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Ferguson resident Rae M. runs marathons, helps seniors stay fit, and rallies support for others

At 75 years old, Rae M. is an avid runner, having completed 101 marathons in all 50 states and closing in on 100 half marathons. She found her calling at age 53 — teaching older adults how to move and stay healthy. However, Rae doesn’t hesitate to slow down when she sees neighbors in need.


Rae completes running 50 states in Alaska

In 1978 at almost 30 years old, Rae was a teacher in the Normandy School District. She was recently divorced and caring for her four-year-old son, Gregg.

Rae had enjoyed running since grade school—she remains the Bel-Nor School champion for the 50-yard dash—but didn’t think she could continue running as the parent of a young child.  That is, until she saw a television movie about Kathy Switzer, the first woman to run the Boston Marathon. She saw how Switzer’s kids were riding their bikes alongside her as she ran, and thought Gregg could ride his Big Wheel tricycle or be in a stroller.

Rae started by running around her apartment building, and then two buildings, with Gregg. She then made arrangements with college students in her building to watch him. She says, “That’s when I hit the streets. It just felt freeing and empowering.”

She ran her first 5K race at a Memorial Day event in University City that year. She says, “While running around was wonderful, being in a race really felt empowering.” At the time, she only had the financial means to run two races a year—and pay for a babysitter.

For years, the farthest she ran was 10 miles. Rae began volunteering with St. Louis Track Club in the mid-1980s. On New Year’s Day 1996, Rae was walking with friends from the club, when they mentioned walking marathons. Rae decided it was time to run her first marathon. She set a goal to run the 26.2-mile St. Louis Marathon in October.

One week before the race, her father passed away. “I never realized how draining death is on the living until my dad died,” she says, but her family and friends convinced her to stay in the race. “My mom was the real cheerleader.” She completed her first marathon, and then turned her focus to getting faster.

Next, she decided to run in Las Vegas. The marathon was also days before her 50th birthday. Seventeen people—three generations of family and friends—went. She told them they could do whatever they wanted in Vegas as long as they were at the finish line when she got there. She needed a running time of 3:50 hours to qualify for the prestigious Boston Marathon. She finished with two minutes to spare.

Rae and her companion Bob in Ferguson

Rae immediately called her long-time friend, Jill, who lived about an hour outside of Boston, and told her she would be heading her way. Family and friends joined her again. She met people from all over the world as they waited to start on a high school parking lot—the elite runners were inside. She says running the Boston Marathon made her feel like a rock star.

In 2010, Rae completed her next goal of marathons in all 50 states, running some marathons more than once. She says, “I always tell people it was like kindergarten through high school—it took me 13 years.”

Rae ran her most recent marathon, number 101, in Columbia, Mo., on Labor Day in 2015. The day after, she was injured. After her recovery, she found she couldn’t get past 16 miles. Not to be deterred, she turned her attention to half marathons (13.1 miles). Her new goal was 75 half marathons by 75 years of age. Rae turned 75 years old last February, and to date has run 85 half-marathons.

For much of the last 10 years, her running companion has been Bob, a Jack Russell terrier/beagle mix. She runs a six-mile stretch in Ferguson at least four mornings each week. Bob quit running with her after the pandemic. She says, “He started hiding under the bed,” followed by a hearty laugh.

Moved to help seniors move

Rae taught summer and evening courses for the education program at the University of Missouri – St. Louis (UMSL) from 1988 to 1996. She also took exercise classes there. One day in spring 1996, the instructor didn’t show up, and the class collectively suggested Rae could do it. She found that she really enjoyed teaching exercise. She obtained her group exercise certification shortly after, and soon had her own evening class.

Sometime later, Rae had an injury, and a friend suggested they go in the pool for no-impact exercise. She wasn’t a fan of swimming at the time and felt awkward in the new environment. “I just kept laughing,” she says. She tried it again and, by the third time, really started to like it. She got her certification and taught water exercise at the outdoor pool at January-Wabash Park in Ferguson for a few summers in the late 90s.

Not long after, she got into indoor cycling. “I just kept taking on more things,” she says.

Rae retired in 2000 and began teaching both day and evening exercise classes at UMSL. She was thrilled, she says, “I’m going to take the best parts of teaching and do something I feel truly passionate about.” A few years later, she headed up the class portion of the UMSL’s wellness program.

When Rae’s retired mother wanted something to do, exercise was the only thing that piqued her interest. Rae went to her boss with Ferguson Parks & Recreation and recommended a fitness over 50 class in the fall, but he wasn’t interested. Then, she suggested January classes, because everyone wants to get in shape after the holidays. He did not respond. She finally told him, “I’m going to keep bugging you. Let me just try this for eight weeks,” and he surrendered.

A dozen seniors showed up to her first class and quickly grew as students came back with spouses and friends. While she enjoyed teaching the other classes, she felt like this was her calling. “I need to help these people be as healthy as they can be,” she says.

She continued to teach classes off and on in Ferguson and at UMSL. In 2016, the Ferguson Community Center become a SilverSneakers site, a popular fitness program for seniors. Rae quickly became certified and watched as the class grew from six to 25 students.  Eight years later, she continues to teach the class along with water exercise.

Rae says, “Exercise, nutrition, and socializing are the three main things you need to stay healthy, especially if you’re older.” She thinks people come back to class to socialize, and then start to notice the benefits of the exercise. She says one of the first things they notice is physical changes in their arms.

She is often asked her advice on non-exercise issues, such as financial concerns. “Over time they continue to truly trust me,” she says. “I’ve enjoyed helping people, because so many people have helped me.”

“Steven,” St. Pete’s, and Nellie Bly

Rae walks Bob a lot in downtown Ferguson and talks to everyone she sees. She has gotten to know the unhoused people along Florissant Road by name. Last January, she says “Steven” was in Walgreens, trying to get warm. “I knew him from the street, but we had never been inside one-on-one.” He told her he was worried about the predicted freezing temperatures and didn’t know what to do.

She really wanted to help and asked him where he would be in about an hour. She says, “I went home, got on the phone, and started calling churches in the area to find if there was a shelter somewhere.”

She called a half dozen churches before she got to St. Peters United Church of Christ, off of West Florissant Ave. and Stein Road, two miles away. She explained to Associate Pastor Josh Privitt that she felt inadequate in what she could provide—and guilty for being uncomfortable to take anyone into her home.

Pastor Josh explained the shelter rules: opens at 6 p.m., temperature must be below freezing, and everyone has to leave in the morning. Rae was concerned because it was two o’clock in the afternoon and she wasn’t sure where he’d be at six. He assured her he knew Steven and would get him, and then the pastor gave her his cellphone number. She went to Steven and asked if it was okay that Pastor Josh would pick him up. The pastor came as he had said.

“I was so grateful that there was a place,” she says and gave them a donation. She told her class the next day and asked for clothing items. “People were so generous. My car was totally filled. There was only room for me to drive.” She asked two more times with the same results. Fortunately, the church had lots of storage.

She says, Pastor Josh found a place for Steven to live, if he stopped drinking. Steven did not. When the weather got warmer, she asked the pastor, “What do you need now?” Her classes and friends gave her hygiene items, socks, and underwear. But, she didn’t stop there. This May 18, the Ferguson Twilight Run is asking runners/participants to donate gently used running shirts. “The response has been overwhelming.”

Rae attributes her desire to help others to her beloved grandmother, Nellie Bly Miller, born in 1890—and named after a family-owned horse.  She was hired as a matron at the Lutheran orphan home (where the Des Peres City Hall stands today). Rae and her family often spent time there, helping with dinners and making apple butter for the holidays.

As a single parent, Rae always had a side job. One of those jobs was as a tutor at St. Vincent’s Home for Children, now called The Core Collective at Saint Vincent, in Normandy. She began fostering children so she could take them home for the weekend—and because Gregg would ask for a brother. She took him to the home to do homework while she tutored. If he finished early, he could play with the children—just like Rae did as a child.

Rae was often told by people that she reminded them of Nellie Bly. “That made me feel proud, she says, because I just thought the world of my grandmother.” Grandmother would be proud of Rae’s gifts to the community and her accomplishments.