BLACKGUM -- As an active member of the Cherokee Nation's Wings program, Mae Dean Johnson Erb is missing the 5K races she usually runs this time of year. The runs have been canceled due to COVID-19.

"I try to make every one of the runs when we have them, and I've really missed it," the CN citizen said. "It's fun to see and wear our T-shirts when we are out and about. It's a great way to spread the message that exercise helps keep us well."

At area 5K/1K runs/walks during the spring, summer and fall, the CN Wings program pays the entry fees for its members. The runs and walks allow members to fellowship and share finish times. Some compete to win the 5K or finish in the top three in their age groups.

Erb said that's one thing that makes Wings special -- the friendships people develop.

"You make friends with people you didn't know before a lot of times. I have some very faithful walking/running friends, and we live far from each other, but we enjoy seeing each other at these runs," she said. "The other thing is it gives you some kind of incentive to be active. When Wings had to stop I knew I had to do something to keep up. I would never be doing this if it hadn't been for the incentive that Wings gave me of seeing how really, really beneficial it is because here I am 77 and unlikely to be doing it. I'm healthy because of the exercise. I think our immune system works better, and it sure makes it easier to play with grandbabies."

She emphasized people don't have to be athletes to do the runs and walks.

"Maybe we use the wrong verb. To get more people involved, maybe we should use walk more often because to hold on to our elders and (Cherokee) speakers, we need to give them the opportunity too," Erb said. "It's really hard to convince people you can do this. Age isn't the issue. It's just starting slow and working up to it."

She said she's been a Wings member for about 20 years. She credits her friend Marcella Morton for encouraging her to sign up and her husband Jim for being "a big supporter."

Also, about 20 years ago, her daughter and son invited her to Stilwell to take part in the annual "Run for the Berries" run during the Strawberry Festival when she was still teaching in El Reno.

"I came out and did that, and when we moved here soon after that I found out about the Wings program and I got involved in that because it just seemed like a perfect thing for us," she said.

Since that time Erb has done a marathon and some half marathons. She said she enjoys testing herself and setting goals and achieving them. She also enjoys the Wings runs being in different communities and counties because she likes visiting new places and running new courses.

"We run at Stilwell, and we did one in Vian, which I thought was fantastic. The medals are special too. I started saving all of those on my bedpost. Now, I don't just Wings runs, I do others," she said. "It's good (medals) for you to know that you did it, that you actually accomplished something. I'm well, thankful and doing this for myself and my family. I have realized even at 77 my own kids can see me as a role model in aging."