How Running a Marathon Helped Me Take Back My Health

Turns out, running a marathon wasn't the most mentally and physically challenging thing I've ever done. Here's what was – and how it ultimately helped me cross the finish line.

Chicago Marathon Nike RunningPhoto Credit: Nike

I did it! I’m a marathoner. After I crossed the finish line and posted a smiling photo with my medal on Instagram the congratulations started rolling in. It was a nice feeling, and don’t get me wrong, I was proud of my accomplishment and super thankful to Nike Running Coach Brittany Moran and the team at Nike for helping me train. But part of me shrugged it off. I told well-wishers it just takes training and insisted they too could run one – which is true – but I found myself wondering why I felt the need to diminish my hard work. Perhaps, I thought, it was because I wasn’t surprised that I did it. I knew I could do it.

The truth is running a marathon wasn’t the hardest, most challenging mental and physical thing I’ve ever done. In my opinion, motherhood is harder. (Moms are superheroes, am I right!?) My initiation into motherhood was extra complicated. I left the hospital 11 days after I gave birth to a healthy baby girl, after I survived acute liver failure, encephalopathy (mental confusion) and a host of other health complications that were the result of a very late diagnosis of acute fatty liver of pregnancy (AFLP). Cue all the clichés. What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger; the greater the effort, the sweeter the reward; etc. I have a renewed sense of feeling incredibly capable and strong. But it didn’t happen right away and my experience as a runner played a big role in getting me through my personal health crisis.

How running helped my recovery

I started running regularly about six or seven years ago and it’s given me a lot. One of the more important things I’ve gained since I started lacing up is the ability to really know my body and what’s going on with it. But roughly a year and a half ago, my body failed me in a way I could never have imagined. AFLP is a rare (1 in 13,000) pregnancy-related condition. To super-simplify it: pregnancy and its related hormones caused my liver to stop functioning properly, leading to a build-up of the toxins that a healthy liver would normally filter. The first three days after my daughter was born are foggy, at best. I was unable to get out of bed and experienced confusion and hallucinations. Eventually, blood work and an ultrasound showed I was in acute liver failure and I was sent to the ICU. The mental fog began to clear after 24 hours in the ICU and I spent another week in the hospital following that. It was the toughest time of my life. I was separated from my newborn daughter, I was in a lot of physical pain, and the mental confusion and vivid hallucinations only heightened how frightened I felt. I didn’t think I’d ever be able to work again, or care for my daughter on my own.

As each day went by I got a little bit of my strength back and my mind cleared a bit more. It was easier for me to wrap my head around physical progress than it was mental and I think a lot of that had to do with what I’d learned as a runner.

Everything takes time

The first day I got out of bed I needed the support of a nurse, my husband and a walker to get to the washroom. The next day, I could walk the few steps to the washroom with the support of my IV pole. The day after that I made a few more steps to the door of my room, and eventually, a slow walk down the hall past the nurse’s station. Regaining my strength once we got home continued in the same way, adding a little bit of distance and time on my feet each day. In a way, having a background in running helped me accept that it would take time to regain my strength. Just as I didn’t expect to go out and run 10K (or even 5K) the first time I laced up my running shoes, I knew I needed to give my body time to heal.

It takes mental toughness

On the flip side, overcoming the mental challenges I was faced with during my illness and recovery definitely helped when I ran the Chicago Marathon. At just past the halfway point fatigue set in hard; I probably could have curled up on the course and had a nap right there! But I remembered why I was doing this race (for myself) and there was no way I was going to let myself down.

The team at Nike knew the halfway point was a hurdle and they were waiting there with cowbells and a camera, which gave me the kick I needed to pick up my pace. There’s a point in the marathon where physical strength and endurance become irrelevant and it’s a mental race. In fact, most elite runners work with a sports psychologist and train their brain just as they do their legs. It’s called mental toughness, and researchers say it accounts for 14 percent of racing success.

Doing it for me

Becoming a new mom really shakes your sense of self. Add a health crisis to the mix of newborn feedings and raging hormones, and I was feeling pretty lost for a while. Running a marathon was more of a personal goal to show myself I was back to being me.

The obvious best thing to come out of my health crisis is my little girl. After that, it might just be my kick-ass belief that I can do whatever the hell I set my mind to. And, 42.2 km later, I did.

I’m not the first new mom to run a marathon. Read Dr. Lindsey Forbes’ story here. And, don’t miss Damara Nickerson’s story. She’s a nurse who realized she needed to take control of her health — or risk ending up like her patients.