NEAR VIAN, Okla. – On a wooded butte overlooking a small lake, Mae Dean Erb stops.
It’s something she rarely does.
The hiking path has come to a steep, rocky decline.
“Even if I slide down,” she says, “don’t worry about me.”
With that, she starts down the decline. There is no sliding. There is no slipping. She covers the tricky section of the trail with ease.
Never mind that Mae Dean Erb is almost 80 years old.
“I’m sure I act 80 in some ways,” she says as we traverse the trails around Lake Vian not far from her home in Blackgum, Oklahoma, “but I don’t feel 80. I wish I could get people to realize even a minimal amount of working out … it just has a wonderful effect.”
Every single day for three years she has run or walked at least a 5K. That’s 3.1 miles, and Friday marked the three-year anniversary of the start of her streak, a healthy habit born out of the early days of the COVID pandemic. She crossed over the 1,000-day mark earlier this month.
‘The depths of our strengths’
Multiple news outlets have picked up her story, but she laughs when anyone suggests she’s famous or has gone viral.
But the idea she’s an inspiration?
That’s not something she laughs off.
“If there’s anything that I wish would come of (the attention), it would be that,” she said, “because most of us, let’s face it, don’t know the depths of our strengths.”
A life-long learner pushing her limits
Mae Dean Johnson grew up in a house with no electricity, no running water, no telephone.
But it was a house that valued education.
Neither of her parents had gone to school beyond eighth grade, but they taught Mae Dean, her sister and her two brothers about all sorts of things. Plants. Trees. Food preparation. Their Cherokee heritage.
Mae Dean graduated from high school in Vian, a little over two hours east of Oklahoma City, when she was only 16. Then she got her teaching degree from what was then Northeastern State College in Tahlequah when she was only 20.
She taught school in Nevada and in Japan before she and husband, Jim Erb, settled in El Reno where she taught gifted and talented students for more than 20 years.
Mae Dean was a finalist for state teacher of the year and was named to the Fulbright Memorial Fund Teacher Program.
When she retired from teaching 20 years ago and moved back to Blackgum, the unincorporated community where she’d grown up near Lake Tenkiller, she struggled. It was tough not being in the classroom. It was difficult not being around kids.
So, Mae Dean joined Wings, a program overseen by the Cherokee Nation. It promotes healthy living and physical activity, and one of its centerpieces is a beefy schedule of 5Ks all over the northeastern part of the state.
‘I didn’t jump into this’
Mae Dean started going to the gym, running and doing the 5Ks.
About five years ago, she even did a marathon.
She was 74.
“My family was so scared,” she recalled.
But she told them, “You guys, I didn’t jump into this. I’ve been preparing for this for four months.”
Mae Dean and a good running friend finished together in about 6 hours.
Even though she had gotten back into teaching – she works with English Language Learners in the Webbers Falls School District in addition to teaching classes about origami and storytelling, two of her other passions – she continued going to the gym and staying active.
Then, COVID hit.
Stopping didn’t seem like an option.
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Idea of a 5K a day was like ‘the sun came up’
Mae Dean Erb doesn’t take credit for the idea of running a 5K every day.
She actually saw a Facebook post from Isaac Barnoskie, public health educator with Cherokee Nation Public Health. He said he planned to do a 5K a day amid the shutdowns and quarantines. He had time on his hands. He could run or walk outside.
“It was as if the sun came up,” Mae Dean said.
She did her first 5K on March 24, 2020, figuring she would try to do one for 10 days straight. But she got to 10 days and felt so good, she decided to keep going. She got to 300, then 500, then 700.
Now, she’s over 1,000.
She hasn’t missed a day, even when the weather has been bad.
There was only one time the streak nearly ended. Mae Dean doesn’t remember exactly when it was but she had visited her sister, who lives in Lubbock, Texas, and was making the eight-hour drive home. Mae Dean left early to give herself plenty of time, but on the way, she decided to make a stop in El Reno.
She stayed longer than she’d planned.
“I got back at like…11 o’clock at night, and my dreadmill was the only alternative,” she said, using her nickname for her treadmill.
But she got in the miles.
Not every run or walk has been great.
“I’ve fallen,” Mae Dean said. “I fell up here on the trail one day, but I didn’t scratch myself or anything. I wasn’t sore.”
The journey not the destination
Still on that butte overlooking the lake, Mae Dean Erb mentions the poem “Ithaka.”
“Do you know it?” she asks.
Written by Constantine P. Cavafy, the century-old work is based on Odysseus’s journey home. It talks about trials and tribulations, about disappointments and complexities in life. But it encourages the reader to live for the journey instead of the destination.
Part of it reads:
Have Ithaka always in your mind.
Your arrival there is what you are destined for.
But don’t in the least hurry the journey.
Better it last for years,
so that when you reach the island you are old,
rich with all you have gained on the way
“I love that poem,” Mae Dean says. “People my age need to hear things like that – that it’s the journey.”
As for her streak of days with a 5K, she doesn’t have an end goal. She doesn’t want to get to 2,000 or 5,000. She just wants to feel good, and she knows when she gets out and moves, she feels great.
Her plan is to keep going.
Follow reporter Jenni Carlson on Twitter: @JenniCarlson_OK