Health,  Life

My Journey to Health, Part I: College Days and Running Ways

I’ve come a long way in my journey towards health and well-being, I figured it was time to start sharing my story 🙂 Every day has its new set of challenges, as I continue to learn and grow. But no matter the bumps on the road, the overall progress has been so positive, because I am finally taking my life and OWNING it. Feels amazing. So here it goes…

I grew up with a dream to be a Hawkeye, just like my role models – my parents, and run in the Olympics. They never pushed running on me or my four siblings, rather let us come to it on our own. And I think that is what made it stick. It was our choice and our heart. Being the oldest, it took me a little longer to find my way, with no one in front to guide. This had its pros and cons, but ultimately makes me who I am.

After playing soccer, basketball and track throughout high school, I knew I wanted to go to a DI school, and running was my best chance. I was able to join the University of Iowa’s Cross Country and Track & Field team as a recruited walk-on and couldn’t have been more excited. I was en route to becoming a professional athlete!

Little did I know the obstacles I would have to overcome. I learned a lot about how things in life happen for a reason and not always according to your plans. But they say God only gives you what you can handle, so I have always held that consolation deep down, that I would be able to get through whatever was thrown in my path.

I went from a 3-months/year runner to a year-round runner (minus 1-2 weeks after each season). The jump in training was definitely noticed during my first (EVER) cross country season. I could barely walk up the dorm stairs haha. But I made up some ground come spring track and dropped several seconds off my high school times.

xc soph 2 First cross country meet sophomore year

What started as a promising sophomore year, shortly turned downhill after a hard, hilly, rainy workout following a 5-hour drive. My body reacted in a way I had never experienced and could hardly describe. All I knew was the next night I literally could NOT lift my leg out of my jeans when getting ready for bed. I squatted down and my muscles felt like they were tearing apart. “That’s weird,” I thought, but didn’t know what to make of it. So I just did an easy run the next morning to “shake out”…my legs still felt broken down, but much better. Returning to training, my ability to run and recover quickly declined. I found myself in tears, unable to move or use my muscles without severe pain, and my legs were covered in purple bruises. The doctors said it was full-body inflammation due to “overuse syndrome”, put me on 10 ibuprofen a day for 10 days, and told me to not exercise for 2 weeks. {This also marks the last time I can remember having a menstrual cycle over the past 9 years…yikes…more to come}.

After a lot of rest and “arm swimming”, as I call it, I finally returned to running that winter, but never felt quite the same. Something was off, but I didn’t know what. So I continued to push my body to perform. A multitude of lower leg injuries, nutritional deficiencies (primarily ferritin – runners get your levels checked!) and fatigue issues followed over the next several years, often bringing me to tears during something so simple as a warm-up run. Some things appeared in my blood work like “fatty liver”, despite not drinking alcohol, and a continually low white blood cell count, but no medical diagnoses could be made. Nevertheless, I loved training, my team, my friends and my entire university experience.

Following graduation, I was fortunate to be admitted to the University of Iowa MBA program, which also allowed me to run my 5th year of eligibility. This blessing certainly came with its own set of challenges – managing rigorous course loads, extra career development activities,  a long distance relationship and training, all while my health continued to decline. This time it turned to stomach issues. I went from competing in my first Big Ten Cross Country Championships (SO excited!!), to experiencing the worst stomach pain in my life a few weeks later and being hospitalized with cases of colitis and pancreatitis (cause undetermined). Somehow I was back to training for indoor track another couple of weeks after. I look back and cannot believe I managed that! I guess I just learned to tough it out.

After struggling all winter with continued fatigue, stomach issues, and losing weight without trying (down 10 lbs to 115 despite eating a lot!), I finally found out I had Celiac disease over spring break. For those who aren’t familiar with Celiac disease, it is an autoimmune condition that causes the body’s immune system to attack the small intestine when gluten is ingested (via foods containing or derived from wheat, rye or barley).  This damages your villi, which absorb nutrients from food. Long-term, it can lead to malnutrition and many other serious health issues. There is a lot of great information here, for reference.

This explained many of my issues and marked the last time I have (knowingly) eaten gluten. After changing my diet, the year finished on a more positive note, running my last and best 800m race in 2:12. And then I was done! For better or worse. This triggered many “what if’s” and “if only I had known sooner” thoughts, but again, things happen for a reason 🙂

track 5yr drakeMy 5th year and last Drake Relays!

My college running career was certainly not what I had anticipated or hoped. However, for all that went “wrong”, there were so many things I gained. At the forefront were the amazing relationships I developed, which I wouldn’t trade for the world. My experiences taught me so much, especially how to be strong and deal with adversity (though I learned later that there can and should be a limit to how “strong” you must be before it can turn negative…more to come on that!).

Looking back, it’s easier to see how all the pieces have led me to where I am now, but for many of us, it can feel overwhelming when you’re right in the thick of everything. I’ve been able to do a better job of stepping back and seeing the big picture, not getting caught up in and worrying over all the little things, but it’s a constant struggle. Most recently I have been working on letting go and not trying so hard to “fix” myself or things that aren’t going my way. I have found that the more I fight, the more resistance I face, and I make no progress. Rather when I just let things be and accept where I am at, they seem to fall into place in ways I never anticipated. Now if only I had such insight during my college days and running ways!

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Today…feeling so much joy to be on my way to renewed health and vitality 🙂

{To be continued}

Yours Jenuinely, xoxo

 

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