Usually by mile 21, it’s not uncommon to see a marathoner gritting her teeth. At Arizona’s Lost Dutchman Marathon in February, however, runner Dawn Ciccone’s pearly whites told another story. The 59-year-old petite blonde from Highlands, N.J., was beaming from start to finish and looking as fresh and peppy near the end as she was at mile 1. It’s not that the veteran endurance runner, who has completed some 20 marathons, is immune to hitting a wall. In fact, running is more challenging than ever since Ciccone was struck by an SUV nine years ago. But still, she just couldn’t contain her gratitude.
“The joy of running outweighs the pain, so I always run with a stupid smile on my face,” Ciccone says with a laugh.
For someone who had lost the ability to run, it’s easy to understand why Ciccone would feel so elated to compete in her third marathon since a horrific car accident. Back in 2006, doctors couldn’t see how she would ever walk without a limp, let alone run. Yet, she was in Arizona’s Apache Junction at the base of the majestic Superstition Mountains, clocking a time of 4:02 and earning second place in her age group.
Force of Habit
Like many folks, Ciccone picked up running to get healthy. In 1982, at age 27, she traded in her two-packs-a-day smoking habit for running shoes and started to jog-walk a block at a time in her neighborhood. Running quickly became part of her daily routine. By age 32, she began racing (and winning her age group) almost every weekend, tallying up about 22 events annually. By 2000, her legs were covering roughly 40 miles a week, more than 2,000 miles a year.
Over the last three decades, Ciccone has come to think of running as her antidepressant. “I run for my sanity,” she says, sharing a common anthem with many runners. She ran to deal with a difficult divorce. She ran to alleviate the stress of becoming a single mom to her then 6-year-old daughter, Antonette. She ran before and after her father’s funeral. She ran in the New York City Marathon less than two months after Sept. 11, 2001. Lacing up made everything better.
“The only way out is through,” she’d say to herself while slipping on her sneaks and running through conflict—until she couldn’t.
Stopped in Her Tracks
At 3:30 p.m. on April 4, 2006, Ciccone’s life changed in a flash. As she jogged toward a coastal car-free path at Gateway National Park, about a half-mile from her home in New Jersey, Ciccone paused to cross an exit lane where a Fedex truck had stopped and flagged her to keep moving. An impatient driver in an SUV behind the truck, however, went over the curb to pass. Not seeing Ciccone, he hit the gas and plowed right into her at 25 miles an hour.
“I vividly remember putting my hands out to stop the SUV. It didn’t work. I was thrown 15 feet in the air. I don’t remember flying, but I do remember lying on the ground and watching them shut down the bridge,” says Ciccone, who never lost consciousness throughout the whole excruciatingly painful ordeal. In the ambulance, she recalls the EMTs discussing which hospital to take her to, and then in the emergency room, she watched six people frantically working on her.
“They cut off my favorite gray running tights. I was pissed,” she says. “I wanted them to hurry up and finish so I could get back to my run. It wouldn’t sink in that I was not leaving.” Meanwhile, doctors fought to save her left knee, which had popped out of her skin. Her right tibia had been shattered in five places, and her head needed about 30 staples. After multiple surgeries, Ciccone was finally allowed to return home three weeks after the accident.
The way the car’s bumper had slammed into her knees, it threw her hips and back out of whack, which is part of the reason doctors assumed she would be left with a permanent limp. “I’m out of balance and there’s no way to correct it,” Ciccone says. “I left the doctor’s office crying every time he told me that I’d never run again. I didn’t want to believe him. I’d leave depressed but not defeated.”
Sitting at home in a wheelchair by the window, where she would spend most of her early recovery days, Ciccone had a lot of time to herself to reflect. “I forgave the driver almost immediately. It wasn’t like he aimed at me,” she says. And in a crazy way, she was sort of grateful.
“Before the accident, I was a needy person who stayed in a very dysfunctional relationship for 10 years. I was depressed and had low self-esteem,” she explains. With her daughter heading off to college and her unfaithful boyfriend essentially abandoning her at the hospital, Ciccone realized she had no one to lean on but herself.
“I had to get to know Dawn and learn how to be independent and self-reliant,” she says. “Someone had to start having my back and if it’s not me, who is it?”
Running Against All Odds
The first six months back home were the hardest. Stuck in a wheelchair, not working (she had taken a hiatus from teaching), she felt more alone than ever—but remained optimistic. “I would try not to focus on my depression from being immobile and vulnerable. Instead, I put all of my energy into becoming strong again,” recalls Ciccone, who often slept downstairs on a recliner to avoid climbing the stairs to her bedroom on her backside.
Though a nurse and a caretaker visited her weekly, she knew if she wanted to get back on her feet pronto, she needed to take action herself. So in her living room, Ciccone created a makeshift rehab center. Eight months later, she was able to walk with a cane and return to work—this time as a medical receptionist. Soon enough, she began venturing into running again very slowly, starting on a treadmill in her basement.
“It was unbelievable how sensitive the soles on my feet were. Moving from a wheelchair to a walker to a cane, my soles hadn’t borne any weight in a long time, so that was quite an adjustment. Also, my left knee feels totally artificial. It works, but when I kneel on it, it feels like I’m on a block of wood,” she says.
As her walk-runs progressed on the treadmill, she decided to throw out all of her trophies except for a few of her most treasured ones. “That was then and this is now. I have to prove myself as a new runner,” she says.
Ciccone also opted to toss out all of her old sneakers and buy Hoka One One’s. These were the only shoes that allowed her to run with her new crooked gait and perpetual plantar fasciitis. When she began picking up the pace, she repeated this mantra to herself to persuade her body to perform at its best: “Run like you’ve never been hit.”
The Winner’s Circle
Exactly one year after the accident, Ciccone returned to the starting line. At her first 5K in April 2007, she dominated with 27:28. Three weeks later, she entered another 5K and crushed the race with 25:24. She continued to train hard, and by 2009, she competed in her first 15K back and won her division as well as the race’s official Comeback Award. That same year, Ciccone tackled her first half marathon back with a victorious 1:47. The following year, she ran her first post-accident marathon in Costa Rica, earning the top podium spot among her peers with 3:57. She hasn’t come close to her pre-accident marathon PR of 3:18 just yet, but she recognizes that it’s only a matter of time.
Today, Ciccone is averaging about 7 miles a day or 40 to 50 miles a week, and 15 to 20 races per year, including the More/Fitness/Shape Women’s Half Marathon in New York City in April, where she finished in 1:47 and took sixth place in her age group.
“Not bad considering the field was close to 10,000 women,” she says, giving herself a small pat on the back. But it’s not replenishing her trophy shelf that gives her the most pride.
“The gift I have now is that I get runner’s high every single time, even if the run starts out poorly. I have so much more gratitude because I can run,” says Ciccone, who hopes to one day enter a 100-mile race. More grateful, confident, hopeful, determined, resilient and stronger than ever, Ciccone will no doubt go the distance.
To learn more about Dawn, visit YOU Certainly Can Run.