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Oct 12, 2022

A Conversation with Marathoner Janice Character: A Journey through Doubt, Determination and Discovery – Part I

Runners begin their run journey for a myriad of reasons—to lose weight, to improve their health, to feed their competitive spirits, to be more social, to try something new—the list goes on and on—but as with so many other things in marathoner Janice Character’s life, her run journey was birthed out of adversity but supported by her strong will to win. For Janice, running is an exercise in self-care, self-preservation, and self-discovery.

Janice grew up the middle child of five in a working-class home and neighborhood in Atlanta, Georgia. Being the middle child often left her, literally, the odd man out, as her two older siblings stuck together, and the two younger ones, together. Regularly left to her own devices, Janice’s thing became reading, which fueled her love of learning, led to successful college and post-college careers and afforded her the opportunity to live life by design.

From an early age, overcoming adversity has been a recurring theme in her life. A devout daddy’s girl, Janice found herself reeling and struggling to heal after losing her father at age 6. Ever the quiet introvert, she also became the family’s worrier and took on the role of caretaker as her mom also struggled to cope after such a huge loss. Making sure that others are happy and cared for is a lifetime assignment that Janice fully embraces.

Immersing herself in books and being a disciplined student culminated with Janice being ranked number two in her high school’s graduating class. “I had no idea what I wanted to be in life, but I did know that we didn’t have the money to pay for me to go to college and that I had get a scholarship. That was another part of my being very studious,” says Janice.

When talking career choices, “All I knew about were teachers, and there was no one in my family who was an engineer. Then one day a group came to our school to speak for career day, and they were constructing the MARTA transportation system in Atlanta at the time. They were building one near my house, and I was so fascinated that I would ride my bike there all the time just to see the construction and the use of all the machines. Finally, I asked this guy what his job was, and he said, I’m an engineer, and I wanted to be an engineer, and from there, that’s all I could think about.”

“But think about this,” she adds. “I was number two in my high school and had a white male counselor. When I was looking at colleges, I really wanted to go to Vanderbilt University because they offered me a full scholarship. I asked my counselor what kind of school Vanderbilt was, and he said the kind you’ll flunk out of. He said that, and I said, I’m going, and that’s how I ended up at Vanderbilt and how I became an engineer.”

Upon graduating college, Janice had 14 job offers and took a position with oil and gas powerhouse ExxonMobil (formerly Exxon) in Houston where she remained for 35 years until she retired. But during her tenure at ExxonMobil, she again experienced the cycle of doubt, determination, and that will to win. Janice pursued a career in the HR department—not out of passion, initially, but out of purpose. Ensuring diversity and inclusion in the white male-dominated oil and gas industry – and within ExxonMobil – became her mission.

“I use to complain about there not being diversity within the company. What Exxon would do at the time was to take people from the business instead of from HR to recruit at colleges. We couldn’t get women and African Americans to come to the recruiting events. So, when a marketing position became available, they told me ‘you complain about everything, you get in there and see if you do a better job’. And I did. We recruited, hired, and retained black engineers. But at the end of my rotation in that department, they told me ‘you’re really good at this HR stuff, you ever thought about HR?’ My response was absolutely not! We hated HR. They didn’t tell you what you could do, they told you what you couldn’t do. But they convinced me to take on another assignment in HR. I ended up loving it, and I was good at it.”

When asked how her run journey began, “It’s not a pretty story,” she answers.

At this point in life, she’s a Global HR Manager for the entire marketing division, and her team of reports resided around the world, requiring her to travel routinely to places such as Bangkok, Singapore, Paris, Argentina, Prague and Budapest, just to name a few. Janice was at the top of her game professionally but at a crossroads in her life personally.

She was in Bangkok for work, and it was her wedding anniversary when she received a phone call that would change her life and lead to the end of her first marriage.

 One of her colleagues and friends was also on that trip to Bangkok and insisted that she take up running to help with her stress. “I was always a walker because my mom was a walker, so I loved to walk. But running, it’s not for me. I can’t run. I’m never going to run,” I said. But this colleague and friend was also her neighbor. So, as life and persistence would have it, Janice gave in and gave running a try.

“In the beginning, we would run a block, and I would be out a breath, so we basically did more walking than running,” said Janice. “Then one day, once I got to the point where I could run three miles—I was still going through my divorce—I went to the park and started running. I couldn’t stop running and couldn’t stop crying. All of a sudden, I thought this is good, this is really good. Running truly became my therapy.”

How many marathons have you completed? “Eight. I ran my first one when I was about to turn 60. I always said I was going to run one marathon. I kept seeing people with the 26.2 stickers on the back of their cars, and I said, I’m going to get me a 26.2 too.” And so, the road to marathoner began.

Stay tuned for Part II of my conversation with Janice and learn what BGR! has meant to her, how she embarked on the journey to join the elite Abbott World Marathon Majors finishers, and her training philosophy.

By: Joy Harrell @joyrunsrealestate

Joy Harrell is a licensed real estate agent and co-owner of The Sift Sisters bakery based in Houston, Texas. She is a native Houstonian and graduate of the University of Houston—go Coogs! When she is not helping people buy, sell or invest in real estate, she can be found hanging or traveling with her hubby, running or biking the streets and trails in and around Houston, mentoring girls or testing new food and cocktail recipes.