Real Runners: How Running Changed My Course In Life
Vanessa C. Peralta-Mitchell /
One Of The Most Dedicated Runners Around
There were many obstacles that could have made me stop running over the course of my 13-year running history. I’m not talking about injuries and the like; I’m talking about life-changing obstacles that literally stop you in your tracks.
I remember vividly running a 5K with a best friend. It was our first (and only) run together, and crossing that finish line was going to be the best celebration not only because of our accomplishment but because I had some very exciting news for her: I was pregnant with my second child, and it felt as if all three of us had crossed that finish line together. The thing is, the baby never made it–and I stopped running for a year after that. I don’t think I ever truly blamed running for my miscarriage; perhaps I was more afraid of it and needed time to return to the pavement.
I eventually did, and was determined to run a life-long dream of mine: the New York City Marathon. After getting in, I found out I was pregnant and had to defer my race entry. Once my second son was born, I had about eight months to train, all while doing what most of us do: work full-time, raise a family, be a wife, etcetera. Despite all of my training, I never could have been prepared for Super Storm Sandy and the devastation brought by that horrific storm. The race organizers cancelled the marathon that year, and rightfully so. It would take a third try before I finally ran the NYC Marathon, and it was without a doubt one of the biggest accomplishments of my running career.
During this time, I also started noticing one of the biggest changes in my body. I’d already had a hernia after my first son was born, and I noticed that my stomach wasn’t the same after the birth of my second son. After seeing specialists, I was told it was the result of a diastasis recti. I had never heard of this condition before; essentially, it’s when your abs split and never come back together. That “change” in my body was my insides coming out with no muscle holding them in. Needless to say, it’s not the prettiest of sights and certainly not the easiest to accept–especially since there was nothing naturally that could be done for it. And so I pressed on, even though my abs were about three finger widths apart from each other. Ceasing any and all ab workouts, I focused solely on my running to get me into shape after gaining more than 50 pounds while pregnant with my second son.
Eventually my goal of merely crossing finish lines started turning into increasing my speed and decreasing my time. This came to a halt with the surprise of a third pregnancy. Complications seem to foreshadow the first trimester, but given my history, I was certainly not sharing this news with anyone other than my husband. As the Run Lead for a local group, I did my best to disguise my figure, especially given the 10-mile race I had coming up. I remember the night so vividly: that heart-wrenching feeling of knowing what is happening to your body and your unborn baby, because you’ve been down this road before.
I drove myself to the hospital while having this latest miscarriage to keep the news to myself and my husband, because the sadness that such news brings is unbearable. I literally had a miscarriage in the wee hours of a Friday morning and ran that 10 miler the following Sunday. There was no pride in that decision–just the utmost need for privacy. As the Run Lead, it was impossible for me to miss the race without an explanation. Given my vulnerable state, I just didn’t want anyone questioning me if I had chosen to not show up, for fear of revealing the true reason.
In some weird way, running my heart out during that race gave me the feeling of being in control with something in my life instead of being a victim to something I didn’t. I held that secret for more than a year until my husband and I were blessed with a third baby. After our first two boys, we had a baby girl, and our family was complete! Being fully aware of my diastasis recti, I noticed that it had gotten worse. After being checked by a professional, I was shocked to learn that it was significantly worse. The gap between my abs had widened and was now six fingers wide above my belly button, seven fingers wide at my belly button and five fingers wide below my belly button.
Having gained more than 60 pounds during this latest pregnancy, I was determined to go back to the running drawing board. I had to start from the beginning: walking only once around our neighborhood (roughly 0.85 miles) once a week. Over time, I increased that so I was walking twice around the neighborhood twice a week. Slowly but surely, I was determined to get back to where I had been, running outside with the wind in my hair and the sound of my feet on the pavement. I wanted to embrace that “this sucks” feeling so I could squash it with my “this rocks” attitude. After about five months, I went from walking to running; after seven months, I mustered up enough mojo to win first place female in a local 5K! It was the most amazing feeling, one that I was so humbled to experience. However, I realized through this journey that my stomach was bulging way more than it used to, and I decided to seek professional help for my diastasis recti.
I eventually found a program that would help decrease the size of my gaps in a natural way. The only catch was that the program required me to stop running. When I heard that, I felt like my ears closed and anything else spoken after that announcement was just white noise. Running was my solace, my moment of peace, my “me time” in a world in which I wore my mom and wife hats way more often than I did my “me” hat. Never choosing to run with earphones, it was my time and place to let my mind ebb and flow from small mundane tasks to bigger goals and moon-reaching dreams. How could I give that up?
The good news was that I only needed to stop running for the duration of the diastasis recti treatment program, which needed to be customized, given the severity of my case. Every time my foot struck the pavement, my intestines pounded against the abdominal wall of my stomach–but without any abs there to hold them in place, it was like my intestines were pounding out at every stride. It made sense to me to stop running temporarily, with hopes that the overall program would actually improve my running while strengthening my core. After four months of walking, eating right, following the program and no running, I was given the green light to run once more.
In this timeframe, I discovered that I wanted to make a career out of running. I gained Level I Road Runners Club of America certification, created a resume to reflect my running experience and joined a non-profit on the Road Runners 5K committee as a volunteer running coach. I’m now focused on the road ahead with tunnel vision to that end goal. I also managed to land a part-time job, one where I actually get paid to lead weekly social runs. Running has surely changed my course in life–and just like every race, the real reward is in the journey.
I’m writing this for any woman who has been through a miscarriage, for any woman living with diastasis recti and feels like no one truly understands and for any woman who is afraid to make her passion (for running) a career. I am this woman. I have lived and am living with these same fears, experiences and hurdles. Being a woman in a community of runners is an opportunity to be transparent about our life experiences to provide hope, comfort and solidarity. I hope I can bring some of this to others by sharing my story.