Jennifer Millard used to hate running.

In high school, when students ran a mile in gym class, she walked. Or skipped school altogether.

Back then, calling herself a runner seemed unthinkable.

Today, after her feet have pounded out miles and miles of roads and trails and sidewalks, Millard embraces the joy of running. She has found not only physical benefits from exercise, but profound emotional strength, as well.

And after her younger sister’s death, it became a source of solace that helped her through a time of almost-unbearable grief.

Now Millard, a licensed practical nurse and utilization review specialist for Priority Health, encourages an active lifestyle as a Team Priority Health Champion.

How did a non-runner become an exercise advocate?

One step at a time.

When Millard, now 36, began running nearly a decade ago, motivated by concern for her health. Her father had a history of heart disease and died of a heart attack at 53. Her grandparents underwent bypass surgeries at young ages.

And Millard, at 27, already had a high cholesterol level.

“I wanted to make some changes,” she said. “And I wanted to be a good influence for my kids. Everything is so sedentary now.”

She began eating healthier. And she turned to running as a quick way to fit exercise into a busy life.

She and her husband, Phil, have three children―Ian, 18, Matthew, 14 and Emma, 11―as well as two dogs, a cat and a rabbit.

Keeping up with the kids  

As she started to run short distances from her home in Greenville, Michigan, she began to see dramatic changes. Her cholesterol count fell. Her weight dropped about 30 pounds, and her energy level soared.

She realized how far she had come one spring day as she played with her three children on the playground.

“I was running with them and I didn’t get tired,” she said. “It was amazing. It was so refreshing.”

In the winter of 2015, she started to train for races with the Priority Health Run Camp led by Gazelle Sports. The following spring, she ran the Gazelle Girl 5K and the Fifth Third River Bank Run 10K.

The camaraderie with other runners inspired her so much, she decided to reach out to inspire others.

In 2016, she became a Team Priority Health Champion. Through the program, she shares her story in a blog and on social media, spreads the word about fitness and attends community events and races.

She embraces the role―and appreciates the perks. As a champion, she gets free team gear and entry to some races.

When she won entry for a half-marathon in the Metro Health Grand Rapids Marathon in fall 2016, she decided to tackle her biggest running goal yet. With the run camp, she trained for the longer distance.

Running through grief

About a month before the race, however, a tragic loss shook Millard and her family.

Her 15-year-old sister, Paige, died by suicide on Sept. 17, 2016.

Millard remembers standing in a restaurant parking lot, hearing about Paige’s death in a phone call. As she reeled with the news, she saw people looking at her. She realized she was screaming.

“I was in disbelief,” she said. “It was completely unexpected. It was nothing you ever thought could happen.”

Paige was her youngest sister, a friendly, compassionate girl who loved children and was devoted to her family.

Millard was 20 when Paige was born, and the two always shared a special bond.

“She kind of fit right into our family,” Millard said.

She didn’t see any signs of depression in her younger sister. In notes Paige left behind, it appeared she was upset over a “high school drama issue,” Millard said. She believes Paige acted on impulse, unable to see that life would get better eventually.

“It’s very, very unfortunate,” she said. As a teenager, “your brain is not that fully developed to have that insight.”

In the following weeks and months, Millard struggled with grief for Paige and worries for her mother and other sisters. She talked to a therapist.

And, after a week off from running, she started to train again for the half-marathon.

“Running really helped me,” she said. “I would go out for a run just to sort out my feelings.”

She ran the race with a friend. They crossed the finish line together and gave each other a hug. A photo from that day serves as inspiration through moments of grief and uncertainty, giving her strength to overcome the next challenge.

Although she continues to run, Millard has shifted her exercise focus to yoga. She has returned to school, working toward a bachelor’s degree in nursing. The yoga classes on TV fit better into her schedule.

Like running, yoga provides emotional and physical release.

“I usually do my praying then and self-reflection,” she said. “It just helps my mood―that endorphin release,” she said. “I feel better when I exercise.”

Although she embraces and promotes an active lifestyle, she also encourages others to keep their expectations realistic.

“It’s still a struggle for me every day,” she said. “I am not the most motivated person. I’ve learned to forgive myself and start over the next day―or two hours later.”