Avery Allmond, 23, has been a driven athlete most of her life. Before she found her talent and passion for track she was a gymnast. At times she dabbled in basketball, soccer, volleyball, and golf.
“I always had this fast running in me,” she says. Her coaches noticed it first when she was in gymnastics. “They saw when I was vaulting and in the floor exercise, my sprinting was really good.” Her high school basketball coach encouraged her to join track when she proved to be the fastest in the running drills during practice. “For me that was just something that was so easy. I was always the first one done,” she says.
She ended up going to Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois, to run track. Originally from Colorado, it took a bit for her to get comfortable with her new surroundings. It felt like freshman year was a warm-up for great things ahead, and by the end of that first year, she had finally adjusted to her new school. It was just before the start of her sophomore year when she got baffling news.
On August 9, 2017, Allmond was diagnosed with neuromyelitis optica spectrum disorder (NMOSD), a rare autoimmune condition that impacts the brain and spinal cord. Experts believe that, with NMOSD, the immune system mistakenly attacks the protective nerve covering called the myelin sheath, causing inflammation of the optic nerve and spinal cord.
Only about 15,000 Americans live with NMOSD. If left untreated, patients can experience unpredictable relapses that can lead to blindness, fatigue, pain, muscle weakness, and complete or partial paralysis.
For Allmond, it amounted to a loss in vision in both eyes and almost complete paralysis when it was at its worst.
She remembers running her fastest times in practices around that time, but she never got to show off in competition. “I definitely was getting faster, and to have that disease pop up so suddenly, when I was at the peak of my physicality, it was definitely odd,” says Allmond. She never expected she’d have to quit running.
It all started with a migraine that slowly moved to the back of her eye and landed her in the ER. It took several more trips to the ER and the pain extending to her whole body before she finally got her diagnosis.
“It didn’t really feel real. It kind of just felt like this was something I was just going to be able to get over and I’d be able to get back to my regular life,” she says.
But as she tried to overcome her temporary paralysis, she had to come to terms with the fact that she would not return to running in the capacity that she once had.
“It was very hard because all I knew was running. All I knew was an active lifestyle. To have that kind of flip overnight, it was really hard for me to adjust,” she says. Running was her stress reliever, her escape. “To not physically be able to do something that causes so much joy for me was really hard.”
With physical therapy and treatments, today she is back to some slow jogging, but nowhere near the fast sprinting she was used to. “I have confidence that I’ll be back to running. I may not be competing at the collegiate level, but just to be able to get back to running on a trail or a path—that is something that I strive for,” she says.
How Runners Can Cope with an Injury—Even if it Means Quitting Running
If you’re no longer able to run, either temporarily or through serious injury or illness, Allmond has five tips to help you move through the discomfort and cope with the loss.
Allow yourself to have bad days.
Toxic positivity is a real thing. Sometimes putting on that brave face will serve you well, but can be harmful if you try to don it all the time. “You don’t need to pretend like you’re completely OK,” says Allmond.
Prior to being diagnosed, Allmond dealt with the classic athlete mentality to push through pain and never give up, which can make coping with injuries difficult. “I think at first that was a really bad mental energy to have, not telling people when I was in pain,” she says. Now she has a much firmer grasp on when she needs to push herself and when she needs to give herself a break.
Find your support system.
Allmond finds the most support in two places: Her mom, who is able to help her navigate that balance between pushing herself and letting her body rest; and people who understand what she’s going through first hand.
Over the last few years, she has connected with some of her best friends who also have rare diseases.
“I think having that support from people who understand you, that has been the biggest thing for me,” she says.
If you’ve lost your ability to run or are coping with a sports injury, Allmond highly recommends connecting with people who understand what you’re going through. Even if their scenario is not identical to yours, the chances are high that they can still offer help and comfort.
Use good memories to propel you forward.
“There’s always things that you can do to better your situation,” says Allmond. She recommends drawing on the positive memories you have of running to help you move forward in life. For her, that’s been through philanthropy.
About a year after her diagnosis, Allmond founded Couch Pennies, an organization that aims to create awareness and fundraising opportunities for rare diseases. “Couch Pennies has definitely grown into something that I didn’t think it would grow into. And it’s still growing right now,” she says.
Currently she’s working on filing for 501(c)(3) status so Couch Pennies can become a recognized nonprofit organization.
Make the most out of your situation.
“It’s very bittersweet to look back at my running career and kind of think of what was and what I thought it was going to be. It was difficult, but I think now I kind of see now why things happen the way that they do,” she says.
Allmond has been able to team up with pharmaceutical companies as a patient advocate and sit on patient boards for the development of new drugs to help other people like her.
Having the ability to inspire and make life easier for others that come after her is a big motivator. “There’s been a lot of good that’s come from being able to be sick and have this disease,” she says.
If you want to stay involved with running, you can!
Even if she can’t participate, staying involved in the track community has been important to Allmond. “For people that have lost their running capabilities, there’s always things that you can do to still involve yourself in the sport,” she says. She enjoys watching track meets and has stayed in touch with her college coach. One day, she’d like to be a coach herself.
She has also helped organize running events as fundraisers for Couch Pennies, an idea her sister came up with, but one she’d like to continue.
“I’m not able to run and do the physical things that I was able to do three and a half years ago. But I definitely have not allowed that to keep me down,” she says.