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Doris Taerbaum: The Face of Real Possibilities

Runner and caregiver exemplifies spirit of AARP's new campaign

Doris Taerbaum was at a low point when she first put on her jogging shoes. She had gained 13 pounds while giving up smoking, and though she started exercising regularly, she was putting more oomph into her aerobic class workouts to no avail. Then she joined a running club. "That's when the weight started coming off," she says.

That was in 2005. Since then Taerbaum, a 53-year-old IT manager at an insurance company in Chicago, has finished three marathons and been a caretaker to her terminally ill mother. The camaraderie of the club gave her the strength to push through both challenges. That's in part why AARP chose Taerbaum to be one of the inspiring faces of its Real Possibilities campaign: Her accomplishments demonstrate the power of community and social ties; she understands the difficulties of maintaining a balanced life while also taking care of others; and she is an example of how someone can embrace fitness at any age—and even complete a marathon for the first time at age 50.

The marathon, she admits, seemed impossible when her runner friends suggested she go for it. "I used to think I could never run a marathon, never. But these people in the club — and quite a few are over 50 — said, 'Yeah, you can do a marathon!' " The club's leader is 65, says Taerbaum, "so that inspires me."

Married with three daughters (now ages 13, 19 and 22), she started training for that first marathon, the Indianapolis Monumental Marathon, and ran it in November 2010 — two weeks after her 50th birthday. Temperatures were in the 40s, and she had to resort to a "hop-skip type of running" when her knee started hurting at about mile 17. Still, she finished in 4 hours, 2 minutes.

She had a lot on her mind at the time. That fall Taerbaum was in the midst of caring for her mother, Ayako, who was battling lung cancer and in hospice care. Taerbaum had taken a leave of absence from her job to be with Ayako, though it was often wrenching to see her mom fading: "I'd go out and run on the path by her house," she says, "and sometimes I'd just cry."

Ayako was from Japan, and Taerbaum's father is an African American whose Army career took him and his family all over the world. Taerbaum and her two brothers alternated between the U.S. and foreign countries, including Germany, Japan and Iran. After high school in Iran, she went to Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, majoring in IT and business.

She started running on her own while studying for her MBA in her late 30s. She was also working full time and raising her three children, so she'd often put them to bed at night and stay up until 1 or 2 in the morning to finish her schoolwork. Taerbaum says she definitely couldn't do it all, but she did what she had to do: "I always tell people that you can always make time; you just have to shift your priorities. Like I didn't come home and cook dinner," she adds, laughing. "Don't cook! Don't wash your clothes!"

Since the Indianapolis race, she also has finished the 2012 Boston Marathon and the Chicago Marathon the following fall. The tragedy in Boston at the most recent race was deeply alarming for Taerbaum; even though she was safe in Illinois, friends from her club were mid-race when the incident occurred. Text messages later confirmed that they were unharmed, though she learned that "some were only a mile or two away" from the bombing.

But that first marathon in Indianapolis was the seminal event for Taerbaum, a time when she accomplished something she'd never imagined she could do, while facing the passing of her mother, who died one month later. Her mother was doing a bit better a few days before the race, so Taerbaum says she ultimately felt OK about leaving her for a day or two.

And as soon as she returned, aching but triumphant, she told her mom what she'd just done. "She just raised her hand and kind of did a thumbs-up, and a half smile," Taerbaum says. "I think she was really proud of me.

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