Anyone can run or bike. And if any two people could testify to that, it’s Gerri Grady and Hugh Lambert.
Both Grady and Lambert have used exercise to overcome health problems. Now, both are leaders in two separate exercise- and social-centric clubs in Cherokee, aimed at promoting healthy lifestyles among members of the Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians.
Back in the 1990s, Grady, a founding member of the Cherokee Runners, could hardly walk, let alone run.
“I started walking because I was a heavy smoker,” said Grady, secretary of the running club. “God. I could barely walk.”
Following the death of her mother from asthma-related complications in the mid-1990s, Grady was determined to get fit and began strolling a 3-mile circuit a couple of times a week with her sister.
“I got scared because of that,” she said of her mother’s death.
Walking eventually gave way to running, and in 2001, Grady ran her first 5K and quit smoking. Now, she is a dedicated runner.
Like Grady, Lambert battled his own health problems — including sleep apnea and diabetes — before he took up cycling and started Cherokee Riders Cycling Club. Formerly 300 pounds, a now 205-pound Lambert has made strides to improve his overall health.
“There is no magic pill,” he said. “Take responsibility for your own health and actions.”
Lambert tried road cycling in college but did not keep it up. In the mid-90s, he tried again with mountain biking, but his carpel tunnel caused his hands to numb.
However, last year when Lambert heard about a Trail of Tears bike ride, things changed.
“I just had to do it,” he said.
Remember the Removal is an annual three-week bicycle ride commemorating the forced removal of the Cherokee Nation from its homelands during the 1830s - a brutal march where thousands of Cherokee perished from starvation and exposure. Riders retrace the route of the Trail of Tears through Georgia, Tennessee, Kentucky, Illinois, Missouri, Arkansas and finally to Oklahoma. The ride is exclusive, only seven or eight ECBI members can participate each year. The Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma also sends 10 cyclists to complete the ride.
Desiring to be one of those, Lambert bought a bike and began self-training last spring. He figured that if he could ride 6.5 miles from Cherokee to Waterrock Knob on the Blue Ridge Parkway, which climbs more than 3,000 feet in elevation, then he would be able to make the 950-mile trek to Oklahoma.
“It took me 3.5 hours to not make it half way,” said Lambert, who was impeded by some late winter snow.
But, two weeks later, he completed a similar length ride in Sylva and improved from there.
For years, Grady ran only with fellow enthusiasts from her family, but she continued to see other familiar faces along her running routes.
“I always saw the same people out on the trail,” Grady said.
When winter came, Grady moved inside to a local fitness center, and those familiar faces followed.
“And again, we are seeing all these people who have the same enjoyment,” she said.
However, it was not until spring 2009 when Grady and some of her family members went on vacation to Myrtle Beach that the idea of a running club initially arose. To gauge people’s interest, Grady sent out a Facebook message to her friends, many of whom also ran, advertising a meet-up and the possible formation of a running club.
“Oddly enough, here they came,” Grady said. “It’s just awesome.”
Cherokee Runners has grown from 15 to 40 members since its first meeting. And, as an official club, members have crossed the finish line in three marathons and countless half-marathons, 5Ks and 10Ks.
Members of the club meet regularly throughout the week with a longer run scheduled for Sundays. After a jaunt, the runners eat oranges and socialize while cooling down, Grady said.
“It’s not about competition so much as it is about health and fitness, and social (experiences),” she said, adding that anyone can join.
Taking a cue from the Cherokee Runners, Lambert decided to gather other cycling lovers and form the mountain and road biking club — Cherokee Riders.
“Mostly, we liked to ride, and we wanted to get other people involved,” he said.
Although it is not yet an official club, Cherokee Riders already has 10 members. It hopes to gain official club status, which includes crafting bylaws and membership applications, by the end of the month.
A main focus of the club is to raise money for Remember the Removal participants and help train them. The ride costs about $5,000 per person, as each is custom fitted with a bike.
This year, 22 people applied to be one of the seven who gets to represent the Eastern Band on the three-week ride.
During the ride, members of the national nonprofit Trail of Tears Association meet with the riders to give talks and programs during their overnight stops. Participants are “exposed to culturally significant places” along the way, he said. “Everybody who’s gone on the ride said it changed their life.”
As part of its mission statement, the Cherokee Runners participate in health fairs, training programs and hosts lectures. Speakers give a rundown of what to wear when exercising during the bone-chilling winter months and the sizzling summer months, how to deal with injuries, and training techniques. All of these outside activities are aimed at promoting exercise and fitness to residents of Cherokee.
“We try to be in the community, visible,” Grady said.
The club also sponsors runs and plans to hold a summer running camp for community members.
In the future, Grady and Lambert said they hope both clubs can work together toward their common goal — to get people to maintain a healthy lifestyle.
“They (the running club) are kind of a role model for community involvement,” Lambert said.
Once it’s more established, Cherokee Riders plans to offer bike safety courses, kids camps, training and, if the funds become available, a bike rental program.
Kick up your heels