, I started running again in earnest. I decided that I was sick of standing by on the road of excuses and made the commitment to get back to running consistently. My first day back was brutal. I told myself that I could surely do 1 mile, and I did—in almost 13 minutes. For a former first-place regional champion and amateur triathlete, this was disheartening. I was 20 pounds heavier than my former race weight and I felt it. I was a slug and I knew I would have to commit to a goal if I was going to improve.

For me, this meant registering for the Bataan Memorial Death March. My son, Elijah, recently made a commitment to the United States Army and his close friend plans to participate in the 26.2-mile march, so I too have decided to participate in memory of the World War II service members who fought in defense of the Philippines. I was never one to reach for small goals; quite the contrary, my goals always had to be big and almost unobtainable.

On March 17, 2019, two days after my 49th birthday, I plan to run the entire 26.2-mile march in the sand, dirt, wind and arid weather. I will run as a civilian, which means I will be carrying my hydration belt, gels and nutrition in place of a military pack. As a former regional Xterra Trail Run Series champion, I have also signed up for two Xterra Trail Run races, which take place in January and February 2019. My loftiest goal for the first half of 2019 is to compete in my first 50K race.  I’ve always had the propensity for endurance sports and being back out there with shoes on my feet, wind on my back, sun on my face and the sound of the road as my feet strike the pavement is pure heaven. I am heavier and I am slower than I was 10 to 20 years ago, but I am mature and refined. Even though I am fiercely competitive, the run is not about the win for me. The run, my run, is about living life and living abundantly. Running doesn’t just take you to physical places, it transports you mentally and spiritually to nirvana. My nirvana is running; pace is my peace.

Angela La Riva lives in Southern California with three of her seven children, two cats and two chocolate Labrador Retrievers. When she is not working or studying for one of her two master’s degrees she is running and attending her children’s sporting events. She enjoys trail running, road cycling, freelance writing and reading classic literature.