Ange's story shines a light on the incredible power of running and community running
- at whatever stage in life you're at.
"I used to do Park Runs in the winter, back when I lived in the UK," smiles Andrea McCarthy-Smith. "There would be these massive cold puddles that you ran through… and your shoes would be soaking wet!
"But I love running in the rain, it's kind of meditative."
If there's anybody who could bring positivity and warmth to a cold, rainy day it would be Andrea - or 'Ange'.
Ange is a 'Capito' - a leader - for Boston's PIONEERS Run Crew (PRC). As somebody who is always there to support fellow runners, she embodies everything that PRC stands for.
In her job as Chief Nursing Officer at South Boston Community Health Center, Ange has also become firmly embedded in the wider Boston community - and was at the forefront of local health response to the COVID 19 pandemic.
Ange has felt the importance of being in a community all her life. Perhaps this explains why, a little over a decade ago, a recently divorced Ange felt like her life was over - middle aged, living on her own on the other side of the Atlantic, and struggling to make ends meet.
This is the story of how running and community running kickstarted a whirlwind decade in Ange's life - one that demonstrates that it’s never too late to have an extraordinarily positive impact on the world.
"When you finally do those things and start to exercise, everything falls into place"
The middle child of five, Ange grew up with her mom, dad, three sisters and one brother in the quiet town of Monson, Massachusetts. She followed in her mother's footsteps by attending St Elizabeth's Nursing School in Boston - but her initial plans for adulthood were quite different!
"I wanted to be a rock star!", laughs Ange. "We were a big musical theater family and I was in a rock band for a year after I graduated. My dad was pulling his hair out, even though he didn’t have any!"
"Then one day my mom suggested that I come to her hospital. I spent the day with the medical assistant on the hospital floor, seeing if it was what I wanted to do," she continues. "It ticked a lot of boxes: I love people and I love going to work and never knowing what to expect."
Around the same time, Ange got into Aerobics. Having never really exercised before, it gave her a taste of the positive physical and mental feelings that an active lifestyle can bring. Whilst at nursing school, she even got a job as an instructor, putting on aerobics classes for different companies at the end of their working days.
"When you finally do those things and start to exercise, everything falls into place," Ange says. "My body reshaped because I was building muscle, I liked the way I felt, and I started to eat better."
"The Peace Corps opened my world to community health"
After graduating from nursing school, it didn't take Ange long to start having a positive impact on the communities she worked in.
"I joined the peace corps and I ended up in Paraguay," explains Ange. "Life there was so physical - no running water, no electricity, finding firewood and hauling it in. It was a real physical way of living and having that day-to-day movement in your life is so important!"
"The Peace Corps opened my world to community health," she continues. "I took part in huge vaccine programs down in Paraguay. So when I moved back to Boston, I got a job at Upham's Corner Health Center. I worked there for two years and vaccinated so many kids in that time!"
It wasn't just the specifics of her work with Ange enjoyed, but living and working in the vibrant community in and around Upham's Corner.
"I think being involved in the community is so important," she explains. "And at that time Uppham's Corner was like a mini United Nations! The amount of cultures living in that area was amazing. It's changed so much now, but it used to be such a diverse community."
Ange's last job in Boston - for the time being - would be to work for another community-focused health initiative.
"I was working with a woman named Belinda Johnson, lead nurse at Geiger Gibson - which was the first health center in the entire country!", Ange explains.
"The founders realized that the people living in the projects at Columbia Point were not getting any healthcare beyond the emergency room. So they went to a room in the projects and started a community health center. Now there are thousands of them across the country."
"I worked there as the Healthy Start nurse," she continues, "Working to reduce the infant mortality rate in teenage pregnancies. A lot of people hate teenagers, but I loved working with them!"
"I went over to the UK for the summer in June in 1997… and stayed 20 years"
Whilst working for Healthy Start, Ange met her (now) ex-husband, an English windower with three young children (In fact, they had also met previously back when Ange was 19 years old). After a year going back and forth between Boston and the UK, Ange found herself making the move to the UK permanent - albeit unexpectedly.
"I went over for the summer in June in 1997… and stayed 20 years," laughs Ange.
A move on that scale is challenging enough on its own, but Ange also took responsibility for raising three children - aged 18 months, 3 years old and 6 years old - as well as the daughter that she and her ex-husband had together. How did she deal with such a big change in circumstances?
"The move worked for me because I love building a community," Ange explains. "That's what I did over there. Although people in the UK are a tough crowd! They are not friendly like Americans and they don't talk to strangers… so it was a hard nut to crack!"
"People in the UK would say 'It was so nice to meet you, you should come round for coffee one day'," Ange continues. "And I'd show up! But they didn't mean it… they did NOT mean it!" she laughs.
"I hated running...I tried it, but I could never get past that difficult when you first start to run"
Amongst the upheaval of the move and new family responsibilities, it became much harder for Ange to stay active (not that she didn't try: "There's that crazy American on roller blades"). However, with her 40th birthday approaching, Ange wanted to take on a physical challenge - and found one in the London to Brighton bicycle ride.
"In the UK they have this cycle ride to Brighton, it's 54 miles," Ange explains. "It's a huge ride, massive, and everyone taking part is raising money for the British Heart Foundation."
"My dad had been into cycling since he had a heart attack at 60, so when he heard I was doing it he said 'I want to come with you!'. So in the end it was me, my dad, my sister-in-law and her friend."
The London to Brighton ride encouraged Ange to start cycling regularly - and in doing so introduced regular activity back into her life. At the time, she still had little interest in running, until a series of tragic events changed her perspective.
"My dad died in 2010," Ange recalls, "and my mom died in 2012. Then 2012 was also the summer I separated from my husband."
"Watching my mom decline in her older years was tough because she really struggled physically at the end of her life. I myself was middle-aged and I didn't want my older years to be similarly full of struggle and pain."
"Running delivers benefits so much quicker than cycling does," Ange continues. "On a bike, you have to be out for hours to get the same benefit as you do from running. But I hated running. I tried it, but I could never get past that difficult period when you first start to run."
In the time after her divorce, Ange was lucky enough to find family, friends and - eventually - a community to help her gradually build up her running ability.
"I thought that, by the time I was 50, maybe I could do my first marathon," recalls Ange. "I was on the phone to Cara [her sister] who said that she would do it with me. So I visited my sisters in the US and we all ran together - they pushed me through that difficult start point."
"Then I started running with a woman from my theater group in the UK," Ange continues. "That was great because it makes you more accountable. I'd wake up at 6am not wanting to run, but knowing she would be standing on the street corner waiting for me."
Accountability, pushing each other, supporting one another: Ange had got her first taste of the benefits of running with other people. Shortly afterwards, she joined her local parkrun in the UK and discovered how those benefits get supercharged when running with a whole community.
"After the London Olympics in 2012, there was criticism that young people had not been inspired because they couldn't get to the Olympics," Ange explains. "So this man named Paul Sinton-Hewitt created parkrun to encourage anyone and everyone to get up and run."
"You simply go to a park on a Saturday morning and run a timed 5k. When you sign-up for it, you get a barcode, and at the finish line they click your time and scan your barcode."
"Later that day you get sent a list of everyone who ran the 5k and their time," Ange continues. "You get to see where you finished according to your age group, gender and so on. It was great because you tried to beat your own PB, but also the other runners who are in your age group - it pushed you to want to go faster."
"Running was a real life-saver for me, at a time when I really needed it."
Like the community running crews found throughout America, the UK's parkrun groups help people get fit and stay active in a supportive and welcoming environment. For Ange however, running had become about much more than just keeping fit.
"At that time, running was so important for my mental health," Ange explains. "I had separated, I had no family over there, and I was working both as a nursing assistant and a teaching assistant earning around $18,000 a year. I was struggling."
"It was important for me to focus on something," she continues. "Running helped me to focus on the one thing I could control: getting out, doing exercise and feeling better."
"In the midst of all that I went back to finish my degree and I applied for a masters in public health. Running would help me think about what I wanted to write in my paper. It helped me lay the foundations that got me to where I am today."
"Running was a real life-saver for me, at a time when I really needed it."
"I knew I needed people, a community, a group"
Ater years of focusing on the needs of her children, Ange began to reflect on what she herself wanted and needed. Ange's therapist planted the idea of her returning to the US to be closer to her sisters - and Ange couldn't let go of the idea. Not that it was an easy thing to do.
"I had to have that conversation with my children, it was difficult," recalls Ange. “The most painful thing I’ve ever done in my life was to empty that house and to move back over here. It was a real physical pain."
At first, Ange found returning to Boston strange and unsettling. She also had to figure out how and where to fit exercise into her new life.
"I knew I needed people, a community, a group," says Ange. "One night I went running with Cara. We saw PIONEERS Run Crew hanging out and somebody shouted 'Come join us!'."
"We said 'we're slow and we're old' and you replied 'we're slow too!'", she laughs.
"We didn't join that night, but another night when Cara couldn't run with me, I headed down to meet them. I knew I needed to find a way to start running regularly again."
"So I went down and I was thinking about how everyone there was in their 20s, 30s… whereas I'm this middle aged white woman! I was nervous, but everyone was so friendly. We did a timed run and I was really pleased with my time. It showed the power of running with other people."
"So that summer I kept coming - and now I’m here to stay. I love the social side of the group. It gives you a community, something to do, people to meet up with."
"The pandemic cemented my relationship with PIONEERS Run Crew"
When the COVID19 pandemic hit, people of all walks of life suddenly had their worlds turned upside down - but few faced challenges on the scale of Ange and her fellow healthcare workers.
"I was just starting to socialize with the group - and then it happened," Ange recalls.
"March 6th - the Friday before I joined PRC for a trip to New Hampshire - a patient walked into the health center who had been at the Biogen Conference. They said they thought they had been exposed."
"It was a crazy busy day, but I was still able to come up to New Hampshire, where there was no phone signal anywhere. Then in the car on the way back, my phone exploded with texts, calls and emails. When we came back from that trip, the way we lived and worked had changed forever."
With group activities banned and Ange working overtime, it would have been easy for her to have become detached from her new running community. In fact, the opposite happened.
"For me, the pandemic cemented my relationship with PRC," says Ange. "So many people reached out to me because they knew I lived alone. I felt, in some ways, even more connected to the group and that I had even deeper relationships with its members"
"In some ways I'd been training for a pandemic my whole life," she continues. "The Peace Corps, public health, everything that I've done. So when it hit, I was like: 'I've got this'. It gave me an opportunity to show my skills and shine."
"When my marriage fell apart, it felt like my life was over. But it wasn't, it was just getting going - and I'm so grateful that the health center recognised my potential."
Ange recently collected an award on behalf of the South Boston Community Health Center in recognition of the work that the team there has done over the past 24 months. Few awards have been so richly deserved.Sidney Baptista is a running coach, leader & activist who founded PIONEERS Run Crew in Boston. Andrea McCarthy-Smith (‘Ange’) is a Capito for PIONEERS Run Crew.