Katy Crossen was half a world away when she had a life-changing epiphany that got her on the road to running.

Her soul-searching began last May during a nine-day trip to India.

"It is a little bit of an 'Eat, Pray, Love' story," says Crossen, who, like many single 35-year-old women, can relate to Elizabeth Gilbert's best-selling memoir about a yearlong journey of self-discovery. Gilbert's book made it all the way to Oprah's Book Club and to the big screen, starring Julia Roberts.

Crossen's own trip "was an amazing experience," she says. "It forced me to evaluate my own life, and I realized there were some critical changes I needed to make if I were to accomplish everything that I hoped to do in life."

So she severed ties in a failed relationship. She found a new job. And Crossen, who lives downtown and is director of public relations for Powers Agency, ordered a running skirt and sports bra and started a "Couch to 5K" exercise program.

Halfway through the nine-week training that would build her will to run for 30 minutes straight, Crossen's friend, Shelli Gilman, signed them both up for a half marathon. They had a six-month deadline to train for a race that would take more than two hours to complete.

"I was like, 'That's a little bit crazy, 13 miles? Are you kidding me?' " Crossen says. "She said, 'No, you can totally do it. I've already registered us, and you can pay me back later. You're going!'

"And I kept running."

Hooked on a feeling

Gilman had to get over her own fears to become a runner.

"I had a bad fall from a horse two years ago and couldn't really walk very well for eight months," says Gilman, 32, of Newport, a diabetes care specialist at Bayer. "So I was a little nervous getting back into it."

But running had helped her get in shape for her wedding, and she wanted to feel that way again.

"I feel a really good sense of achievement when I've completed a run," she says. "While I'm running, it clears my head from my workday. It just gives me a more sunny outlook on everything."

Dedicated runners say that's the payoff.

Creative "Me" Time

"The best 'me' time I have all day or all week is my run time," says Lauren Abel, 49, of Burlington. "I think about work sometimes. I get these great creative ideas because I've got all those endorphins pumping. And I can just relax and enjoy the fresh air and enjoy the birds."

Don't get her wrong. It hasn't always been easy.

Not so long ago, 4-foot-10 Abel was 175 pounds.

"When I finally realized I needed to completely rethink the way I lived, I took up running," she says. "Really, I was sort of walking. Then I'd run a little bit. I'd hyperventilate. I'd let my heart rate go back down, and I'd walk a while. Then I'd run a little bit. Eventually, you walk less, you run more. And I found that I really loved running."

Today, her neighbors wave when she runs by and her friends call her "The Fitness Evangelist." Abel is so sold on fitness that she's started a corporate wellness and fitness training business.

"I'm always preaching the gospel of healthy eating and exercise to everyone who will listen," she says. "But I'm OK with that. If I get one convert a week, I have made a positive impact. It's kind of like paying it forward."

A Healthy Addiction

Steve Schwalbach, 44, of Cold Spring, took to running to reclaim a bit of his youth.

During his junior year at Highlands High School in 1984, they were cross-country state champions.

By the time he approached 40, Schwalbach, who runs a small construction company, wasn't exactly his fighting weight. He entered the "Biggest Loser" contest at his gym, and he won, dropping 40 pounds.

Now he trains for races like it's an addiction. He runs with the Pain by Numbers running group out of Newport, and he's a member of a group called Marathon Maniacs. Maniacs must qualify by running at least three marathons in 90 days.

"They really push you to your limit," Schwalbach says. Now he likes to compete in back-to-back races on the same weekend.

Fellow Pain by Numbers member Kevin Wall, 50, a dentist in Fort Wright, was also a high school runner, at Covington Latin. He laced up his running shoes again 11 years ago when a friend asked him to join a relay team in a charity race.

He has stuck with it for the friendships and for fitness.

"Five years ago, I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes," he says. "Running has improved my overall health."

He insists anyone can do it "if you just put your mind to it."

But why?

Why run such long distances when you don't have to? Why push yourself when it hurts? Why do people choose to do this to themselves?

"I get asked the 'why' question all of the time," says Jim White, 47, a retired police officer who is a personal trainer for the Erlanger Police. "But I find that people really don't want some deep answer of what drives me to run. They just want some funny little two-liner," he says.

"You don't ask that kind of question in a hallway, or in passing if you want the real answer, because the real answer takes a chair, and a table and a large cup of coffee at Starbucks."

His short answer is that he runs because he can.

He's been doing it since he was about 12. He started doing the Thanksgiving Day race in 1979, and has missed it only about three times since. Now he trains for "ultra" races, ones that are longer than a traditional 26.2-mile marathon.

"I've been blessed with good health and two good legs," White says.

"Some people would give anything to have those things. I think it's a waste not to use and enjoy this gift I've been given. Who knows how long it will last." -