Local runner Kayla Jeter seeks to make an impact with her 100-mile challenge on women and the Black community

Warmer days in Chicago mean a few things: Our marquee season — summer — is on the way, yearslong road work resumes and recreational runners hit the paths and pavement.

I’ve long admired the commitment of anyone who can get outside and run without a reason or destination, people for whom the running itself is the point.

Ohio native Kayla Jeter is one of them.

“My background is volleyball,” she told the Tribune. “I played in college at the University of Tennessee, then professionally overseas for a season. And I coached for two years at University of Cincinnati. I share that because the court’s 30 feet and even my teammates are like, ‘Wait, you run?’

“And, yeah, I’m choosing to run. I’m not punished to run. That’s typically how most of us have a relationship with running.”

For the last seven years, Jeter has run through the streets of Chicago, exploring the city and learning all of the “nooks and crannies” she says she wouldn’t have found on a bus or in a car. A wellness consultant, digital creator and athlete mental health specialist, she runs four days a week and strength trains twice a week.

As a global ambassador athlete for athleisure brand Lululemon, Jeter participates in races, panels and research and testing to help make running a more inclusive space. In March she participated in Further, the brand’s first-of-its-kind women’s six-day ultramarathon.

“It’s an exploration of human potential, specifically women, to see how far we can go when we’re fully supported with resources that are typically reserved for men,” Jeter explained. “When you think about exercise physiology and all the research happening around training interventions, injury prevention, nutrition and recovery, the majority of that research is based on male bodies — specifically white male bodies. Women are only represented in 6% of all the research in focus studies, and that shows up in our everyday life.”

Over the course of the ultramarathon — which is any run more than 26.2 miles — she ran 234.32 miles. Laughing when I asked, Jeter acknowledged just how wild the number is to hear.

To complete the unique race, Jeter ran a 2.5-mile loop over and over for six days on the certified course at Lake Cahuilla in La Quinta, Calif. She would start at 5 a.m. and run four to five laps around the course, taking a break every time she hit 10 miles.

As we chatted in a Lake View coffee shop that doubles as a bike shop, she explained the impact those miles had on her.

But she doesn’t run only to shine a light on issues affecting women. Jeter also runs for life — literally.

“My goal is to see the years my parents never saw,” she said. “My dad died at 62, my mom at 58 and I’m 34. So based on those numbers — not to be grim — but 60 is my average lifespan. So my goal through racing and being part of these experiences and research opportunities is to give people the tools they need to live a healthier lifestyle and actually live a longer life they can enjoy.

“Not just struggle through it or suffer through it, but really understand, you’re only going to be as healthy as you are in this moment. You can make changes along the way, but we’re only as young as we are in this moment. So how can you just get back in the driver’s seat and take care of yourself going forward?”

After the deaths of both of her parents, Jeter decided to do all she could to extend her own life, and along the way she found her passion while rewriting her relationship with what she calls “a primal movement.” In addition to women, she works to share her experiences in running and its impact on her health with Black communities.

“Over the years, it’s just become an exploration of, yes, myself and my surroundings, but really uncovering a community of people who are looking to find confidence in themselves and their bodies,” Jeter said. “Rewrite the relationship with something that they don’t feel like they have a connection to. And then also show that we, especially as Black women and people of color and diverse people from body, pace and experience, can also participate as well.”

On Wednesday she’ll set out on her seventh annual running challenge, 100 Miles of Summer. Since its creation, the health and wellness challenge Jeter created for summer-month accountability has more than 270,000 participants worldwide. The kickoff meetup for this year’s 100 Miles will be at Lululemon’s Lincoln Park store from 6-8 p.m. — and it’s already sold out.

“I created the challenge in 2018 where participants walk, run, jog or roll 100 miles,” Jeter said. “What we’re doing is leveraging movement as catalysts for better health and why that is so important, especially during the summertime and especially to Black communities because it’s a time of the year where people aren’t really invested in their health and well-being.”

Throughout our conversation she stressed that her focus is just on health and movement — whatever that may look like for someone. To Jeter, even the smallest lifestyle change can have an impact. In addition to her own challenge, she participates in local running communities such as Peace Runners 773, GRC and 7 on Sundays.

“We’re out doing all the things, but when we look at things like chronic disease and chronic illness and who that more disproportionately affects, it is the Black community,” Jeter said.

“I (want to) help people instill healthy habits, even if it’s just waking up and going for a walk or staying hydrated. It’s about using this movement that we all have access to, to a certain degree, to establish healthier life habits to live a healthier life.”