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Ellie's Running Story Posted on May 06, 2014

I know I'm supposed to be talking about my running journey, but I need to preface my journey in the most cliche manner, with a quote that has always inspired me to keep working.  "Rowing is a sport for dreamers. As long as you put in the work, you can own the dream.  When the work stops, the dream disappears.” (Jim Dietz, USA Olympic gold medalist and coach).  I've really found that this applies to any goal, small or large that one wants to accomplish in life.

My journey really begins at birth (when else?).  Like many babies, surprisingly, I was born with a heart murmur, which doctors agreed must be monitored.   By the time I was four, I had developed 3 holes in my heart, or more technically, atrioventriclar septal defect, which required open-heart surgery to repair.  The year was 1988, so you can imagine how frightening this was for my parents. The surgery went smoothly, and I made it to kindergarten.  Throughout my childhood, I was active, participating in multiple sports. It wasn't until sixth grade when I started experiencing fainting spells that doctors realized scar tissue from my surgery was interfering with the signal for my heart to beat properly.  Again, in technical terms, I developed complete heart block.  In normal people terms, I had the "lub" but not the "dub" of my heartbeat, a lot of the time. 

So, I needed a pacemaker at the ripe old age of 12.   I was determined to stay involved in sports, but scared to fully participate, worried something may go wrong again. The adults around me were fearful too.  I was a decent hitter in softball, but when I would get to 3rd base, someone had to pinch run for me (in case there was a collision at home).  It was a big scene, every game:  The coach would ask the ump to stop the pitch.  Someone would dash to throw on a helmet.  I would be waved in, patted on the back.  To solve my humiliation issue, I quit the team.  I became a scared, non-aggressive player in everything.  

I watched as my peers increased their sporting skills, and I didn't make the cuts for any team in high school.  Excellent way to start high school, eh?   Cross country, thankfully, didn't have cuts, so sophomore year I "participated" on this team.  It's still embarrassing to admit that I walk-jogged through cross country meets.  It was humiliating, even for my parents.   To keep me motivated, my coaches and peers would say "Hey, someone has to come in last, right?" Every race, I would tell myself, "Just keep running, no matter how bad you feel." But inevitably, about a quarter mile in (if that), the anxiety would set in.  I would feel my legs tense up, my arms clinch.  My heart would race.  My stomach would turn. My head would feel woozy.  And I just couldn't do it.  

This continued into college.  Instead of running, I tried rowing.  It's a beautiful sport, and I lasted three years!  But, of course, I was the rower no one wanted in their boat.  And let's be honest, I loved college....I was an off/on rower, full-time social extraordinaire.  But truly, I was so discouraged over my horrible lack of ability that I didn't put in the work.   Those feelings - the legs and arms tightening up, the nausea, the heart racing.... I just couldn't move past it.  By senior year, my pacemaker battery change was imminent, so I had my excuse to quit the team.  (As a side, I hate the phrase "no regrets".  I do have regrets.  But, I believe in making amends with myself, too.)

After grad school, I decided to give being an athlete one more try.  I LOVE sports, how could I not participate?  I signed up my then boyfriend, now husband, Ryan and me up for a 5K.  I ran the first mile without stopping (miraculously).  The run took me just over 40 minutes!  A starting point.  That summer, I moved to St. Louis to live with Ryan, and fully committed to my running journey ...and to Ryan of course.

Around 2009, finishing a 5K without walking was my first goal.  Ryan was traveling a lot, and I knew very few people outside of work in St. Louis, so I started showing up at the Monday night group runs at Big River Running Company.  Holy smokes, talk about full exposure therapy!  Running, in public, in a GROUP?  But it worked.  I eventually became a 5K fanatic and FINALLY finished a 5K without walking.  I knew then that I had turned corner.  I took the plunge in 2010, and signed up for the Go! St. Louis half marathon.  I put in the work, I owned the dream.  

Now, I am working on my speed.  I have had a few hiccups.  After a few half marathons at a 12:30/mile pace, extreme post-race nausea, no luck at speedwork with Big River and no improvement, I mentioned to my cardiologist that I was probably going to begin taking anxiety medication.  He had a different idea, and put me through a stress test.  I learned that, for who knows how long, my pacemaker settings were off.  Can you believe it? Many of my perceived symptoms of anxiety were a direct result of my pacemaker not adjusting properly during exercise.  The doctor joked about how I must have felt pretty ill when I ran. Doc, so you're telling me it's not normal to puke after long-distance runs? Needless to say, the quick correction to my pacemaker settings left me feeling like I could run like the wind!  I left the office that day and ran my first 40-minute 4-miler!  

These days, I still do struggle a bit, but I have confidence that's it's in my head, and not my heart.  I reached my ultimate goal of finishing my first and second full marathons.   More importantly, I have made the best friends through running.  I can't imagine my life without the people of Big River Running Company.   They are so incredibly motivating.  I may not be a Shalane, or even a Heidi (BRRC), but I'll never stop putting in the work and owning the dream.

 

 

*Ellie Wilhelm is a freelance blogger for the More Miles More Smiles team.*

by Mark Spewak

6 Comments

Rachel Grieco on On 05/08 at 09:47 PM

Wow, Ellie! I knew you through a sizeable chunk of this story, but still never realized how badly you suffered from anxiety regarding sports. I can’t believe how much you’ve accomplished in just a few short years since your pacemaker became properly synced. Very inspirational!

Tim George on On 05/07 at 04:26 PM

Very nice writing, Ellie. I may start running a little, just to see if I have it in me. This made me tear up. I love you, you know. Dad

Karen on On 05/07 at 10:04 AM

You always had it in you, you are motivational.

John r on On 05/07 at 06:41 AM

Awesome stuff Ellie. Keep it up.

Gabriel on On 05/06 at 08:37 PM

Wow! I had no idea about your back story. This is a great story. Thanks for sharing. You totally rock!!! I am inspired by you. Keep on running!

David on On 05/06 at 07:20 PM

Awesome and pretty darn inspiring.

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