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Published in CenterView on March 18, 2013

Grant’s Ferry LPN’s social media campaign promotes health through racing

By Matt Westerfield

It was three years of high cholesterol that started everything. Rod Simmons visited his family physician in 2009, and when the test results came back showing his numbers were up for the third year in a row, he got a chiding from the doctor.

 “She sent me a letter and said, ‘I’ll give you three months to straighten it out,’” recalled Simmons, an LPN in the Family Medicine/Pediatrics & Allergy Clinic at Grant’s Ferry.

Having lost his father to heart disease in 2003, he took the ultimatum seriously.

“I got the letter on a Tuesday, and that Saturday I did my first 5K, just like that. No training, nothing. That was the Rush to Brush in February 2009.”

Simmons hasn’t slowed down yet. In the years since, he has run or walked in hundreds of races all around the state and has developed an organization that bears his name to promote races large and small through social media. All of it with the simple goal of getting Mississippians on their feet and moving.

Simmons walks fast, even in the workplace. And he talks fast, too.

Simmons
Simmons

Originally from Flora, Simmons attended East Flora High School, where he ran the two mile on his track team his sophomore year. In fact, before the school closed and Simmons switched to the new Madison Central High School, his track team won the state championship in 1990. But that essentially concluded his interest in running, at least for that decade.

Instead, he set his sights on the Army, hoping to follow his older brother, Danny, who served for 23 years before retiring in 2007.

“I wanted to go into the Army; that was my first intention,” Simmons said.

“My brother came home my senior year, home for the holidays, and he said, ‘Man, I don’t think you can handle the Army. I think you need to go to nursing school.’

“I said one word to him: OK. So I just set my ambition on nursing when I graduated from high school.”

He enrolled in the practical nursing program at Hinds Community College in 1994.

“I got my degree in July of 1995, got my license in August of ’95, and UMMC hired me,” he says, with an uncommon memory for dates. “I started at UMMC on Sept. 25, 1995. Been here ever since.”

During that time, he has bounced around from one unit to the next, enjoying each new set of experiences. He started off working with renal patients before moving on to an internal medicine  clinic and from there to a stint on the general surgery and trauma unit.

After that, he moved into the newly opened University Hospital in 2006. He even helped cut the ribbon.

“I had a great opportunity; the administration allowed me to cut the ribbon during the ceremony,” he said. “That must have been October 2006 — that was a great moment. I loved that.”

He remained in that unit until 2010, when the new Grant’s Ferry facility opened. He transferred to the Family Medicine Clinic and learned the difference between hospital-based and clinic-based nursing.

“Being in the hospital for 14-and-a-half years, it was a big transition coming out here.”

Last year, he began working in the Med/Peds & Allergy Clinic.

Jennifer Philipson, an RN at Grant’s Ferry and Simmons’ coworker, describes him as a very caring person.

“His compassion shows in his work and friendships with coworkers,” she said. “Rod is always helping or looking for ways to help. He is always encouraging from both a personal and professional standpoint.”

Rod and his wife April
Rod and his wife April

Along the way, Simmons found a wife, April (married in 1997), and raised a daughter, Roslyn, now 13. And that’s when his cholesterol levels caught up with him.

Simmons followed up his first race in 2009 with many more and found that race-walking was his strong suit. Soon, he joined the Mississippi Track Club board.

“I was the public relations guy as part of the board,” he explained. “I helped them promote races. When December came, I decided I wanted to do something different, reach out to more people. So Rod’s Racers was born in December 2010.”

Rod’s Racers, which began as a Facebook effort, eventually expanded to Twitter and a blog and has a 10-member board. Simmons networked with like-minded racers around the state using Rod’s Racers to help with promoting races and to give advice to race directors.

He said his organization will “promote just about anybody’s race,” including any races whose organizers reach out to him. “We don’t charge anything.”

The most visible element of the Rod’s Racers effort are the photos that Simmons and other members take at every race they attend and post on Facebook, an idea as ingenious as it is simple — runners love to see pictures of themselves running.

 “Through Rod’s Racers, and his posts on Facebook, he really keeps us runners in the know about all the races that are happening,” said Dr. Dona Lee Andrew, professor of occupational therapy and an avid runner. “Besides, he is a really nice person.

“Another thing I like is that through Rod’s Racers, he has people out taking pictures of different runners in the races and posting. And, having been in a couple pictures, it is nice to see yourself running along so many others.”

“When we first got into road racing in ’09, I decided I was going to take as many photos as I could of everyone, regardless of whether they win or lose,” Simmons said. “That’s how people started noticing us more.

“One thing I learned about social media is, pictures draw people. People will follow the photos. A lot of the photos we take are of people doing their first 5K. It’s always great to hear comments like that.”

“Rod has been totally tireless in promoting our sport,” said Collin Johnson, a Jackson-area runner and member of the Mississippi Track Club. “I don’t know how much he works in his regular job, but I know he works constantly, getting the word out about races and healthy living.

“I’ve gotten notices where he’s tagged me in a race photo from two years ago at 3 a.m.”

Simmons and his wife spend a lot of time on road trips these days, and they work to promote lesser-known races around the state. And not just foot races, either. He’s just as happy to promote cycling events, triathlons and even more unique races like this month’s Color Me Rad event. His personal record for race-walking a 5K: 32:50, and yes, his cholesterol levels came down without medication.

“I still run from time to time, but the majority of my racing is going to be walking,” he said. “I enjoy it; it’s easy for me to do.

“I’m just trying to get folks to be active. You don’t have to settle for walking, you don’t have to settle for running. Whatever works for you, just be active. If you want to be competitive, go for it.”

Color Me Rad 5K

Some 8,000 runners are registered to run the Color Me Rad, a non-competitive 5K race scheduled for March 23 at Mississippi Veterans Memorial Stadium. The color-bomb race will be part of this year’s Zippity Doo Dah Weekend, benefiting Batson Children’s Hospital. Proceeds from the race will go to the Friends of Children’s Hospital.

Jackson is the tenth stop on the Color Me Rad’s national tour, and quite a few UMMC employees are signed up to run, including Josie Bidwell, assistant professor of nursing.

“When I started working with MPB’s Southern Remedy over a year ago, I became re-inspired to get in better shape,” Bidwell said. “While I have done plenty of sports in the past, running was never something I thought I could be good at doing.

“So I set a goal to run a 5K and started training last August.”

Bidwell, who said she has worked at Children’s Hospital at some level for the past decade, said she just completed her first 5K earlier this month.

“When I heard the Color Me Rad race was going to benefit Batson, I knew I had to do it,” she said.

Although the race has sold out, anyone interested in taking part can visit www.colormerad.com and sign up to be on a waiting list in case any registrants drop out. Medical Center employees may park on campus, but they must show their employee badges.