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When Micki Gibbs took up running, she just wanted to be part of her sister’s wedding. She had no idea she’d inspire her friends to get moving, too.

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Micki Gibbs and her younger sister, Kim, have always been close. They played together as kids, chose to be housemates in their 20s and talked to each other almost every day. But when Kim suggested that Micki take up running so she could be in her “running wedding,” an only-in-Vegas ceremony performed while the bride and groom run a marathon, it was asking a lot.

Micki, 36, a home daycare provider in Midland, Mich., had never been the athletic type. In high school, she sang in the chorus while Kim attended volleyball camp. As an adult, Micki struggled with her weight, while Kim began running marathons. “I watched her finish her first marathon, and I was so proud,” says Micki. “I turned to my husband, Chad, and said, ‘I will never do that.’”

But Kim, 34, believed her sister could. And when she and Jason, her equally running-minded fiancé, decided to exchange vows at the “Run Thru Wedding Chapel” of the Las Vegas Marathon in December 2006, Kim asked Micki, her matron of honor and best friend, to be by her side.

“I was doing some walking — and Kim told me I could walk the entire 13 miles of the half marathon if I wanted to. But she really wanted me to run it,” Micki recalls. “At 5-foot-11, 236 pounds, I was 50 pounds overweight, but Kim said I just had to add 30-second run segments in the middle of my walks and gradually lengthen them.”

This simple advice was the key to transforming Micki’s life — and to getting others running, too.

Running to Vegas

Micki’s previous attempts to stick with diet and exercise programs never lasted. She would lose as many as 20 pounds by walking regularly and following unrealistic diet plans, but then she’d gain it all back because she didn’t enjoy the regimen, and the weight didn’t come off fast enough.

She also played the pregnancy card. “It’s a great excuse to be lazy and eat too much because you’re always tired and hungry,” she admits. “I was 60 pounds over the ideal pregnancy weight with my daughter, Katie, [now 7] and 50 pounds over with my son, Connor, [now 4].”

Her sister’s advice to follow the “To Finish” schedule in Half-Marathon: You Can Do It by Jeff Galloway (Meyer and Meyer, 2006) came at just the right time. “I was 35, and I knew I had to try something different,” Micki says.

The schedule’s run-walk approach let her gradually ease into running. “At first I could only run for 30 seconds before I started panting, but eventually it got easier and I could run longer segments,” she recalls. The intermittent raising and lowering of her heart rate during her run-walks (a.k.a. interval training) also burned up calories and boosted her metabolism, helping her lose weight.

Micki’s 12-mile run two weeks before packing for Vegas — when she ran 21⁄2 minutes for every minute she walked — was a turning point. “It was my first long solo run, the farthest I’d ever gone, and it was cold and pouring rain, but I had no doubt I would finish it,” she remembers. “That’s when I knew that running was something I liked well enough to keep doing.”

She stood on the Las Vegas starting line that December morning 51 pounds lighter than when she started training 10 months earlier, and she ran the first five miles fast enough to witness her sister’s vows. She then continued to run-walk all the way to a 3:27 finish in front of her husband and kids.

“I just started bawling. All I could think was, ‘I did this at 35!’” At the wedding reception that evening, she toasted Kim for motivating her to change her life.

Kim was almost as giddy as Micki about her transformation. “Running gave Micki a self-confidence she didn’t have for most of her adult life,” she says. “The light bulb went on, and she realized that she had to be healthy for her family and herself.”

Circle of Friends

Kim might have encouraged Micki to start running, but it was the company of friends that helped keep her going. Just a few weeks after she started training, her friend Denise Wolfe asked Micki how she was losing weight. She replied, “Meet me on Saturday and I’ll show you.” Wolfe, who describes Micki as part drill sergeant and part loving mother, has been running with her ever since.

Micki also convinced several other friends — all mothers in their 30s — to join her, telling them, “If I can do this, so can you.” They view the runs as physical and mental training sessions, as well as a time to catch up. Those sessions paid off in October, when six of them finished the Detroit Free Press Half Marathon, the longest distance for all but their ringleader.

Micki now run-walks three to four times a week on the cornfield-lined roads near her home or on a nearby rail trail. She wakes up at 5:30 to finish before Chad leaves for work. “I’m not a morning person, so it’s never easy,” she admits, “but once I’m out there, it’s wonderful.” Apart from weightlifting, biking and lots of stretching, running is the core of her exercise program — and nothing gets in the way. If it’s snowing or the roads are icy, she runs on an indoor track or her home treadmill.

In addition to helping her lose weight (she now weighs 180 pounds), her workout regimen helps relieve the stress of managing kids all day long. “I spend my days doing so much for others,” Micki says. “This is for me.”

Micki also made changes in her diet. She now eats four small meals a day and makes smarter food choices for herself and her family. Desserts are weekly instead of nightly, soft drinks have been replaced by water, and she rarely eats fried food anymore.

Her kids, who sometimes ride their training-wheel bikes with her on run-walks, tend a backyard garden that produces many of the family’s fruits and vegetables. Chad does his part by watching the kids when Micki runs.

Regarding her other “family,” her informal running club, Micki says, “They have kept me motivated, because when I don’t feel like running, I tell myself that they’re waiting for me, so I have to go. It’s funny — running is such an individual sport, but I’ve never felt more a part of a team.”

Bob Cooper writes about running, travel and other motion-related subjects in San Anselmo, Calif.

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