Jeannine and Reggie

Jeannine and Reggie

Starting at the Finish Line:

One woman’s triumphant journey from disabling illness to half-marathon runner

If you met my friend Jeannine, you would like her. She is one of those gracious people that seems naturally friendly, naturally smart, naturally kind, naturally strong. If you met her at the Inland Empire Running Club (IERC), you would also guess that she was a natural born runner. During the workweek, she fastidiously follows the training plan set forth by Reggie, her Boston Marathon runner-husband. This is after teaching science to junior high students all day.

In the last two years she has run seven half-marathons and has achieved a “PR” (personal record) every time. You may be starting to think, “Well, it’s easy for people like that.” Well, let me tell you something about Jeannine you would never guess if you met her. Just three years ago, she suffered from an illness that nearly destroyed her life.

What started as sore muscles and joint pain soon turned into an illness that left her bedridden, burning with fever, unable to eat, frightfully thin, dehydrated, with barely the energy to speak. In her words, “I was literally molting; my hair fell out and my skin fell off!”

She had to take a leave from her teaching job, let her husband take care of the kids and the house, and allow her mother to move in to care for her. At one point, her daughter asked, “Is Mama going to die?” Day after day, leaning on her husband’s arm, she hobbled into dozens of doctor’s appointments seeking a diagnosis for her ailment. It took months for the team of specialists to determine that it was “Stills Disease,” an autoimmune disorder that is often life-long and permanently disabling.

When the mysterious malady was finally labeled, the proper treatment could be administered.  This led to slow but steady progress. Before long Jeannine could leave the house and do short errands. Mustering up her strength, she pushed herself toward a small goal: to greet Reggie at the finish line when he ran the San Diego Marathon.

She explains, “I was in so much pain that day – as I approached him, I nearly stumbled. I had only left the hospital two weeks prior.”

Then she saw something that changed her life: the San Diego sun beaming on a throng of people: black, brown, yellow, white; they were young and old, thick and thin, male and female, perfect form and pitiable form – every one of them finishing the race. As she moved through the dizzying mob of fatigued but ebullient runners, each drenched in sweat and smiles as they approached the finish … Jeannine had an epiphany:

“In one year I will complete the half-marathon race – running, walking, or crawling … I will cross this finish line.”

Preparing for that half-marathon became the cornerstone of her recovery. It took five months for her to be able to walk even a mile. But, one step at a time, she worked her way up to several miles. It hurt and she was tired, but she kept on going. She was determined to get healthy enough to accomplish her goal. Over a period of months she strengthened, eventually able to walk 5, then 7, and finally 9 miles through her Chino Hills community.

Jeannine explains, “Pretty soon walking 9 miles got boring, so I started jogging – just a little bit.” It was February – the race was only four months away. She had never entered races before, and certainly never considered herself “a runner.” Her husband asked her repeatedly to come join him at IERC. When he explained that they have walkers who complete races, Jeannine reluctantly agreed.

Reggie reports, “I knew she would finish the race. And I also knew she would not walk; she would run.”

Jeannine showed up at IERC the next Saturday morning and found herself amongst kind and helpful people, all eager to support her success. She was embraced by her walk/run pace leader, Lizette, now a dear friend. With her new group of allies, Jeannine painstakingly prepared for victory – over the wretched illness and over the 13.1 mile race.

On race day there was no surprise. Jeannine completed the distance, finishing strong. She not only ran it, she crossed the finish line hand-in-hand with Reggie.

Two years later Jeannine and I are sipping coffee at Starbucks. We discuss the pain and the pleasure of running and what it has done to enhance our lives. Her smile is wide and she radiates health. Looking gorgeously fit, she may be in the best shape of her life (certainly the best shape of anyone in that Starbucks). Grasping for the right words to describe her process, she makes a teacherly gesture with her thumb and forefinger. Thoughtfully, she tells me,

“When I first start each run, I don’t want to move – my muscles are tight and my knees ache. Eventually my legs warm up, the pain is gone, and I can pick up my speed. What keeps me going? Knowing the pain is temporary. It won’t keep feeling like this. Even though it is intense and you don’t think you can endure, if you keep going, you get through it. And then somehow, it’s an important and meaningful part of you.  I guess now, I can call myself a runner. That’s how life is.”

If you like the support of a group, you can visit IERC on a Saturday morning in Chino Hills at Butterfield Ranch Elementary School at 7:00 am. For more information regarding IERC, check out our website at ierunningclub.com , visit our Facebook page, or write to us at info@ierunningclub.com .

*This article was first published in Chino Hills Life Magazine (Hibu company).

Lisa & Jeannine

Jeannine and Lisa after the Surf-City Half-Marathon

Reggie, Jeannine, Lisa

Lisa, Reggie, and Jeannine after running the Surf City Half-Marathon

Run For It

Today I ran the Orange County ½ Marathon and I am on top of the world. I ran with my friend Jeannine and we reduced our time by 8 minutes since our last race. We both felt an exhilarating sense of accomplishment. We have been training for months, had to register and pay in advance, battle SoCal traffic, and wake up at 4:00 am to negotiate a crowd of 15,000 other runners at the start line. Are we crazy? No, we are runners. But … why do we bother?

I have been a runner most of my life – never a champion, but steadfast. I had a poster on my dorm room wall in college stating, “The race is not to the swift, but to the one who keeps on running.” I have kept on running, and it has benefitted me immensely. I never gave it up for anything other than pregnancy or prolonged insomnia. I joined a running club as I recovered from depression 11 years ago, and it has produced profound blessings. With the support of the group, I have run two marathons and six ½ marathons. I run most days of the week, in the morning before work (but after coffee). Most importantly, I finish every run happier than when I began. It jump starts my day and ratchets up my endorphins. In my opinion, it is better than any antidepressant; it is not only free, the side effects are actually positive!

Someone recently asked me when I started running and why. I pondered for a minute and remembered: it was the summer after I turned 6 years old in Minnesota. Pam, my best friend from kindergarten, had moved into a newly built home ¾ of a mile from my house, down a long dirt road. My purple bicycle with the banana seat couldn’t forge through the thick sand. I had to walk. But, it took too long! I soon learned that I could get there faster if I ran. This left us more precious time to build forts, play monopoly, or roughhouse with her English Springer Spaniel “Jingles”. When I ran home (to meet my 6 pm dinner curfew) I noticed something else important: I gained a sense of wellbeing and a pleasant mood after running. I loved that feeling.

It has been 42 years now, and I have kept on running. Sometimes it’s a solitary and interior experience; other times it’s about camaraderie and community. Yet, in all its forms, running has helped me recover from pregnancy and childbirth, manage the strain of parenting young children, prevent and overcome depression and anxiety, face the daily stress of full time work, and adjust to the changes of the empty nest phase of life. Maintaining a comfortable weight has been another advantage – and no small miracle.

Being in a running club has enhanced my motivation and provided connections to other goal-oriented people who want to be healthy. My fellow running club members each have a unique story about what this sport has done to improve their quality of life and to overcome some kind of adversity. Their stories are varied and truly inspirational. For me, it is both a habit and a discipline which supports my balance and overall wellness. I plan to keep on running.

Clear it with your doctor first. Then, I encourage you to try it too – whether you walk, walk-run, or run. Regardless, you are getting outside, breathing fresh air, and moving. This all contributes to holistic health. If you like the support of a group, you can find a local running club on “meetup.com”. Get going now … run for it! You will be happy you did.