How A Life-Saving Run Led A Utah Teacher To The Tokyo Marathon And Beyond

Feb 22, 2024, 9:51 AM

runner Kim Cowart photographed during a race in Utah...

Photo Credit: Kim Cowart

HERRIMAN, Utah – When Kim Cowart was a teen, she’d do just about anything to get out of exercising – especially running.

“I did not run,” she said laughing. “ I forged my parents’ signatures to get me out of gym (class). I did not swim. A mile around the track? I’m like, ‘How can they do this to children? This is not, this is not cool.’ I did not run ever.”

Now, as a middle-aged mother of two, she’s flying halfway around the world to run in one of the world’s six major marathons – the Tokoyo Marathon.

So how did the Copper Hills English teacher go from seeing running as a masochist’s hobby to believing the sport can transform your life?

Well, it was a long – and sometimes painful – road.

Postpartum Woes Lead To Love Of Running For Kim Cowart

And it began – about 18 years ago – when she was pregnant with her second daughter. It was April of 2006, and she and her husband Christian were taking their oldest daughter on one last only-child outing. They went to the Children’s Museum at the Gateway. That year, it was also the finish of the Salt Lake Marathon.

The finish was so electric, the woman who hated running said to herself, “I should run that someday.”

It was more a wish than a goal.

But with the birth of her second daughter in April of 2007, it became something else – a lifeline.

“I had postpartum and I just needed… I didn’t even know what I needed,” she said. “But I needed something.”

She was teaching fitness classes at a gym, but just exercise didn’t seem to be the answer.

“I was really struggling,” she said, “I just needed to be alone…Christian bought me some running shoes and I thought, ‘I should run. These are running shoes. I should run.’ And I just did.”

She laced up those brand-new shoes, and jogged found refuge in a sport she thought she despised.

“I just remember the sun was out, and I thought, ‘This feels amazing. And I feel like myself’,” she said. “It felt incredible…It literally saved my life.”

After that, Cowart and those shoes became best friends.

“I just started running more and more,” she said. Her only goal, to find herself on these runs.

It was her husband who saw other possibilities in those outings. Christian Cowart thought she looked pretty speedy. So he timed her, and then he made a suggestion.

Qualifying for Boston And Beyond

“He suggested Boston,” she said.

And maybe it was in jest. Maybe he saw something she didn’t. But she was intrigued.

That intrigue planted a seed that would change her life.

“I said, ‘What’s Boston? I’ve never even heard of this! What do you mean qualify? What does that mean?”

She was about to find out – mostly by chance.

Cowart wanted to see if she was indeed fast. So she decided to run a race.

One of her friends heard about her training and offered a suggestion.

“I was going to sign up for the Salt Lake half marathon because someone said, ‘Oh, you ran 10 miles? You can run a half marathon’ So I went to sign up, and then I looked at the marathon price. I thought, ‘It’s only like $20 more. I might as well just sign up for a marathon. How cool would it be to say I ran a marathon?’ So my first race was a marathon.”

And with no expectations in her first 26.2-mile race, she surprised herself.

“I qualified for Boston,” she said of the 2008 race. “I thought, ‘I might actually be good.’”

So she started running longer – and faster.

“Every race, I would get better and faster,” she said. “I never had specific goals, but I just kept at it.”

Her thinking as she prepared to run her first Boston Marathon in 2010 was that she’d just give each race her best.

“I thought, ‘If I just work hard enough, let’s see how good I can get’,” she said.

She got pretty good enough that she ran Boston in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014. She was competitive, even winning some local races, and most important to her, she continued to get faster. She refined her training, studied what foods helped distance runners, and even earned some money with her success.

It was after the 2010 Boston that she learned about the Abbott World Marathon Majors – Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York and Tokyo.

“These are the races where all the world records are set,” Cowart set.

She still marvels that ordinary people – teachers, moms, cycling instructors – can toe the same start line as world record holders. Cowart was riding high after that first Boston Marathon. Anything seemed possible.

She thought, “That would be a cool thing to say I did all six.”

Keep Running Joyful

Cowart found so much success, and often so much joy, she wondered how good she could have been if she’d stuck with the sport in her youth.

“I think about it all the time, how good could I have been,” she said.

But then she sees young runners training so hard, they lose the joy before they’ve even reached their potential.

“I wonder if they get burned out because they have so much pressure being on a team,” she said. “I had zero pressure when I started. I just was outside. I’m like, the sun’s out, there are no kids. Nobody’s talking to me. I didn’t even have a GPS. It was just me. …If I had had a coach, could I have been really good? I don’t know. But also the pressure of being good at something is almost too much for me. Like when I was winning everything and people are expecting me to run sub threes all the time, it was not fun. I did not enjoy it at all.”

And the push to become faster, to be more competitive, it stole some of the joy she’d found in running. It wasn’t a trip to the emergency room that revealed how her lifeline had become a burden.

Finding a balance between competition and joy is still a puzzle she’s trying to solve.

“I’m still working on it, but I remember the moment,” she said of when she realized she needed to change her relationship with the sport. “In 2016 I got in a really bad bike crash…And the next weekend I was scheduled to run the Utah Valley Marathon.”

She was fast enough that she expected to compete with the top runners.

“I was lying on the ground in the street,” she said. “And the paramedics were like, ‘Yeah, you’re going to the hospital. You’re not running next weekend.’ And I was so happy.’”

She realized that was a problem.

“I just remember thinking, ‘I’m not that sad’,” she said. ‘I didn’t want to be in an ambulance, but also no pressure. And I was relieved that I had an excuse not to run.”

But she kept racing. She set a few course records for masters divisions, and even set the record on the Top of Utah race in 2017.

All the while, she was trying to get into those Major Marathons and earn the ‘stars’ awarded to those who are part of the Major Marathon challenge.

She ran London, Berlin, Chicago and New York by 2019. There was only Tokyo left on the list. But then COVID shut down the world in 2020. Among the hardest-hit industries was the road race industry. It was hard to find motivation without races for many runners, and if there were races, there were extreme caps and massive safety protocols.

Cowart kept training, but she also kept aging.

“I got slower,” she said.

That was a tough pill to swallow.

“I’m not going to lie,” she said in January. “I went for a run two days ago – 12 miles – and it took me almost two hours. And I thought I used to run 18 miles in two hours. And so that’s hard, but I still have moments where it just feels good. Like that first run did without anybody around me. I I’m starting to find more of those moments.”

Off To The Tokyo Marathon

Tokyo kept calling, even as life kept evolving.

Cowart returned to full-time teaching this year at Copper Hills, something she gave up when she had children.

“And then I threw in my hat for Tokyo and got in,” she said. “I found out the first day of school.”

She begged her new bosses for a few days off in the heart of the school year, and the obliged.

The races have punctuated an impressive and enjoyable running journey.

“I love to travel,” she said. “Who doesn’t want to go to Berlin and London and Tokyo and all these places?”

She flys out Tuesday for the March 2 race. And she’ll be back in the classroom next Tuesday. And whatever her time, she’ll be grateful that she was able to lace up and enjoy another run in the sun.

Connect with Amy Donaldson on X here. 

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How A Life-Saving Run Led A Utah Teacher To The Tokyo Marathon And Beyond