Mom of 2 Is Running 29 Marathons in a Year, Sometimes with 45-Lb. Mattress on Her Back — Here’s Why (Exclusive)

A decade after she was sexually assaulted, Summer Willis is raising money to help survivors — and she's telling PEOPLE why she’s pushing her physical limits to do it

<p>strengththroughstrides/Instagram</p> Marathon runner and survivor, Summer Willis


Marathon runner and survivor, Summer Willis

Summer Willis “couldn’t run a mile” and was still breastfeeding her baby multiple times a night when she stunned her husband Andrew with an announcement. She planned to run 29 marathons in a year, starting in Sept. 2023. It was July.

“At first, he said, ‘I know my wife didn’t just say 29 marathons,’ ” Summer, 29, tells PEOPLE. “But we started talking through the logistics and ever since then he’s [helped me] to make it possible.”

The following morning, the mom of two shared the news with her Instagram followers. Years after a “devastating” sexual assault, she realized she’d never fully processed what happened to her, she wrote, adding, "[The] weight of my silence grew heavier with each passing day and the side effects of the trauma were always there." So, Summer decided to “conquer” nearly 30 marathons in a year (starting the month before she turned 29) to “raise awareness and funds for survivors of sexual abuse.”

<p>Summer Willis/Instagram</p> Summer Willis in 2023 with her husband Andrew and their sons August and Alfred

Summer Willis/Instagram

Summer Willis in 2023 with her husband Andrew and their sons August and Alfred

Since then, the Texas native has created the Strength Through Strides nonprofit and is raising $290,000 to help fund a nine-week course of coaching and therapy for survivors. She has run a dozen marathons so far, sometimes while carrying a mattress on her back to draw attention to her cause.

And on April 24, she is partnering with PAIGE jeans to lead an evening Denim Day Survivors’ Walk in Washington, D.C., in solidarity with those who have been victim blamed for what they wore at the time of their attack.

Related: Dad Patrick Clancy's Boston Marathon Jersey Included Special Message Honoring His 3 Slain Kids

Summer knows well the weight of shame many women feel. She was a sophomore at the University of Texas at Austin in October 2014 when she says her drink was spiked at a fraternity party. She can only recall what happened next through hazy flashbacks.

“I remember running in the October air and then falling flat on my face, looking at my hands and seeing blood mixed with paint, but not being able to feel anything, knowing something was wrong,” she says. She remembers saying, “No, no, no” and then “being in the shower and seeing my blood go down the drain.”

“I woke up the next morning and I was naked… feeling like my world had just changed forever," she shares.

Summer Willis carrying a mattress to draw attention to her cause in New York in March 2024
Summer Willis carrying a mattress to draw attention to her cause in New York in March 2024

Related: Woman to Run 285 Miles in a Wedding Dress to Raise Awareness for Narcissistic Domestic Abuse

Despite knowing who attacked her, Summer didn’t go to the police. “Two out of three people don’t report [attacks] and the younger you are, the more likely you are not to tell anybody,” she says. Depressed and feeling humiliated, she told no one, not even her family.

It was her mom who, after seeing Summer descend into an abusive relationship, guessed what happened and urged her daughter to go into therapy. “It helped enough [for] me to realize that I didn’t deserve to be assaulted and that it wasn’t my fault,” she says.

Still, by the time she met her future husband Andrew in 2019 when they were serving in the Peace Corps she still felt ashamed.

<p>Summer Willis</p> Summer Willis at the finish line of the London Marathon in April 2024

Summer Willis

Summer Willis at the finish line of the London Marathon in April 2024

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Soon after they started dating, Summer told him, “I don’t think you want to be with me. I am broken beyond repair.” She says, “I remember him holding my hand as I cried in a coffee shop, five years after [the attack] happened. [He told me] ‘It’s not your fault.’ And he kept on saying that."

"It was good to hear," she adds.

Related: Runner, 33, Among First with Down Syndrome Ever to Finish NYC Marathon: 'Victory Dance at the Finish Line' (Exclusive)

They married in 2020 and by July last year were raising their sons Alfred and August, now 3 and 1 respectively. It was seeing Alfred mirror her sadness, crying whenever she cried, that motivated Summer to finally face what happened to her when she was at college.

“I had relative after relative pass away, young and old, within weeks,” she says. It wasn’t just grief that triggered her. Daily life would leave the stay-at-home mom in tears. “Maybe the baby would be crying, and I would get overwhelmed, or there was too much laundry. I didn’t feel strong enough to handle a newborn baby and a 2-year-old and all the death. I couldn’t deal with life.”

<p>Summer Willis/Instagram</p> Summer Willis with her sons Alfred and August

Summer Willis/Instagram

Summer Willis with her sons Alfred and August

“I started looking into trauma and I read The Body Keeps the Score,” Summer adds, referring to the book by Bessel van der Kolk. “I realized, after finally looking into it and not just trying to avoid it, I didn’t ever deal with it… I just tried to shove it down. So, whenever I feel overwhelmed around my boys and whenever this other trauma happens to me, all of it just comes out.”

Finally committed to processing what happened to her, Summer turned to therapy, Bible study and running. After reading about a woman who ran 52 marathons in 52 weeks to raise money to combat pancreatic cancer, she felt inspired to do something similar. “I wanted to prove to myself that, no matter what happens, I could do hard things,” she says. She sought the advice of ultrarunner Camille Herron who offers training plans and within a couple of months, she went from “getting tired” after a 3-mile run to completing the Tahoe Triple (three marathons in three days) in October.

She could “hardly walk” after the first race, which took her more than seven hours to run. “I called my husband and I started to cry. I said, ‘I don’t know if I can do it tomorrow,’ ” Summer remembers. “And he was like, ‘You’re stronger than this.’ It was what I needed to hear.”

<p>Guilherme Benites for PAIGE</p> PAIGE founder Paige Adams-Geller is helping Summer Willis raise money for her nonprofit, Strength Through Strides

Guilherme Benites for PAIGE

PAIGE founder Paige Adams-Geller is helping Summer Willis raise money for her nonprofit, Strength Through Strides

It is this tenacity that inspired PAIGE jeans founder Paige Adams-Geller — a fellow sexual assault survivor — to help sponsor Summer. A longtime supporter of Denim Day she offered to give jeans to the first 29 people joining the D.C. march and 20 percent of all April 24 online sales to Strength Through Strides.

The two women connected in March, after Summer visited the UCLA Rape Treatment Center in Los Angeles. Adams-Geller says, “When I found out that she was running these marathons and having that 45-lb. mattress on her back, I had a recall from my PTSD of what that felt like. I felt that immediate bond and connection with her.”

Summer Willis running the London Marathon in April 2024
Summer Willis running the London Marathon in April 2024

That’s the kindred spirit that Summer’s banking on as she races towards her goal. Running marathons is making her mentally and physically stronger, while fundraising allows her to help others. She says, “I felt so alone, [like] dirt, so weak for years. I never want anyone to have those years taken away from them. I want them to know I’ll be their supporter. Even though they feel alone, I’m here.”

If you or someone you know has been sexually assaulted, please contact the National Sexual Assault Hotline at 1-800-656-HOPE (4673) or go to

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