How South Central LA's running community came together to support a young woman through one of her biggest challenges - and come back stronger than ever.
All runners know what it's like to have setbacks: nagging injuries, disappointing race times, or instances where they've been unable to prepare for races or maintain fitness in a way that they'd like. Setbacks are inevitable, so it's the way we overcome them that characterize us as runners - and as people.
Each Thursday evening in Inglewood, LA, Angel Risher can be found cheering home members of the Keep It Run Hundred running club as they finish their 3 Mile Thursday run. "If I can give people a little boost, I'm going to do it," she explains. "I'm going to make sure somebody feels good… because I know what it's like to be in that position."
Angel knows what it's like to need support because she’s had bigger setbacks than most - but her very personal running story is an example of how, when a quietly determined individual and a supportive running group come together, truly special things can happen.
"If you're not like everyone else, people would question it"
Inclusive running groups like Keep It Run Hundred can attract both larger-than-life personalities and those who are a little more reserved. Angel falls into the latter category - and the first thing we learn is that she’s kept herself to herself from a young age.
"[At School] I was a floater. I knew everybody, but I wasn't in anyone's face," Angel explains. "I'd go to class, do what I do, and then go home. I didn't really go to parties or anything like that."
"I kept to myself because I was bullied a little bit. People didn't understand why I was always so quiet - and if you're not like everyone else, people would question it."
Angel was born and raised in South Central Los Angeles, where - with her parents being divorced and doing their own thing - she and her younger sister looked out for each other growing up.
"We kept each other going - we were our own safety net," says Angel. "We were in and around the streets and our cousins weren't all that square. But we made the decision that we wanted to go down our own path."
Throughout school, playing sports or pursuing an active lifestyle simply wasn't on Angel’s radar: "I rode my bike around the neighborhood but we weren't into sports at all. We watched sports, but playing? Nah! I didn’t want to get dirty, I was a girly kid!"
In fact nearly a decade passed before Angel finally took up running - a period of time that was turbulent and challenging in ways that stay with Angel to this day.
"From the outside looking in, things were good… but I was still depressed"
"Nothing in my 20s went as planned," says Angel. "I drifted - and I didn't realize what I wanted to do until my late 20s. That’s normal, but I was hard on myself about it."
We don't get the full picture of the challenges Angel faced during that period of her life, which remain understandably private. However what Angel does share with us tells us that they were far from trivial.
After school, Angel went to community college, where things "didn't go right" for her. Her plans to attend university at USC also didn't work out, resulting in her transferring to a different place to get her degree. Briefly, Angel makes reference to a time in 2010 when she was assaulted.
We pick up Angel's story again in 2015 - a time when she had created opportunities for herself, but faced challenges when it came to her mental health.
"I was in a job that I felt was stable," she explains. "I felt like I had an opportunity at a government agency and good career prospects. From the outside looking in, things were good, but I was still depressed."
"I tried counseling - and that didn't work. At the time it wasn't for me. You've got to talk to the counsellor [for it to work], but I wasn’t ready to talk about the trauma."
Angel was, however, able to find an escape of sorts in the form of walking and running.
"I started walking - I went on long walks. And then I started running, just around my neighborhood, maybe once a week on a Saturday. And it was making me feel good. Maybe it was just a temporary high thanks to the endorphins, but in that moment it was helping me cope. Even though I still had anxiety, it made me feel good."
Angel was experiencing the benefits - the escape, the endorphins - that all runners will recognize. However they really only provided a temporary boost.
"My anxiety was still high," she explains. "So I was always overthinking. I thought I had to go running at a time when nobody was going to attack me or follow me. I ran three miles, I knew exactly what my route was, and I went at the time of day when it was safest."
At that point in time, running was simply a helpful coping mechanism for Angel - and it wasn't until she began to run with others that it began to have a truly transformative effect on her.
"People kept trying to get me to open up. And they did that - they helped me talk a little bit more"
Throughout 2016 and 2017, Angel continued to run - only this time not alone. Just like when she was growing up, it was her sister who was initially by her side. Together they ran (or ran-walked) various 5k events in support of causes such as breast cancer research.
Raising money and helping others had a positive impact on Angel's mental health - and she also had the valuable support of her friend Eric, a person she felt she could trust and open up to. It was appropriate then, if only a matter of chance, that it was Eric who introduced Angel to Keep It Run Hundred in May 2018.
"He told me I should come for a run with them on Tuesday," Angel recalls. "He had run with them once the week before that. It was only 2 miles and I thought… I can do that."
"People [at Keep It Run Hundred] were nice and welcoming. I was still dealing with anxiety, but as I continued to join them each week people kept trying to get me to open up. And they did that, they helped me open up, and talk a little bit more."
Angel still mostly kept herself to herself, but she enjoyed being in and around the supportive atmosphere of a running group. In the next chapter of her story, the run club would have an even greater positive impact on Angel’s life.
"The girl with the curly hair and the glasses got hit by a car."
"I joined the run club in May 2018," Angel explains. "And it was August 2018 when I got hit by the car. We were out on one of our group runs - people were like ‘the girl with the curly hair and the glasses got hit by a car’. I didn't talk a lot so not many people knew my name then."
Angel suffered from concussion and spinal issues - which still affect her today - and was unable to run for 6-7 weeks. The incident significantly affected Angel, in particular when it came to her mental health.
"That incident increased my anxiety a lot," says Angel. “I thought 'I can't even cross the street safely'. I was depressed, and so the doctor signed me off work - I couldn’t drive, I couldn’t run. I was stuck at home with my thoughts, feelings and emotions."
Although it brought Angel's struggles with anxiety and depression to the fore, the incident also represented an opportunity for Angel to finally confront the issue: "I took it as a sign that I needed to face what I was actually dealing with because I couldn’t use running as a coping mechanism anymore."
It says a lot about Angel's individual strength that she chose to confront and - ultimately - get through that difficult period. However, it was also a time when her running community stepped up to support her in ways she couldn't imagine.
"The whole month I was at home, people were checking on me and reaching out,” explains Angel. "Even though I was depressed! People don't have to reach out to you - but they [the running community] did. And that made me feel great."
Angel becomes a little emotional recalling the community's generosity, and takes a moment before explaining further why it had such an impact on her:
"After I was assaulted, I kept people away from me on purpose, because I did not trust people. So when I had the accident, I was even questioning why they [the running community] were helping me, or why they were reaching out to me."
"When people asked why I returned to the group after being hit by a car on one of the runs - that’s the reason. Because why would I leave such a supportive community like that?"
Not only did Angel return - she returned with a renewed drive and an incredible determination.
"By October, I ran my first half marathon"
Angel was hit by the car in August 2018, but in the space of just 6 months she had bounced back, run a half marathon, recorded a Did Not Finish in the Chicago Marathon, and completed the Ventura Marathon.
As comebacks go, Angel’s must be among the most impressive we’ve come across. However she is pragmatic about the reasons she chose to jump straight into the challenge - to the extent that she’d signed up to races before she could even run again.
"I just needed a challenge at the time, something else to focus on. I was in physical therapy 3-4 days a week," she explains.
"By October, I ran my first half marathon. Afterwards, I thought 'this felt good'. So the following February  I ran the LA Marathon - just me and 5 guys from the group! That was one of the best experiences of my life. I didn't have any pressure on myself - I finished, I felt good, and I had achieved something I hadn’t even planned to do a year ago."
If Angel's ability to come back stronger was in any doubt - people need only look at her reaction to not finishing the Chicago marathon later that year.
"I ran Chicago for the first time," she explains. "And that was an experience… because I didn't actually finish. That was my first DNF. They pulled me out, I was a mess, I was crying - but I know they had to be safe."
Her response to the experience in Chicago? Just 7 days later, Angel signed-up to - and ran - the Ventura Marathon to get her first marathon under her belt.
More than anything, Angel's achievements (she's now run 5 marathons) are down to sheer hard work and determination. However Angel also recognises the role her running community plays in helping her and others push themselves further.
"When you finish that three miles, of course we're going to clap you in - nobody finishes last at Keep it Run Hundred"
"Keep It Run Hundred means a lot, to a lot of people," Angel explains. "Social media is great, in that you can see people sharing their runs and posting their times. But it’s different when you actually show up together - and challenge yourselves together.
"We're not expecting people to run a marathon in LA - not yet! - but it's about challenging yourself, whoever you are - doing better than the week before."
"It's beautiful, it's amazing, to do something you didn’t think you could do - and the support you'll get is incredible. When you finish that three miles, of course we’re going to clap you in! Nobody finishes last at Keep It Run Hundred."
"A lot of us have pressure in our lives… running shouldn't be on the list of pressures"
As our conversation comes to a close, we're curious to know what Angel has planned for the future.
"I have two marathons coming up - the LA Marathon and the Honolulu Marathon in December."
Honolulu, Hawaii? It sounds incredible!
"Honestly I didn't plan any of this!", she laughs. "For me, on a personal level, running is special to me and it has been for a long long time. But I do challenge myself. I want to do an ultra marathon next year - and I’ve signed up for the New Orleans and Vegas half marathons next year already."
While running has become so much more to Angel than the "temporary high" it gave her when she first started, it still plays the role of providing an escape.
"A lot of us have pressure in our lives - work, school, kids. But running shouldn’t be on the list of pressures. Running should be a relief, something to look forward to, something exciting. That's what I plan on doing [next year] - having fun."
We started our conversation with Angel by hearing about a quiet schoolgirl who kept herself to herself, and a young woman who couldn't open up to people. We end our conversation hearing how that same person is travelling around the country to take on some seriously challenging races with a group of like-minded runners - and only plans to do more.
Angel's running journey has been far from easy, but it's certainly inspirational.
Sidney Baptista is a running coach, leader & activist who founded PIONEERS Run Crew in Boston. Angel Risher is a member of Keep It Run Hundred running crew in Inglewood, South Central Los Angeles.