Abuse survivor keeps running and thriving

Naugatuck resident Jenny Willets at the Pike’s Peak Ascent and Marathon in Colorado. Willets, a survivor of an abusive relationship, is running in the Spartan Ultrabeast Race Sept. 21 in Killington, Vt., to raise money and awareness for the Connecticut Alliance for Victims of Violence and Their Families. –CONTRIBUTED

NAUGATUCK — The Spartan Ultrabeast Race is 26.2 miles of hills, obstacles, and mud. It is a full marathon length obstacle course and, for one borough woman, it is just the challenge she has been looking for.

Jenny Willets has run the ING Hartford Marathon, a Tough Mudder Race, and the Pike’s Peak Ascent, a 13 mile trail race with nearly 8,000 feet of vertical gain. But, the Spartan Ultrabeast Race is a different animal.

“They said [the Spartan Ultrabeast Race] has over 72 obstacles, so it should be interesting. There’s jumping fire, monkey bars, going up the slopes at Killington and back down, carrying buckets of gravel, climbing ropes, going over cargo nets, under barbed wire,” Willets said.

While Willets is running in the Spartan Ultrabeast Race to prove to herself that she can, she is also running to raise money for the Connecticut Alliance for Victims of Violence and Their Families (CT-ALIVE).

CT –ALIVE is a non-profit organization established in 2002 with a mission to empower victims and their families after experiencing the trauma of violence and abuse.

Willets has personal experience with the organization, having escaped an abusive relationship.

Willets explained that she met a man in college who was into rock climbing and seemed adventurous.

“We got along pretty well until I went back to graduate school,” Willets said.

Willets had been accepted into Yale’s Physician’s Assistant program. She explained that the course work was very involved and time consuming, which left her with little free time. That was when he began his abuse.

The abuse began with small comments, Willets recalled, such she wasn’t fun anymore and didn’t spend any time with him.

“He was just making me feel guilty constantly for trying to do something for myself,” Willets said.

Eventually, after Willets married the man, the abuse turned physical and she filed for divorce.

“The fact that he finally put his hands on me made it concrete. I’m not the problem, he is,” Willets said.

It was through the workshop My Avenging Angel, run by the organization for women who have already left abusive situations and are trying to get more out of life than just surviving, where Willets began to rebuild her confidence.

“Instead of having group therapy sessions, where you talk about what you’ve been through, the focus is more on, ‘We all know what we’ve been through, let’s talk about how to move forward,’ and get out of just surviving life after abuse and get into more of what’s going to make you feel like your thriving,” Willets said.

She said that was the first time she had been around other women who had went through similar experiences as her.

“It was the first time people told me that what I was experiencing was normal and that I was going to be okay, and I really believed them. That was about a year after I had left and I was still having symptoms of PTSD and having nightmares, feeling anxious and just not feeling normal. Just going there, it was a huge relief, feeling like I’m going to get passed this and I’m not going to be stressed and anxious. I can go back to doing things that I like to do and not be afraid all the time that something bad is going to happen,” Willets said.

After the divorce, Willets got back into running. She had been a cross country runner in high school and continued through college. However, she had to give up the sport due to constant knee pain.

“And then, around the time that I got out of my marriage and started putting my life back together, I started running in those Vibram toe shoes and it solved my knee issues,” Willets said. “So I started doing 10Ks, and then I did a 10 mile race, and I figured if I could run 10 miles, why not train for a half-marathon.”

She began running 13 miles, the distance of a half-marathon, so she decided to sign up for a marathon and, in October 2011, she completed the ING Hartford Marathon.

Willets emailed Susan Omilian, who is CT-ALIVE’s project director, and asked if she could run and fundraise for CT-ALIVE during these races.

“[The Hartford Marathon] was the first big race I did to raise money for CT-ALIVE,” Willets said.

Omilian told Willets that not only did she want Willets representing CT-ALIVE in the races, she would also like Willets on CT-ALIVE’s board. Willets was nervous to join the board since she had never held that position with another non-profit organization.

“I wrote them this cover letter to tell them, basically, that I understand I haven’t done this stuff before but I have a lot of enthusiasm to make up for it. It turned out a lot of women on the board had come up through the group, so they knew exactly where I was coming from and were all really accepting and excited that I had this idea of how to bring some money in,” said Willets, who currently sits on the board.

Willets said the organization has now expanded and holds retreats and a program to help financially empower women. This program, called the Stepping Forward Program, offers help writing resumes and job hunting along with financial workshops.

“It’s great to see, now having been through a lot of it and being in a much healthier and better place, seeing other women come through and watch them transition the same way and feel empowered, like they’re taking their lives back,” Willets said.

Willets, who keeps a blog called The Running Thriver, said she has thought about removing the references to her abusive relationship from her blog since she does not want that one part of her life to define her. However, she feels that it’s important to show other people, who may be in the same situation, what she went through, that there is a way out and that there is life after an abusive relationship.

“I think it is important to get the word out there and let people know that this is something that goes on and a lot of women don’t feel comfortable talking about it. And it could be anybody that you know that could be going through something like this,” Willets said.

Willets is now completely focused on the future and the Spartan Ultrabeast Race, which getting into was a task unto itself. To be able to register, she explained, she had to send in a race resume and an application. She told them her story, her accomplishments as a runner, and that she was up to the challenge of running the Spartan Ultrabeast.

“I told them that the only way I wasn’t going to finish is if somebody dragged me off the course, so I guess that got their attention,” Willets said.

The Spartan Ultrabeast Race will take place Sept. 22 at the Killington Resort in Vermont. For more information on CT-ALIVE or to donate in honor of Willets, visit ct-alive.org.