Running saved me

Marathoner, swimmer, breast cancer survivor, US actress, Ingrid Walters, 49 spoke to GRTW founder, Rachael Woolston about mental resilience and how running kept her sane…

Actress and elite marathoner Ingrid Walters chats to us about getting faster with age, running through breast cancer and the need for better representation of black, Asian and mixed-race female athletes in endurance sport.

Ingrid was a competitive swimmer in her teens, one of the few black faces at the swimming pool in 1980’s America, a scene she now finds familiar as a marathon runner. At the age of 47, Ingrid achieved a sub 3 marathon time, four weeks later, she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

Did you feel self-conscious of the fact that you and your siblings were the only black people swimming in LA in the 1980s?

Yes, people would stare and ask questions but at the end of the day, some of my strongest relationships are with the people I swam with.

When you’re swimming at a high level, you spend more time with your teammates than you do your own family – practicing before school, after school, swim meets at the weekend. At certain points, skin colour doesn’t matter because you’re just in the pain cave.

In a 15-year span of swimming, I maybe only saw one or two other black swimmers. It was never something I thought was a big deal until I got older, and people started asking me how come there’s never any black swimmers?

What about running? Have you felt that as you got into the running scene there were not many women of colour in endurance racing?

I started running for time when I was in my 40’s and the faster I got, I started seeing the same runners but I never saw anyone that looked like me.

You are really an example of someone who has stepped outside the box and tried something different. You’ve gone from swimming to endurance running and are now a 2.48 marathon runner at the age of 47 when common belief is that you get slower with age…

That seems to be the theory that the older you get the slower you get but it just wasn’t happening with me. I started to run for fun when I stopped swimming, I was running just to stay in shape. When I turned 41 my time was around 3.10 and I started wondering if I could run faster so I joined a group of very fast women made up of working mothers, women with families who are all really competitive. I slowly started started chipping away and then I got down to 3.06 At 45 I broke the three-hour mark.

I was about three weeks into my training cycle when I started feeling really tired and I thought maybe my 100-mile weeks were finally catching up with me. It definitely felt different from normal fatigue. I was in the shower, and I felt a lump underneath my right underarm. I got checked out, biopsied and it turned out to be breast cancer.

After treatment, were you scared to start running again?

I wanted to run again because I love to sweat – you know the feeling you get after running? There’s no comparison to how great it makes you feel.

I knew even if I ran a little bit, I was going to get that feeling back so I started at three miles.

I remember thinking, I’m starting from zero, that’s when I was the saddest, when I couldn’t even go three miles, but that was my starting point.

Did you feel like when you were running, you processed lots of stuff that you were going through?

Absolutely. I was just getting back into shape but you get put on a lot of steroids and so I was feeling good and wanted to take advantage of those steroids! But by the third day of medication ,which was Saturday, that’s when I felt the worst so that was my day off. My day to rest, to feel gross and stay in bed all day.

How has it changed your outlook on life on training and running?

You don’t realise how strong you are until you go through something like this because it could break you if you allow it to. I absolutely believe running saved me.

In July 2022, Ingrid Walters was inducted into the National Black Distance Running Hall of Fame. You can listen to the full podcast episode by clicking here.