Meredith Dolhare has been to hell and back, and now she’s drawing on her experiences to help save others. The Charlotte mother of two teenage boys is an accomplished endurance athlete (that means she runs – and wins — 100+-mile races in extreme circumstances), a high school cross country coach, and she founded RunningWorks in 2012, a program that gets homeless people running with the goal of getting them working and in housing. She has an incredible and inspiring story, and we are proud to welcome Meredith as today’s FACE of Charlotte.
How did you first get into running?
I played tennis all the way until college at Vanderbilt while running “on the side.” Running always cleared my head during finals and before big matches — plus, it released some demons no one knew I had at the time due to sexual trauma. Then I graduated, had my kids and proceeded to get pretty lost identity-wise: I was no longer “Meredith, the Athlete.” I ran for fun, but I desperately missed the competition involved with elite-level sports. Plus, those demons still remained, and I had yet to speak of them. Then in 2007 I broke my right foot badly – twice – and started struggling with my alcoholism again because I was really feeling sorry for myself. My husband at the time told me to snap out of it. Sitting there in a hard cast up to my knee and crutches by my side, this really pissed me off and motivated me at the same time. So I set a goal. I decided to do an Ironman (2.4-mile swim, 112-mile bike, 26.2-mile run).
How did that turn into becoming an endurance athlete?
I still had a broken foot when I asked my doctor to re-wrap my cast in Gortex (waterproof material) and began dragging my leg like an anchor in the pool, plus attending spin classes shortly after with a boot once he cleared me. And that is how my 12 Ironman races (including the Ironman World Championships), 12 Half Ironman races, 10 double marathons, three 50-100k races, seven running races between 81-135 miles (four of which were longer than 126 miles) and 16 regularly sanctioned marathons (Boston three times) plus one 24-hour race with female course record began.
How has running become a part of your family life?
I have two boys who are young men at this point — Noah (18) and Watson (19). Both started running at a very young age — mainly because they saw it as a way of life for their mother. They have run so many races all over the country that we have quite literally lost count! One of the things that makes me most proud about both of them is their engagement in RunningWorks as both founded the RunningWorks Clubs at their respective high schools. Noah’s club is our most reliable group of volunteers, and he shows up personally with 30 friends in tow at each race even if it starts at 6:30 in the morning.
Where did the idea for RunningWorks come from?
In 2008, I was asked to host a table for the Urban Ministry Center of Charlotte’s True Blessings Luncheon, and I knew less than nothing about the organization so I attended a Lunch and Learn. I listened to the executive director talk about their various programs. One in particular was a sport for social change program — soccer. Before I knew who was speaking, I raised my hand and said, “Hi. Have you ever thought about running with them?” All 24 eyes turned my way and then rolled before the E.D. answered patiently, “Well, no. But we will never tell a volunteer that they cannot try something.” And so the idea was born.
What is RunningWorks?
RunningWorks is a value-based, mentorship driven sport-for-change organization using running (or walking) to empower individuals and families to break cycles of abuse, abandonment, neglect, poverty and homelessness for people 5 to 70 years old. The same values accrued through anything one is passionate about — art, music, etc. — may be accrued through running: discipline, confidence, teamwork, self-respect, respect for others. We assist with employment, housing, immigration support, healthcare, legal issues and transportation — a sort of “mobile emergency unit” – meeting each individual where they are. In addition, our homeless men, women and children gather toiletry items, warm clothing, blankets, etc. to distribute to those less fortunate than they are — a homeless helping homeless initiative, which gives them a sense of dignity and purpose while they are down on their luck.
How does your past play a part in what you’re doing now?
My past plays a central role in what I am doing now because part of the RunningWorks mission is to challenge the stigma associated with the homeless and marginalized — to really push others to realize that our stories are more alike than they are different. People look at me and think, “What in the world does that priss have in common with homeless people? She looks like she has never had a bad day in her life!” This includes our new homeless team members and people who are just meeting me when I am speaking at events, etc. Once they find out about my recovery from drugs and alcohol, sexual abuse and childhood trauma, the walls start coming down. Long ago, I decided that I could either sit at home and feel sorry for myself, or get off my butt and help people with the hurt and pain that I have been given. Getting outside of myself is the most cathartic thing I can do, and when I see one of our tough cases having a real breakthrough or entering recovery and getting some time under his or her belt, there is nothing quite like it. I have been able to receive treatment and assistance for trauma and substance abuse; however, most of the team members we help do not have that luxury. If we are able to reach them one-on-one while walking or during the life skill portion at the program and then connect to the right resources, then that is a win-win.
How has the program grown since it started?
RunningWorks has grown from one primary program twice a week with about 20 adult members at the Urban Ministry Center of Charlotte to six locations throughout the Carolinas serving more than 150 men, women and children from Rock Hill, South Carolina to Salisbury, North Carolina. Three years ago, we decided to begin making a preemptive strike into serving not just homeless men and women, but also young adults ages 16-24 cycling out of foster care and group homes, young runaways living on the streets and children K-8 in DSS custody living and going to school on site in South Carolina, where we teach RunningWorks PE as part of their school day curriculum. Currently, our largest program is at our RunningWorks Headquarters, which we moved into last March, and where we now have a computer center to search for jobs, government assistance and housing, laundry facilities, interview clothes, guest speakers, events, storage for personal items and shower facilities.
What are your proudest accomplishments with RunningWorks?
Aside from the obvious answer of having a dozen homeless marathon finishers and nearly 20 half-marathon finishers, my proudest accomplishments with RunningWorks are being able to partner with other nonprofits in the Carolinas to make the current systems they have in place better and seeing our people achieve their goals
What is your best advice?
One of our RunningWorks mantras is the old Henry Ford quote, “Whether you think you can, or you think you can’t, you are right.” We really try to instill confidence in each and every one of our team members, and I use the same quote with my cross-country runners. If I need to believe in them before they can believe in themselves, so be it. Attitude and hard work are everything. Really. Even with our K-8 little ones, I tell them they are not allowed to use the word “can’t” — that it is not in the vocabulary. That’s what I have told my children since birth, and it is the same thing my mother told me. For that, I am very grateful. She made me grow up to believe I could accomplish quite literally anything I set my mind to as long as I worked hard for it.
Secondly, I always try to consider what may have happened to someone before they spoke to me, gave me a dirty look, yelled at me. Did he or she sleep on the street last night? Did someone assault him or her? Are they sick? Trust is a huge issue for us at the program, and it must be earned. Sometimes it takes a long time, and that all depends on what has happened in the team member’s past. I have learned so much from each and every one of them and how to work better interpersonally with everyone in my life as a result.
Aside from faith, family and friends, what are the three things you can’t live without?
Recovery. Without it I am incapable of accomplishing anything else. It took me a long time to understand that anything I put in front of my sobriety, I will lose. Not only will I lose it, I will spectacularly mess it up over a number of months and stress myself and everyone else out in the process.
RunningWorks staff and volunteers. Without these incredible people in my life, there would be no RunningWorks.
Animals. I have four dogs and a cat. At one point, we had three dogs, three frogs, a cat and a spiny-tailed lizard. They bring a sense of calm and peace on rough days, humor on happy days and lots and lots of unconditional love.
Thank you to Meredith for candidly sharing your inspiring story. And thanks to Piper Warlick Photography for the beautiful images of Meredith!
Meet more inspiring Charlotte women in our FACES archives. Click here!