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Liz DeLuca had just run 188 miles from Pennsylvania to New York—up brutal hills, under the hot summer sun, and through relentless fatigue—but arrived at the finish line of the MS Run the US in Manhattan on August 21 with a beaming smile.
“Complete euphoria,” DeLuca says of how she felt at the finish line. “For me, I trained for 10 months. It is such a pure joy in knowing that you set to accomplish a task, and you did it. It was hard and wonderful at the same time.”
Anchoring the final leg of the 3,260 mile relay that began in April in Santa Monica, California, DeLuca, 38, started in Sunbury, Pennsylvania on August 15, running 25 to 28 miles a day for seven days and sleeping in her support crew’s RV at night. As part of her effort, she also raised more than $12,000 for MS research.
“What kept pushing me through was: ‘What’s your purpose?’ Whenever my legs would get tired, whenever I needed a break, I took a break, but I kept showing up and kept going,” says DeLuca, who grew up in New Jersey and now lives in Milwaukee, where where she manages communications for an insurance company. “Showing up is the only thing you can require of yourself.”
Considering what DeLuca has faced in the past 15 months, her eagerness to “show up” to run an ultramarathon relay is even more phenomenal.
A diagnosis and a new goal
On the morning of May 15, 2020, Liz DeLuca woke up to a terrifying reality. Unable to move the left side of her body or see out of her left eye, DeLuca thought she had just suffered a stroke.
When a friend brought her to the hospital, doctors there found no evidence of a stroke and couldn’t figure out what was causing her frightening symptoms. Within a couple days, she regained her vision and ability to move, though she still had unsettling “pins and needles” sensations.
A week later, after a follow-up visit with her regular doctor and an MRI, DeLuca received a devastating diagnosis: multiple sclerosis, a chronic disease in which the immune system attacks the body’s brain and spinal cord, causing symptoms such as paralysis, limb numbness, and vision problems, according to the Mayo Clinic. The cause is unknown, and there is no cure.
“I was shocked that I had it,” she recalled. “All these things run through your head: ‘Why me? Why this? Why me now?'”
But she was very familiar with the disease: For years she had done numerous runs and stair climbs to raise money for MS and honor her aunt, Judi Williams, who had suffered with the illness for a decade before finally being diagnosed in 2010.
“The money that I was able to raise for research through other events is now benefiting my own treatment,” says DeLuca, who gets a drug infusion once a month to manage the disease. She has mostly recovered from her initial episode in May 2020, but still sometimes experiences fatigue, vision problems in one eye, and “pins and needles” sensations.
“This is something that you have—it’s not something you are,” she says. “You can go on to lead a very normal and very fruitful life. And there is this idea of making a mess your message. That’s one of the reasons I started to run again, because with MS, your days are unknown. Every day I can run or move I will.”
Scrolling through Instagram not long after her diagnosis, DeLuca came across a post about the MS Relay. Broken into 19 segments assigned to 19 runners, the coast-to-coast relay requires runners to cover an average of 160 miles a day over six consecutive days.
Although she had run only one marathon in her life and didn’t consider herself a hardcore runner, she immediately thought, ‘I can do this.’ After applying and being selected for the relay, DeLuca started to train, focusing on back-to-back long runs on the weekends after working her full-time job during the week.
“I tried to push myself as much as I could,” she says. “One weekend I did 41 miles. You don’t know your breaking points until you hit them. The training was pretty intense.”
In addition to running, she lifted weights and made sure to refuel and recover properly. DeLuca would sometimes FaceTime during her long runs with her friend Molly Kaye, who has always been amazed by her pal’s relentless drive.
“I often wondered how this strong Jersey girl was the same person that was receiving regular, energy-zapping treatments for her newly diagnosed MS,” she says. “You would expect that a diagnosis would slow someone down, but for Elizabeth, it seems more like her rocket fuel.”
Exhaustion and elation
Although DeLuca felt mentally and emotionally prepared for her epic run, she wasn’t sure how her body would hold up over so many miles and days. The first two days of the run felt like training, but by the third day, things got rough when temperatures hit 90-plus degrees with high humidity.
“The sun was beating down—that was worst day. It was a little bit of a breaking point day,” she recalls. “It’s past your training and still a far way to go.”
Accompanied by a professional support crew and other MS team runners along the way, DeLuca notched mile after mile along busy highways and quiet gravel roads.
She stopped every three to six miles to refuel and capped the grueling days with an ice bath. Exhausted and with blistered feet, she would collapse in the RV bed by 9 p.m. to get enough sleep before her 7 a.m. start the next day.
“There was never any doubt in my mind that she was going to complete what she started, because that’s the way she is,” says her father, James DeLuca, who helped navigate and followed her the entire way in a car with her mother. “It was a long way to drive. I can’t imagine what it was like to run.”
When the run finally entered northern New Jersey where DeLuca grew up, she got excited to pass through familiar towns. Still, the miles were taking a toll on her legs, which were swollen and filled with pressure.
“The last six miles were pretty daunting after I got off the George Washington Bridge,” she recalled. “By the last mile, you are just running on fumes.”
If she was in pain, it didn’t show on her smiling face as she jogged into St. Nicholas Park in Harlem and crossed the finish line, where family and friends greeted her with hugs.
She thought of who she ran for and felt immense gratitude.
“My aunt, the teammates, the others I know living with MS. I still get to walk, I still get to run,” she says. “Not everyone does.”