This article is part of Rails-to-Trails Conservancy’s Trail Moments initiative—to elevate new and tried-and true trail voices around the country, and how trails have impacted the lives of Americans during COVID-19. Learn more at trailmoments.org and #TrailMoments on social media. Share your story, or view a collection of trail moments stories.
Vincent Viars is running for his life. Both his mother and one sister had suffered from heart problems and diabetes, passing away in their 60s. Another sister had triple bypass surgery and several stents. Overweight and living a sedentary lifestyle, Viars’ gnawing fear of dying grew as he approached middle age, so he decided to make a change with a health journey that began one literal step at a time.
“A buddy of mine at work said, ‘Why don’t you run a 5K?’ And I was like, ‘I can’t even run a mile—I’m barely walking now,’” recalled Viars, a manufacturing engineer, of his burgeoning exercise routine.
But with the friend’s encouragement, they began to train together every day after work. It was 2016, and they were preparing for a 5K race along the Mon River Rail-Trail System, a 48-mile trail network that converges in Morgantown, a college town tucked into the Appalachian Mountains of West Virginia.
“I got hooked on running after that first race: the feeling of crossing that finish line and the support of the community,” said Viars about that lifechanging experience on a hot August day. “It took me like 14 minutes to run a mile, and I thought I was going to die, so I started doing more run-walks and just wanted to improve my time.”
About a year later, Viars’ running had progressed, and he began training for a half-marathon, but something felt off.
“This is where I’m going to get emotional, because I feel like running saved my life …. If I hadn’t gotten into exercise … [t]here’s no doubt I would have had a heart attack.”
—Vincent Viars, Morgantown, West Virginia
“I started having chest discomfort—a feeling of pressure on my chest—and I would have a few jolts of electric shock going down my arm,” he explained. “I was still running, but I was afraid. I went to see a cardiologist, and he ended up doing a heart catheterization because my left main artery was 90% blocked. This is where I’m going to get emotional, because I feel like running saved my life. If I hadn’t started running, who knows what would have happened. I was at least trying to be stronger. If I hadn’t gotten into exercise, I would have been dead. There’s no doubt I would have had a heart attack.”
After the procedure, Viars felt better immediately and continued to run, working up to six to seven days a week. The majority of his workouts take place on his local rail-trails, and he finds comfort in their scenery and serenity. “Every time I go, it’s a gift—a time that I can meditate and think about my family.”
Although he has lived in the Morgantown area for many years, Viars continues to enjoy discovering new places along his local trails that he didn’t previously know about. The Mon River Trail section snaking south toward Fairmont through marshes and woodlands is one of his newest discoveries. “Especially with the leaves turning, it’s beautiful—and the river looks so peaceful,” he enthused. “This year, that’s been my favorite spot.”
During the COVID-19 pandemic, he’s especially grateful that the sprawling trail system allows people to spread out. Although it’s used more than ever, there’s space for solace. The pandemic has also altered his next big goal: completing the Marine Corp Marathon, which will be virtual this year. It’s certainly a challenge, but Viars feels the strength of the running community behind him.
“Everyone I have met through running is so encouraging, and I’ve never been in a sport like that,” he said. “I’ve always been the fat kid, the slow kid. But, in this sport, you can be in a race with all shapes, all sizes, all ages. You just run your own race.”
Viars vividly remembers the final leg of his first 5K trail run. Still a rookie runner, he’d fallen behind all the other competitors, but was determined to complete the course. As he climbed that last hill, he saw the spectators milling around the finish line. When they spotted him—exhausted, sweaty, panting—they began cheering just as loudly and enthusiastically as if he was the first to cross that line, and the emotions were overwhelming. Viars could not hold back the tears. He had made it.
It’s a feeling he would love everyone to experience and he hopes to motivate others to run. “I want to help people like me,” is the wish closest to his mended heart.
Have you recently discovered trails, or are you a long-time trail enthusiast? Either way, we hope you’ll share your “Trail Moments”—and the stories of how trails have impacted your life during COVID-19. Take the survey below, or share using #TrailMoments on social media.