WEST FARGO — They wear flashing vests and other lights to make themselves stand out in the early evening darkness of winter.

But at times, all that is visible from the road are the tops of their heads above massive snow piles, as they make their way down icy sidewalks.

The women join for the common goal of running, but the reasons for doing so, and their circumstances, vary.

Members of Moms on the Run navigate an icy sidewalk during a run in West Fargo on Feb. 4, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Members of Moms on the Run navigate an icy sidewalk during a run in West Fargo on Feb. 4, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Standing up to a cancer diagnosis, working through pregnancy, recovering from surgery and managing body weight are just a few of the motivations that fuel the women of Moms on the Run in West Fargo.

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Members of the instructor-led fitness program meet up to three times a week, with coaches providing education and encouragement.

Eileen Pruis, 55, owner of the West Fargo franchise, said all women and girls are welcome.

“Anybody can join us at whatever pace is acceptable. We love to have different groups,” Pruis says.

While most days they venture out in the cold and snow, they do have an indoor option available if conditions are too harsh.

During the winter, the group involves around 10 women, while during the summer, that number can double or triple.

Some run simply for fun, while others are preparing for half or full marathons this year.

Staci Birrenkott, 49, of West Fargo, has been an avid runner for the past 15 years.

Staci Birrenkott, 49, is a member of Moms on the Run in West Fargo. She was treated for breast cancer about two years ago and is training to run the full marathon at the Sanford Fargo Marathon on May 9, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Staci Birrenkott, 49, is a member of Moms on the Run in West Fargo. She was treated for breast cancer about two years ago and is training to run the full marathon at the Sanford Fargo Marathon on May 9, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Her exercise routine was interrupted in the spring of 2017, however, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer.

In training to run a half marathon that year, she had to put the running aside while she had biopsies and surgery, and later, chemotherapy and radiation.

The emotions flowed as she talked about deciding that somewhere in the process, cancer had already taken too much from her, and it was time to put the running shoes back on.

“It was probably more of a walk, but it felt good just to be able to say, ‘I’m going for a run,’ because that’s my normal thing to do,” Birrenkott says.

She finished all of her treatments in January 2018 and ended up running the half marathon in the Fargo Marathon that spring.

She’s now training for the full Sanford Fargo Marathon, taking place May 9, 2020.

“I turn 50 next December, so that's my goal,” Birrenkott says.

Staci Birrenkott, 49, checks her fitness watch before heading out for a run with the Moms on the Run group of West Fargo on Feb. 4, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Staci Birrenkott, 49, checks her fitness watch before heading out for a run with the Moms on the Run group of West Fargo on Feb. 4, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Kayla Hiedeman, 31, of West Fargo, joined Moms on the Run after giving birth to her second child.

Last summer, she had her fourth baby — a pregnancy during which she ran two marathons.

During the training, she kept asking her obstetrician if it was safe to continue and was repeatedly told it was.

“Can you just say ‘No,’ so I can get out of it?” Hiedeman says, with a laugh.

The two marathons, run at 25 weeks and 30 weeks gestation, ended up being a welcome distraction from the difficulties of being pregnant.

“It was a lot of work.You just feel the baby bouncing up and down all the time,” she says.

Hiedeman said she’s often plagued with “mom guilt” whenever she takes time for something that doesn’t involve her children.

Being part of a running group allows her to get exercise and adult interaction all at once.

“It’s kind of nice to be able to do them at the same time, and you feel maybe a little less guilty,” she says.

Moms on the Run owner Eileen Pruis looks on as another runner dons a lighted vest inside Veterans Memorial Arena in West Fargo before heading out for a run on Feb. 4, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum
Moms on the Run owner Eileen Pruis looks on as another runner dons a lighted vest inside Veterans Memorial Arena in West Fargo before heading out for a run on Feb. 4, 2020. Chris Flynn / The Forum

Pruis joined the group in an effort to shed some weight and expand her social circle.

At the time, she worked with only men at a local concrete company and had few opportunities to make women friends.

She also had never run before.

“I was terrified the first night because we had to run for a minute,” Pruis says.

She caught on quickly, though, running four 5K races that year and three half-marathons the next. Last year, she ran two marathons.

Currently, there are more than 50 Moms on the Run franchises around the country, with the majority of them located in Minnesota.

Pruis holds the only such franchise in North Dakota.

The program offers an 18-week spring session with cardiovascular interval training for all levels, strength training, stretching and education.

The West Fargo group runs anywhere from two to five miles on Tuesdays and Thursdays at 5:30 p.m. and does longer, endurance runs on Saturdays at 6:30 a.m.

After Thursday runs, a Strength/Boot Camp Circuit Class is held at 6:30 p.m. at Lutheran Church of the Cross in West Fargo.

Pruis considers running a great stress reliever and sometimes surprises herself with what she can accomplish.

“Some days I don’t feel like running, but I gotta be there. Those are some of my better runs, at times,” Pruis says.

Exercise: Body, mind and soul

We all know moving our bodies can benefit us in multiple ways.

Regular exercise can make our heart, lungs, muscles and bones stronger and improve balance, coordination and flexibility.

It can also reduce the risk for chronic conditions, including heart disease and diabetes, while helping to keep our weight in check.

But physical activity can also help fuel the mind and soul by improving mental health, stress levels and sleep patterns.

Better sleep

According to Sanford Health, hitting the gym can help us hit the pillow harder at night.

Getting regular exercise can help us fall asleep, and may help us sleep more soundly.

Good sleep makes our brains work better, which can boost our attention span and even our creativity.

Better mental health

Regular physical activity keeps our thinking, learning, and judgment skills sharp.

A study in the Journal of Alzheimer’s Disease found moderate exercise enhanced brain activity in areas important for learning and memory, according to Sanford Health.

Aerobic exercise or a mix of aerobic and strength-training activities three to five times a week for 30 to 60 minutes at a time can benefit our mental health.

Better stress management

People who are feeling stressed and overwhelmed might also not feel like exercising, but squeezing in a workout may be just what’s needed.

During exercise, our body releases chemicals that help improve mood and make us feel more relaxed. Physical activity can even reduce our risk for depression.

Even a short walk can reduce stress and give us a better outlook on life.

Read this story and more in the print magazine of the On The Minds of Moms. Pick up a copy at area grocery stores in Fargo-Moorhead or Grand Forks. See On The Minds of Moms stories weekly at InForum.