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Overcoming Grief and Assault With 29 Marathons and Now Helping Others Do the Same

“A man spiked my drink and assaulted me, leading to a diagnosis of PTSD and depression. This event fundamentally changed my life, leading me into a violent relationship and a period of repression and struggle. Despite these challenges, life moved on. I got married, and had two beautiful boys, but then faced another intense period of grief, losing seven loved ones in just a few months.”

Hello! Who are you?

Hello, I’m Summer Willis. My journey has taken me from meeting my husband in the Peace Corps in Mexico, where we both served as volunteers, to impactful experiences in Teach for America in New Orleans. My passion for teaching also led me to Tanzania and Chile.

Currently living in Lexington, Virginia, with my husband and two sons, Alfred and August, my life is a blend of family, adventure, and commitment to values like faith, health, and service.

My endeavors have recently taken an exciting turn with a newfound joy in running. This year, I’m undertaking a remarkable challenge of running 29 marathons. As the founder of the nonprofit Strength Through Strides and a soon-to-be-published children’s book author, my life is a testament to pursuing passions and living by one’s values.

My favorite cuisine, Mexican food, is a nod to the time I spent in Mexico. Balancing life as a mom, a nonprofit founder, and an adventurer, I find happiness in the simplicity of family moments, the fulfillment of contributing positively, and the thrill of personal challenges.

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What is your struggle and when did it start?

Like many women, my journey hasn’t been without its hardships, but I’ve always strived to move forward. In college, a traumatic incident turned my world upside down.

A man spiked my drink and assaulted me, leading to a diagnosis of PTSD and depression. This event fundamentally changed my life, leading me into a violent relationship and a period of repression and struggle.

Despite these challenges, life moved on. I got married, and had two beautiful boys, but then faced another intense period of grief, losing seven loved ones in just a few months.

This experience was a turning point, leading me to read “The Body Keeps Score“, which opened my eyes to the enduring impact of trauma. I realized that trauma doesn’t just disappear; it requires active, intentional healing.

My experiences have fueled my determination to reject the narrative of women as weak or victimized. Instead, I’m committed to proving our strength, both to myself and to the world.

This commitment is reflected in my work with Strength Through Strides, where we support women in achieving extraordinary athletic feats for the betterment of others.

We aim to empower women to find strength through their struggles, transforming their experiences into a force for positive change and helping others in the process.

How did this struggle make you feel at your worst moments?

At my lowest, after the sexual assault, I reached a point of utter despair, telling a psychologist that I wouldn’t care if I didn’t wake up the next day. The abuse was extreme: strangulation, forced homelessness, isolation from friends and family, and financial deprivation.

Escaping this situation and leaving Austin was a difficult but necessary step for recovery. It felt akin to overcoming an addiction. Even years later, when meeting my husband, I felt broken and unworthy, but his goodness was a beacon of hope for me.

The more recent trauma of losing multiple loved ones in quick succession left me overwhelmed. Managing two young children, while dealing with my own grief, often led to uncontrollable crying, which my two-year-old son mirrored, wanting to be just like his mother.

This realization—that my son was emulating even my sorrow—was a profound wake-up call. I knew then that I had to embody the strength and resilience I wanted for him.

This led to my decision to run 29 marathons, a daunting goal considering I couldn’t even run a mile at that time. My journey toward healing and strength began with that single, powerful decision.

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Was there a moment when you started to turn things around?

At my lowest point, I came across a powerful realization that determination is simply doing what you say you’ll do. This struck a chord with me, so I decided to run 29 marathons.

Despite the doubts and concerns of my coach, PT, and nutritionist, I committed to this daunting task. Training in the brutal Texas heat was a grueling experience, and there were times I wanted to give up.

However, my husband’s encouragement kept me going. Gradually, I started making progress, running longer distances. My son Alfred began joining me for runs and healthy smoothies. This journey wasn’t just about physical endurance; it was a path to healing.

Each hard day I overcame reinforced my belief in myself, helping me become the woman I aspired to be. After two months of this transformative journey, I finally felt truly happy again.

What steps did you take to overcome your struggle?

To overcome my struggles, I first turned to Zoloft, which helped stabilize my emotions. Concurrently, I consulted a nutritionist who educated me about the effects of stress and trauma on mineral depletion.

I began incorporating Adrenaline cocktails, Magnesium Soothe, and daily minerals into my routine. Additionally, exercising became a key part of my life. I also joined a Bible study group, which provided me with a sense of community and faith.

The decision to run 29 marathons was a testament to my strength, but it was the combination of faith, community, and setting a significant goal that truly facilitated my healing. This holistic approach to healing is what I advocate through my nonprofit, Strength Through Strides, to help other women.

Have you shared any of this with people around you in real life?

Sharing my story has been a journey of opening up. In my Bible study, the question “Why don’t you have deeper relationships” made me realize I had been holding back from letting people into my life.

I’ve started to change this by sharing my experiences through our docuseries, “Strength Through Strides” on YouTube. Discussing my low points, including the sexual assault, and the subsequent beauty in life has been empowering.

I’ve been touched by the responses from strangers who’ve reached out, sharing their own stories and finding solace in mine. This outreach has become a core part of my mission this year, bringing awareness to the prevalence of sexual assault and offering support.

I’m dedicated to letting women know they’re not alone, offering them a chance to talk and participate in our free retreats aimed at overcoming trauma.

If you could give a single piece of advice to someone else that struggles, what would that be?

If I could share one piece of advice with someone struggling, it would be this: realize that you are limitless. I used to admire athletes like Ross Edgley, Camille Herron, and David Goggins for their incredible feats, never imagining I could be like them.

It was only when I challenged myself to see what I could achieve in a year that I began to understand my own potential. This year has been transformative – I’m publishing a book, breaking world records, and inspiring my heroes.

Despite being overweight, having had a baby 11 months ago, and lacking athletic prowess, I’m achieving the extraordinary. My journey shows that if I can do this, so can you. Never underestimate your potential.


What have been the most influential books, podcasts, YouTube channels, or other resources for you?

  • Can’t Hurt Me by David Goggins: This book was a game-changer for me. Goggins’ story of transformation and resilience showed me the power of mental toughness and the importance of pushing past perceived limits. 
  • My Strength Through Strides Podcast: Hosting and interacting with various guests on this podcast has been incredibly inspiring. Each episode brings new insights and stories of strength that motivate and encourage personal growth.
  • Choose Strong by Sally McRae: McRae’s approach to life and challenges, as shared in this book, helped reinforce the idea that choosing strength and resilience can lead to profound personal victories.
  • The Art of Resilience by Ross Edgley: Edgley’s experiences and insights into resilience taught me the importance of endurance, both physical and mental, in overcoming life’s obstacles.
  • Miracle Morning Millionaires by Hal Elrod: I love the idea of starting the day off on the right foot. This book is truly life-changing.

Where can we go to learn more about you?

To learn more about me and follow my journey, you can visit my website or follow me on social media. My handles on Instagram and TikTok are @strengththroughstrides.

Additionally, you can watch our YouTube series by Emmy Nominated Filmmaker TJ Misney on the Strength Through Strides YouTube channel, where we share inspiring stories and insights into my experiences.

If you’re interested in joining the first cohort for free coaching, being part of a community of strong women, and participating in a healing retreat to achieve your goals, I would highly recommend visiting the Strength Through Strides website and navigating my “Contact Me” page.

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Hugo Huijer AuthorLinkedIn Logo

Founder of Tracking Happiness, with over 100 interviews and a focus on practical advice, our content extends beyond happiness tracking. Hailing from the Netherlands, I’m a skateboarding enthusiast, marathon runner, and a dedicated data junkie, tracking my happiness for over a decade.

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