By David DeLuca, Spartan Editor

Nearly twenty years ago, some mix of fate, luck, and a clever, string-pulling mutual friend brought together the hearts of two fifteen-year-olds, Emily and Dustin. Sweethearts from a young age, Emily and Dustin ran the obstacle course of high school, college, marriage, and landing their first jobs. Now, they’re raising young children together.

Like many parents in their mid-thirties, Emily and Dustin fell into an unhealthy rut: they were overworked, stressed, and neglecting their health. Dustin, once a high school track star, had become overweight and found his day-job exhausting. Emily had lost her focus and became overwhelmed taking care of work and the kids. When Dustin’s doctor told him to stop running and take pills for his back pain, he decided he’d had enough.

Dustin and Emily committed to treating their health as a priority. They committed to eating real, whole foods and cutting out foods that cause inflammation. Dustin committed to train for a 5K, and Emily committed to work out from home. They felt the results instantly, and over time they saw results as well.

Along the way, Dustin’s employer sponsored entry to the 2016 Spartan Sprint in Indiana. Thinking he had nothing to lose, Dustin signed up. The race brought him back to his childhood, running through the woods and up hills, and he told Emily at the finish line that he felt “alive.” Since that first race, Emily and Dustin have run two races together, brought the kids along for the Kids Race, and even inspired their family to join in the fun.

Many parents out there struggle to balance fitness and life, so we thought we’d give the Nichols family a call to see how they do it. Here’s our conversation.

SPARTAN: Hey, Nichols family. Good to have you here. Let’s get right to it. What was the last race you did as a family?

DUSTIN: We’ve only done two races so far. The last one was the Nashville Sprint. I did really well in the Open Category, so I decided to run in Elite for [Nashville]. We had both of our boys do the Kids Race—the half-mile—too. They had a ball. My parents came down to keep an eye on the kids while we were racing. I think it has motivated my mom to do the race, too.

EMILY: She’ll be, what, 60 this year?

DUSTIN: Yeah, she’ll be 60. So, our goal is, for that Indiana race—we’ve registered, we’ve registered our kids, my mom’s doing it, and I think my brother and his family might be doing it as well.

SPARTAN: How has living an active lifestyle changed the way you operate as a family?

EMILY: I’d say our own personal health is one of our first priorities. I don’t feel we’re very effective parents, wife and husband, or even co-workers (at our jobs) unless we get our workouts in. For me, it works out better if I get up super early in the morning. I work out here from home. I also teach Insanity and spinning classes at my local CycleBar. Dustin works out every day after work. Every weekend we try to do something active as a family. We’ve gone to the middle school track before and let the kids run around while we practice sprints to prep for our races.

SPARTAN: It sounds like you’re integrated as a family, in terms of fitness and the rest of your life. Do you ever find it hard to make time for everything?

DUSTIN: Yeah. We both have full-time jobs. A lot of mornings, she might have early appointments, she she’s up super early trying to squeeze in her workout before she has to leave, and we’re juggling kids around. I’ll [sometimes] go a day or two without getting my workout in. I’ll try to balance running and weightlifting, and sometimes I might have to double-up, on the weekend, one or two days that I missed, being in the grind all week.

SPARTAN: How does staying active help you to get through the daily grind?

EMILY: I think it gives me a lot of mental clarity. We have so much going on, so many details to remember, even with just the kids. Library books are due, we’ve got to pay for this this week, tomorrow is Purple Day, so I have to make sure his purple shirt is clean. I have so many things running through my head, and I can feel it, when I don’t get a workout in in the morning. I feel all over the place in my head.

SPARTAN: Dustin, how about you? What does getting your daily workout in do for your mental and physical health?

DUSTIN: It gives me structure to my day, for one. It gives me something to look forward to. My job can be physically demanding sometimes. I do agricultural research, so all through the springtime we’re out planting corn and walking cornfields through the summer. Being in shape helps me get through all that, because there are a lot of days where I’ll spend four or five hours walking through muddy fields. I think my training and fitness has helped with that. [My job] also compliments my training. Back when I was not in shape, the previous two to five years ago, I felt like I was in a fog all the time. I wasn’t working out, and I was overweight. I feel like eating right and working out has helped me to be mentally sharper and more physically fit for my job.

SPARTAN: Since you’re running through the mud all day for work, your first Spartan Race must have been a walk in the park.

DUSTIN: [Laughs] Yeah. After the spring we went through—a super wet spring, where we spent many days slugging through cornfields.

SPARTAN: How about your kids? What’s in a Spartan Race for them?

EMILY: It’s mostly just fun for them. Our oldest was born with a heart defect, so it’s really cool to see him do physically active things. Tyler, our youngest—he’s five—and he just loves getting dirty.

SPARTAN: I remember you mentioned that you happened to meet another mom whose child also had a heart defect, and that kid was running the same race as yours. That’s incredible.

EMILY: I showed her the scar on his chest, and she pointed to the scar on [her kid’s] chest. We just hugged each other, to see these eight-year-old boys overcoming so much and being able to kick butt. It was really empowering.

SPARTAN: What are the chances you meet someone in the exact same situation like that?

EMILY: I don’t know. I think it might be luck, maybe a little fate. We’re always meeting people who have a similar story. As a mom, when your child is born with something like that—Dylan had open heart surgery when he was eight months old. We didn’t know what limitations he would have physically. To do something hard like a Spartan Race—wow! If an eight-year-old kid who has been through so much can do that, an adult can, too.

SPARTAN: How has joining the racing community changed your goals for the future?

DUSTIN: I started out last year—like, I didn’t even know I was going to do the Sprint in Indiana last year. My work actually sponsored the Indiana one, so they paid for my entry. I was training for a 5K goal earlier in the year, and once I ran [the Spartan Race]…it clicked for me. Spartan combined all of my weight training and my running and my love of the outdoors and hiking and running through the woods. I’d like to be competitive in the Elite Category. I’d like a podium finish. I’m going to be 37 years old this year, and I’m looking at running faster than I did in high school.

EMILY: This year, we just finished signing up for all of our races to do the TRIFECTA this year. I’m not a big runner (which is funny because I’m doing Spartan Races). My goals are to add a little more running into my training, a little more weight training as well, and complete our TRIFECTA. We share a lot of what we’re doing on social media just to show other couples or working moms (like me) that you can do it, you can fit it in, you can take care of yourself. That’s my main motivation: just to inspire and motivate other moms.

SPARTAN: So, your kids are growing up in this world where everyone’s eating fast food and physical fitness is practically a revolution. How are you keeping your kids on track? Are you strict, or do you lead more gently?

EMILY: We’re not very strict. They’re kids. If they want to have mac ‘n’ cheese every once in a while, that’s fine. I work full-time for the American Heart Association, and I encourage kids to take care of their own hearts. We’re just trying to set a good example.

SPARTAN: How has your relationship with one another changed over the past year since you started racing together?

DUSTIN: We’ve always been close. We both do our own things, fitness-wise. On the weekends we collaborate, get a run in together, track workout together.

EMILY: We’ve been together since, like, high school. I was always cheering for him when he was doing track and cross-country, and how he can cheer for me.

SPARTAN: What’s your advice for parents?

DUSTIN: Everybody has time. You just have to prioritize what’s important in your life.

EMILY: We all have the same 24 hours in a day. It’s about how you make it work within your schedule.

DUSTIN: When you commit to get your workout in no matter what, you make the time.

EMILY: It turns into a habit. You do it every day, just like brushing your teeth.

Learn more about Emily at the All Heart Fitness blog, or follow her on Instagram and Twitter.


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