"You HAVE to keep moving. Movement is essential for individuals with Multiple Sclerosis. But you have to find what works for you. If it’s weightlifting, that’s great. If it’s playing tennis once a week, and biking the other days, that’s great, too. Whatever works for you and your life, just do it. Yes, there will be days when your body is saying absolutely no way! And that’s ok, I have them too! Just keep movement a primary part of your life."
Meet Alissa Frazier, a fellow personal trainer and coach, and fan of all things iron and grit. As most professional women are these days, she's pretty busy, between her mental health counseling work and her fitness and nutrition coaching, plus making time to stay fit for herself. But there’s one thing that sets her apart, and makes her a hero in my book: she is doing it all while living with Multiple Sclerosis.
How did you find out that you had Multiple Sclerosis (MS)?
I was diagnosed with MS in 2009. I was experiencing symptoms that I thought were totally separate, including vision issues and an odd electrical feeling down my spine. After several weeks of the vision issues not getting better, I made an appointment with an eye doctor to get checked out. He said my vision was fine, but after hearing my symptoms told me to get further tests, including an MRI, which I thought was weird and a bit concerning. He called with the results several days later, saying I didn’t have a brain tumor (thanks for the reassurance, doc!) but I needed to get to a neurologist pronto. After many tests, some routine, some downright awful, all signs pointed to Multiple Sclerosis.
How has having MS affected your exercise routine?
I didn’t start really focusing on working out and weight training until a year or so after my diagnosis. The first few years of having MS I still felt relatively normal, except for my daily medicine injections. I first dabbled with running, and ran a ridiculous amount of small races (5k/10ks) and four half marathons. I was also able to learn how to use weights and Kettlebells. I eventually hired a few online coaches to really figure out my way around and I fell in love with the iron.
Since my MS has changed over the years, it definitely affects my training a lot more now. Having MS makes my body very sensitive to heat, because heat brings back my old symptoms (something that all individuals with MS deal with), so I need to be careful of my body temperature during workouts or my vision will start to go very fuzzy, my legs will become numb and tingly, and I’ll get woozy. There are also general disruptions that occur, like when I’ve had my relapses, I had to take a significant amount of time off from training and basically doing anything. Or if I am dealing with a great amount of fatigue, I’ll need to take a day here and there to just rest.
What's your favorite way to exercise?
Oh, that’s hard! I’ve done so much! I’ve tried running, Muay Thai (Thai kickboxing), weightlifting, and now CrossFit. I’m not sure that I have a favorite, since they all had their advantages and disadvantages.
However, I do have a special place in my heart for the barbell. There is something so empowering about walking up to a heavy weight that is intimidating, getting your mind right, and being able to lift it. Which is probably why I really like CrossFit right now. It is an awesome feeling seeing a super hard workout planned for you, that you are questioning yourself on, then being able to do it.
Yes, somedays I have to modify the workout for whatever reason, either MS or still working up to the weight, but that’s ok. I can tailor anything to meet me where I am at that day.
Have you always loved fitness? What sports (or activities) did you do growing up?
I had always been a relatively active kid and teen. I was on the tennis team in high school and played basketball. I have memories of playing HORSE with my dad in our driveway and baseball in our backyard. In my college years I didn’t really get into working out as much as I would have liked, but I was still active, going on hikes, walking as much as I could, etc. I would go to the gym, but mostly run. I would do a few machines but never really knew what I was doing. But I never shied away from movement or activities.
Who inspires you?
I love hearing stories from other athletes and individuals who are managing chronic illnesses in their daily lives. Those stories tend to really give me hope that managing and balancing everything is possible.
This is going to sound cliché, but my mom also inspires me. She was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease several years after I was diagnosed with MS, and I watch her manage her house and all of her ‘motherly’ duties still while trying to deal with everything that comes with Parkinson’s, which is amazing.
What do you do on the days where your body is telling you that you just can't work out that day?
Those happen a lot! First, I check in with myself and make sure that I am being honest about my reasoning for not wanting to work out. I want to make sure I’m not just trying to get myself out of it, when I could really work out.
But if there are days where something hurts, or I am other-worldly exhausted, then I’ll give myself a rest day. Going into a workout in a state like that is asking for an injury. If I am already going to be compromising my form because I’m tired, then it’s not worth it. If I still want to move a little bit, then I’ll do something small with a Kettlebell or a bodyweight complex. Usually I’ll give myself a rest day.
What advice would you give to people about staying active while managing an illness like MS?
You HAVE to keep moving. Movement is essential for individuals with MS. It can be helpful in so many ways, including reducing pain, inflammation, and improving quality of life. Once you stop moving, then joints can start to stiffen and ache, muscles can lose their tone and strength and the chances of pain/immobility can increase.
But within the ‘movement’ umbrella, you have to find what works for you. If it’s weightlifting, that’s great. If it’s playing tennis once a week, and biking the other days, that’s great, too. If it’s walking every morning, that’s great too. Whatever works for you and your life, just do it. Yes, there will be days when your body is saying absolutely no way! And that’s ok, I have them too! Just keep movement a primary part of your life.
What role does nutrition play for you in terms of how you feel each day? Why did you choose to follow AIP?
Nutrition now plays a huge role in my life now. I follow the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP), which is a strict form of Paleo that is focused on eating nutrient dense foods and eliminating inflammatory foods. I have been following Paleo for about a year, and AIP for about 3 months. Since starting AIP I feel considerably better. Many of the symptoms I dealt with daily are gone, including pain, fatigue, and numbness/tingling/burning. My energy has greatly improved as well, which has afforded me the opportunity to train more!
I chose to finally switch to AIP from Paleo because I was fed up with feeling horrible every day. I had known about AIP for several years and kept telling myself I would do it, but never did. I finally reached my breaking point and felt that I couldn’t go through the day how I had been anymore. I needed to do something to make it better.
Anything to add?
I encourage anyone dealing with MS or a chronic illness to not sit back and let their disease happen to them. I’ve learned that mindset and attitude is everything. While it can be difficult to have a positive attitude while dealing with MS, it’s not impossible. I certainly have my days where I break down and let myself cry, because after all, this is hard! But I pick myself up at the end. I’ve found many people to talk to through who also have MS in the online space, and that has been priceless.
Want to connect with Alissa? You can find her online at www.Liss-MS.com, on Instagram @Liss.MS, and on Facebook at www.facebook.com/AlissaMS.
"The best comments I have gotten are from fathers who have read my ED series. I get emails and comments fairly regularly from fathers whose daughters or sons are suffering from eating disorders that they have been unable to understand until finding my blog. The relief in their comments is palpable."
I have a HUGE surprise for you, dear readers: an interview with the one-and-only T Rex Runner blogger, Danielle Cemprola.
I am trying my hardest not to gush like a 13-year-old at a Justin Bieber concert, but I can't even tell you how excited I was when Danielle agreed to the interview. I found her blog a few years ago while looking for a new marathon to run, and came across her race reports. She embodies all things I love about great bloggers: witty, open, and authentic. While I enjoyed her race reports, I was blown away by her series about her history with anorexia and bulimia.
So, grab a cup of coffee (or a gluten-free beer in honor of Danielle) and read this interview all the way through. And if you're not already a subscriber to her fantastic blog, do yourself a favor and sign up.
I know you said you used to hate running. When did you first find your love of running?
I'd say I first found my love of running about 2 months after I started. Ha! Just kidding.
No, but seriously, running sucks when you first start out and are out of shape. I started running regularly in late 2009. It was a welcome respite from my crumbling first marriage and provided me with some much needed clarity and an outlet for my energy at a difficult time. I really fell in love with it after my first half marathon in December, 2009. I felt like I could do anything after I crossed that finish line!
Do you have any advice for people who are thinking of running their first marathon?
Don't! You'll become addicted and start spending all your money on race entry fees and travel expenses.
But, if you insist, then my number one recommendation would be to take the training one day at a time. If you have a training plan, only print out each week. Resist the temptation to look ahead—it can feel extremely intimidating at first. If you take it day by day and resolve to at least TRY each workout, you'll realize that you are progressing steadily and can do more than you think!
Other than that, talk to a new person each mile during your race. You'll be amazed how quickly the time flies by! I started doing that in my fourth marathon and have met some of my best lifelong friends that way.
You have an incredible resolve to get back into fitness after each of your surgeries. What advice would you give people about getting back in to a fitness routine after an injury or surgery?
I'm not going to say "be patient," because that's annoying. What I'll say instead is "listen to what your body is telling you." The thing about recovery is that everyone is different—both for better and for worse. If you were in great shape before your surgery, you may recover faster than your doctor believes is possible. For example, my doctor cleared me to run 12 days after a major stomach surgery, and the soonest he had ever previously cleared anyone for activity was 4 weeks. You know what your body is capable of. That said, if you feel more tired than usual, are in a lot of pain, or aren't recovering from your workouts like normal, try and be patient. Your body is recovering from multiple things at once! The traditional advice is to take it slow, but I'll say to take it smart—only you know what that means.
Your ED series is amazing. What motivated you to tell your story about your history with eating disorders?
The thing that motivated me was the comment I received from the "burrito guys" that inspired my first post. Basically, it was a fairly mild joke about me having an eating disorder when I actually did have one. At that moment, I knew that I wanted to use the platform of my blog to educate people so that no one else would have to experience the pain I did at that moment. I never intended to share my story—very few people in my life were aware I had an eating disorder—but at that moment, the greater good seemed a lot more important than the embarrassment I felt. Ultimately, that series is among my favorite things that I have ever written; not because I think it's so well done, but more because I know it has changed people's lives. I get emails about it all the time!
What's the best comment you've received on your blog in response to a post?
Easily, the best comments I have gotten are from fathers who have read my ED series. I get emails and comments fairly regularly from fathers whose daughters or sons are suffering from eating disorders that they have been unable to understand until finding my blog. The relief in their comments is palpable. I know what a hard time my dad had when I was extremely sick, and giving peace to those fathers is the most worthwhile thing my blog has done, at least from my perspective.
Have you ever gotten any feedback on the blog that was difficult to respond to?
Well, I did have this one reader—an older gentleman—who really hated when I used animated GIFs in my posts. He used to send me emails that said, "I love your blog, but I get too distracted by all of those damn moving pictures and I can't read it!" I didn't really know what to say to that because my GIFs are amazing. Other than that, no, not really. I've been extremely lucky to have very supportive readers. I do post every comment I receive on my blog, but they're almost never negative.
I love your travel stories. What would you say is the oddest thing that's happened to you on a trip?
Oh, I have lots of weird things happen! The one that comes to mind at the moment happened on my recent trip when I was in Lisbon. I was walking along the river at sunset and lots of couples were walking along, cuddling, or watching the sunset. I walked past one couple and the guy was very passionately serenading his girlfriend with "Hotline Bling" and the girl was staring up at him with just the utmost love and admiration. It was clear to me that she must not speak English because otherwise, you'd have to be laughing. I silent-laughed so hard that I cried.
One of my favorites out of your travel posts is the story about meeting Dave Matthews while you were in Abu Dhabi, especially when he says, "I'm David, by the way." What's it like when the shoe is on the other foot, where readers recognize you and want their picture with you? I know you always say you feel awkward, but has it gotten easier?
Ha! It has definitely gotten easier. I love meeting readers! I think I just feel a little awkward that people are nervous to meet me. I'm just a person who happens to occupy a little space on the internet! But I think it's great and I try to make people feel comfortable as quickly as possible, because I know how nervous I get when I meet other bloggers that I admire!
I'd like to know more about your work with the school in Jamaica. Do you have plans to keep fundraising for them? Are you going back to see them?
I met the student-athletes and the coach at Rhodes Hall High School in Hanover, Jamaica on my trip to cover the Reggae Marathon for Women's Running magazine. I was immediately impressed by their coach, a wonderful 27-year-old guy. He puts his heart, soul, and his own money into this team, as many of the students cannot afford basic running gear like shoes and clothing. When I met them, I knew I had to help any way I could! I do plan to continue my efforts to fundraise for them in the future. I'd like to do a gear drive each year for sure—everyone has extra running gear that they can stand to get rid of! I hope to go back this year to cover the race again and visit the students.
I love that you're now a Barre instructor—I'm a huge fan of Barre classes. What do you think the benefits are of adding a few Barre classes to your fitness regime when you're a runner?
Barre has been a total game changer for my running! The biggest benefits are the core strengthening aspects of the workout. We always hear as runners that we need to do core work, but how many people actually commit to doing it regularly? Barre provides a great no-impact workout that works your core the entire time. For me, the glute and hip strengthening has been especially important and has definitely improved how I feel at the end of races.
One last question. You inspire a lot of people through your blog. Who inspires you?
My dad! He's my hero. He taught me to never take no for an answer, always do my best, and dream big. I think my life has taken a different path than he probably expected, but he's proud of me.
About Danielle Cemprola, aka The T Rex Runner
Danielle has run 50 marathons and many half marathons in 37 states and 3 countries. Her blog, www.trexrunner.com, documents her races and other adventures around the planet as she seeks to run a marathon or half marathon in every state and visit as many countries as possible along the way. Her passions include tacos, travel, sarcasm, and strong margaritas. Danielle lives in Greenville, South Carolina in the U.S. with her husband A.J. and their rescued Rottweiler, Rocket.
"Up until the last couple of years of my active playing career, I'd had way worse injuries in skating than in rugby—stitches from a blade in the leg, broken foot, broken arm, bruised face....though, those last two years of rugby may have caught me up."
I met rugby stalwart Jessa Giordano back in the late 90's, when she was fresh out of undergrad, a new member of the New York Rugby Club, and full of interesting stories. Her first trip with our rugby team was to the Savannah St. Patrick’s Day tournament, which is one of the most fun weekends I’ve ever had, and not just because we got to ride on a parade float (which we subsequently broke, but that’s another story.) Unfortunately I’ll have to keep further details of that trip to myself in order to follow the golden rule—what goes on tour, stays on tour—but I can tell you why I’ve decided to feature Jessa here.
Jessa was born with club feet. The average person born with club feet may choose to follow the path of leisurely exercise that’s easy on the feet and ankles, but Jessa is not your average person. So what does she do? She becomes a competitive ice skater, and then a rugby player. Badass extraordinaire.
“I started gymnastics at four years old because my mother signed me up and I thought it was fun, even though looking back I was very mediocre (and it was a very good thing I chose skating when a choice had to be made...a 5'9" skater is tall but still possible...not so much with gymnastics). I didn't realize I liked playing actual sports until I was in college and found rugby, which was too late in my opinion.
When I was seven, I had friends who skated...and apparently it was on the list of "sports Jessa should try" to help out with my feet. I was born with club feet and had corrective surgery for it as a baby. I've always had awful ankle flexibility, with a tendency to walk with my feet turned in and to supinate. Skating was good in that it forces turnout and you push off the inside of your blade. And I was pretty ok at it from the beginning, which helped me stick with it. I'm a funny looking runner (or walker, or really anything on dry land) but on skates that goes away. I skated all the way through college, competitively for about 10 years. I was decent—nobody was ever going to confuse me with someone who was going to the Olympics—but I was good enough to have coaching as my job through college and compete at collegiate nationals (a far different beast from regular nationals, where most of the skaters don't go to regular school, let alone college).
I don't think I had really heard of rugby before college and I’d certainly never seen a game. I knew people who played at Mt. Holyoke—enough to know a team existed—and met some guys at Amherst College who played. As a side note, I also was better than average at chugging a beer. One friend from Amherst sat me down and said that between that chugging ability and my tendency to pick fights with him I needed to try rugby. I joined my sophomore year and was hooked from the first practice.
Up until the last couple of years of my active playing career, I'd had way worse injuries in skating than in rugby—stitches from a blade in the leg, broken foot, broken arm, bruised face....though, those last two years of rugby may have caught me up.
So how hard was it to decide to stop playing rugby? Yeah. Lots. A knee surgery followed by a foot surgery within 18 months of each other kind of clinched it. And Casey and I wanted to start trying for kids (yes, I know there are those amazing people out there who are parents *and* still play regularly; I am awed by them...and suspect they live a lot closer to their club than I do to NYRC). The few times we've "gotten the band back together" for Olde Love at one tournament or other have been the best possible ways to recapture everything that was great about our team...and I look forward to doing it again (Saranac 2016!). But these times also make it clear that not only does my body not recover like it once did, but more importantly that when I am missing rugby and think how much I want to play again, it's really that I want to play with *that* team again - not just anyone.
These days I run because it's free, it gets me outside (I detest the treadmill), makes me tired, gives me alone time, and because wine. And cheese. And beer. I'm amazed and impressed by friends who are able to run marathons (looking at you, Rachel.) The farthest I've ever run without walking is a 10K, and that was two years ago. Real runners are amazing!
My kids are also starting to get into sports. I think because both [my husband] Casey and I are active (he coaches Crossfit at the high school where he teaches and also works out at the local Crossfit/barbell club) the kids see it as normal to sweat and get out of breath on a regular basis. In addition to regular kids’ sports, they do Crossfit kids once a week and my son started track and field with a local club in the spring, and that partially came out of a couple times where he did a fun run before one of my longer races. They both like to "work out" with me when I'm using the bar/rings etc in our garage. They think "working out" is fun, and I hope it stays that way.”
"Every year there's a banner for all the runners to sign at the Boston Marathon Expo. This year, I signed it, 'With gratitude and love.' Every word is true."
I met Jennifer back when I was playing college rugby at the University of New Hampshire. She was a good rugby player, but more importantly, a great teammate with dedication and drive. After college she became a cardiac surgical nurse at Mass General in Boston. In 2013, I watched Jennifer raise funds for a children’s cancer fund as part of the Mass General Boston Marathon team. That year, Jennifer was only able to run 26.18 of that race and witnessed one of the most horrific scenes imaginable.
“My athletic career, so to speak, began when I was about six years old. My parents signed me up for youth soccer without telling me, but it was probably one of the best gifts they ever gave me. I wasn't great at it at first, but eventually youth soccer turned into summer leagues, districts, and high school varsity soccer. I was in a sea of competitive girls, with a few standouts, who all loved being on a team.
I was not talented enough to join the soccer team at UNH and I felt I wouldn't have been able to carry the course load and the demands of a varsity sport, but I realized I missed being on a team. A few friends convinced me to join the UNH Women’s Rugby Club. Again, another sport I knew nothing about, but one of the best decisions I have ever made. I was active again, learning a new sport, challenging myself, and hoping and praying I didn't chip (or lose) a tooth.
After graduating and entering a physically and emotionally demanding profession, I stopped exercising. Running for the MBTA was about the most exercise I got because of an unpredictable and varying schedule. One morning, I woke up and decided I was going to start running.
I loved it. My first race was a 10K and my second race—ever—was the Marine Corps Marathon. I trained for it, but I had no idea what I was really getting myself into. After I crossed the finish line, I knew that I was not 'one and done.'
By 2010, I had dozens of races and half marathons under my belt and had started working at Massachusetts General Hospital. In November, I received an email about joining the MGH Marathon Team, which raises money for the MGH Pediatric Oncology Clinic. Donations help support programs at Mass General, including clinical trials, lab research, a brain tumor program, a long term survivor clinic, Child Life and Child Psychology specialties and the HOPES program, which provides art, music, and massage therapies for all the children at the clinic. These programs are not supported by the hospital or insurance, but all supported by philanthropy. After submitting my request, I was told that the team and the waiting list were full. My heart sank. I continued my winter running routine but I wasn’t really training. Thankfully in February a spot opened up on the team, and thus began my absolute love for the MGH Marathon Team, my city, and the Boston Marathon.
2011 was a picture perfect day with a tail wind.
2012 was 89 degrees. Hot and unforgiving.
2013 was life changing. I was on Boylston Street and had run 26.18 miles of a 26.2 mile race when the first bomb went off. At first I thought it was a cannon, but then I realized what it was. I immediately stopped running.
Standing in the middle of the street, I was suddenly surrounded by throngs of spectators, who had stopped cheering and were eerily quiet. The second bomb went off. Among the terror and chaos were five of my friends waiting for me right outside of the Forum. All were injured, but one friend got carried to the street by a stranger, lifted onto a back board by two fire fighters (one of whom was lost in the fire in the Back Bay almost a year later) and taken to my hospital in the back of a paddy wagon, where my friends and coworkers did everything they could to help her. Unfortunately she lost one of her legs, despite everyone's best efforts.
2014 was electric. This city was ready to reclaim the finish line.
2015 was amazing. My friend who had lost her leg ran down Boylston St. with a friend who was on the 4/15 Survivor Team. I didn't get to see it, but I saw the joy and enthusiasm on her face when I joined them after I crossed. I will never forget her radiance in that moment.
Many other wonderful events happen because of the Boston Marathon. I am happy to report, that my Patient Partner, who has been cheering me on since 2013, is over one year cancer free. In addition to running Boston for my Patient Partner, I had the unique opportunity to run the New York City Marathon in 2013 to raise money for my friend who was injured at the finish line.
Every year, there is a banner for all the runners to sign at the Boston Marathon Expo. This year, I signed it, 'With gratitude and love' and every word is true. Because of running, strangers have become friends, friends have become family. I am a better daughter, sister, friend, and nurse, all because one day, I decided to lace up my sneakers and get after it.”
Neily the rugger meets Kelly the philanthropic surfer. Beauty and love ensue. And a very cute surfer baby.
“[Our daughter] will definitely be exposed to the ocean, the outdoors, and surfing. Whether she chooses to be a surfer or not is another question. Eventually she will go on Share the Stoke missions and will be exposed to people from different cultures. She will know early on what it is like to give back.”
I met Neily (shown on the right in the above picture) in the late 90’s when she joined the New York Rugby Club, fresh out of college. You always knew when she was around as her laugh could draw a crowd. When she left NYC to attend grad school, we fell out of touch for a while. But thanks to Facebook, I watched her life take the loveliest turns: she fell in love with a golf pro-turned-surfer-philanthropist named Kelly Kingston, had a baby, and got married. The work that Kelly has done for her non-profit organization, Share the Stoke, is nothing short of magical for the kids who live in surf towns but can’t afford their own boards.
Here, Neily and Kelly talk about their love of sports, and how they found their way to rugby, surfing, the foundation, and each other.
Tell me about your paths to rugby and surfing.
Neily: I found my way to rugby by way of the crew team in college. After a year of waking up at 5am to get on the water, I was exhausted. One day, I walked past the rugby field and watched a bunch of girls laughing and playing in the mud. Frankly, it looked more fun than getting up at 5am to row.
Kelly: I did a lot of sports growing up: I played soccer, softball, volleyball, basketball, and golf. Eventually I became a golf pro and a surfer. I love surfing because I love being out in nature surrounded by an immense amount of sea life. I love that when I surf I become completely in the present moment.
Kelly, tell me about the Share the Stoke Foundation. Let’s start with what it feels like to give a surfboard to someone in need.
It feels amazing being on the other side of it—I know the potential of what a surfboard can do for a person. Sports—including surfing—are so important for kids to experience. Sports provide endless opportunities to learn, experience new things, new people, and new cultures.
How has Share the Stoke evolved since you first got started?
Share the Stoke has really evolved since we began. The biggest change has been the growth in the number of people we impact. We continuously impact hundreds of kids all over the world.
How does it feel to teach someone to surf for the first time?
It’s fun. Especially when they stand up and ride their first wave. They usually freak out and it brings happiness. You really never forget your first wave.
What influence do you think your work on the foundation will have on your daughter?
She will definitely be exposed to the ocean, the outdoors and surfing. Whether she chooses to be a surfer or not is another question. Eventually she will go on Share the Stoke missions and she will be exposed to people from different cultures. She will know early on what it is like to give back.
Neily, how did you and Kelly meet?
We met in Hawaii. I was on a family vacation and Kelly lived there. It took us a few years to eventually live in the same city but it was worth the wait.
To learn more about how Kelly founded Share the Stoke, read her interview with Transworld Business or her interview with The Inertia.
To learn more about Share the Stoke, visit http://sharethestokefoundation.org/
“Was I on sports teams? Yeah. Did I actually play? Rarely. My sister was the athlete, I was the actress, and that's just how it was.”
To say my friend Melanie is a woman of determination and multiple talents is an understatement. From her powerful voice on stage, to her inspiring voice leading a Weight Watchers meeting, to her loud cheers from the side of a road race, Melanie has an infectious energy that can fill a room. It’s also highly likely that if you hear someone running behind you singing something from an Andrew Lloyd Webber show, odds are, it’s Melanie. But Melanie wasn’t always a runner.
"I'm not quite sure why I like to run, to be honest. Sometimes running makes me feel like a complete badass who can do anything, and sometimes it makes me feel like a complete slug. Sometimes it makes me sexy and sometimes it beats the crap out of me. Most of the time I live somewhere in between. The thing that drew me to running was the simplicity of it—just throw on your shoes and go. But I have to be honest—some days I'm still working on "finding my love of exercise." But that's okay. They can't all be awesome.
About nine years ago, I had lost about 40 pounds through Weight Watchers. I knew I needed to find something sustainable to do to stay in shape but I HATED the gym. It smells bad, it's expensive, and the lighting always gives me a headache. Worst of all, you work your tail off on a cardio machine and don't actually GO anywhere!
Then one day I realized I could just break up with the gym, save myself $75 a month, and just start walk/jogging around my neighborhood instead. So that's what I did. I would turn on my headphones, listen to "Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamboat" (early Andrew Lloyd Webber really gets me going) and then when the mega mix came on, I would make a beeline home. A good friend who was an experienced runner encouraged me to sign up for a 4 mile race, and when I got my free bagel and t-shirt, I was hooked. I was so tickled that I was able to make myself go that far, I wanted to see what else I could do and how much further I could go. Since then, I've run 15 full marathons, a 60K ultra-marathon, and countless other races.
The crazy part is that I wasn’t much of an athlete when I was growing up. Was I on teams? Yeah. Did I actually play? Rarely. My sister was the athlete, I was the artist and that's just how it was. In high school, gym class was an attendance-based pass/fail sort of deal. I would usually change into my gym clothes, get counted for attendance, and then when the class would go outside to play soccer or whatever, I would turn around and go back to the locker room, change, and enjoy an extra-long lunch period. I never got caught.
My favorite race, hands down, was the NYC 60K in November 2013. It was 9 loops in Central Park, and the longest distance I had ever run at the time. It was the first time that I toed the line and honestly didn't know if I was going to finish. Since it was the same loop over and over again, people took turns hopping in the race with me. In fact, out of the 37.28 miles of that race, I only ran about 1.5 miles solo. And even then, I made friends with the guy running next to me and we finished holding hands.
I recently received my running coach certification and am now working as a running coach in Brooklyn. When I watched the NYC Marathon this year (I didn't run since I did the Marine Corps Marathon the week prior) I remember watching for some of my Weight Watchers members at the back of the pack. You could tell a lot of the runners were first timers. They were just so happy to be there, amazing themselves with every step. I thought to myself, "I want to learn to make those. I want to make marathoners." So I did.
In addition to her time on the road as a running coach, Melanie will soon be appearing as Maria in the off-Broadway production of My Big Gay Italian Funeral on August 2 and August 9. Not to be missed!
“Whenever I exercised, I always felt like I was winning against cancer. As long as I could move, I was okay.”
For my cousin Sue, getting back onto her bike while battling cancer was not just about the time for herself, away from her busy life as a teacher and mother of three teenage girls. It was the path to recovery.
“I found my love of exercise after [twin daughters] Isabel and Emily were born and I started Weight Watchers. It became not only a way for me to lose weight, but one of the few things I could do for myself when the girls were so young. Eventually I did it as much for my mind as my body.
I always tell people that working and exercising were the two things that got me through chemo. When I had to make the decision to have chemo or not, one of the deciding factors was that not only could I exercise during it, but that I should exercise because it helped with side effects and reduced the risk of recurrence. I walked about five days a week throughout and also got into riding my bike, which was a lot easier on my body than running. Whenever I exercised, I always felt like I was winning against cancer. As long as I could move, I was okay.
I hope that my love of exercise has influenced my girls. Isabel and Emily will be cross country captains next year and they're very into fitness. Caroline also goes to the gym and has done spinning classes, which I like to think has something to do with me!!
My dad was very athletic but he never really encouraged me and my siblings to be athletic. He's had more of an influence since he's been gone, actually. There are times when I'm hurting or don't think I can do it, I think of him and his incredible strength and know that somewhere inside of me I have his strength too.
I’ve now run a few races and done several rides but I do have two favorite events—the NYC Half Marathon and the Smilow Bike Ride. The NYC Half was my first half and it was so amazing to be running through the city, especially when I hit 42nd street. My other favorite was my first Smilow Bike Ride (Smilow is the cancer center at Yale where I was treated). It was 3 months after I finished chemo and I was still fairly bald, but I made it through the 25 miles and even passed some people on a hill. It was such a great feeling. The picture here was taken right after I finished that ride.
Here’s a funny story from my early days of running. I had to have an upper endoscopy. When the nurse took my vitals before the procedure, my pulse was low and she said, "You must be a runner." That was the first time someone said that to me. I was knocked out for the procedure and when I came to, I told [my husband] Ron the story. He said, "I know, you've told me this three times already. YOU’RE A RUNNER!”