When Heather Bessette decided to start exercising, she discovered a passion she hadn't known existed.
In her late twenties, Bessette took a desk job at Allstate Insurance in Florida as a computer trainee. To shed a few pounds, she created her own outdoor exercise program with a walk/run regimen through her neighborhood park. At first Bessette only walked, but soon, she was splitting the time between walking and jogging. A few weeks later, despite the heat and humidity, she was able to jog the distance around the park. After the first month, she began to feel good, lost some weight, felt more productive at work, and was happier.
"It gave me energy," she said. "It began to transform my life."
As Bessette's confidence grew, she decided to compete in a beach race called the fun run. In Florida, these are common: races of 3 miles, beginning at a restaurant-bar and finishing there to have a drink and catch the sunset. To her amazement, Bessette placed first in this competition.
From that winning moment on, "I discovered who I was … I was in my zone when I ran," she said.
Running became a consuming passion and a way of life. Bessette joined the Wings, a local women's league of runners, and participated in team sports. From 1987-89 she placed first is twelve races, second in three others, and came in fifth out of 6,500 at the Gasparilla Distance Classic.
When Allstate transferred Bessette to their Connecticut office in 1993, she decided to train for the 5K National Championships.
While still working full time and living in Glastonbury, she commuted before and after work to New London to train.
"When I go into a sport, I go full force," she explained.
Team New Balance recruited Bessette for a sponsorship in 1993, and in 1996 she won the Hartford Marathon.
She qualified for the 1996 U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials but sustained a crippling injury during the race. She forced herself to complete the route, even though she was unable to walk after reaching the finish line.
"My whole family was there, these were the Olympic Trials, I was the only woman from Connecticut running, I had an endorsement. What could I do? I couldn't stop," she said.
In 1996, Bessette started her own exercise center, I CAN FITNESS in Stonington. Her co-owner (and mom), Elizabeth "Bobette" McCracken is a force of nature in her own right. At 72, McCracken is a nationally ranked tennis player and was a Silver medalist in the 2007 Senior Olympics in women's tennis doubles. Their team is rounded out by Wendy Eck, Heather's sister, a club tennis champion and marathon runner. All three women are certified personal trainers. The center offers private classes and fitness training, including spinning, cross training, weights, boot camp work, core strengthening with Pilates and therapeutic techniques to help those with injuries.
Although Bessette's Olympic Trial injuries led to an extended layoff from her training, in time, her coach persuaded her to start running again. She placed first in women overall in the 2009 Tarzan Brown Mystic River Run and the 2009 Battle of Stonington 5k. She placed first in her age group in the 2010 Manchester Thanksgiving Day Race. She also founded the Stonington Village Fun Run series as a way to promote fitness and give back to the community.
Her personal comeback inspired her to develop a clothing line of T-shirts and hats called "No Expiration."
"There is no expiration when you are doing what you love," she said. "Your body may age, but your mental toughness doesn't have to."
Stonington Village Fun Run
When: Tuesdays at 6 p.m. from May 29
to Sept. 11
Where: Starts and finishes at The Dog
Watch Cafe, 194 Water St.,
Length: 3.1 miles, or two 1.55-mile loops
Note: This is not a closed course. Runners are asked to be mindful of cars and pedestrians, and must sign a notice of liability prior to participating.