These three runners found themselves sidelined by a medical emergency and injuries, but they will all be at the starting line for one of the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon races this weekend. Their goals range from simply finishing to qualifying for the Boston Marathon.
Here are their stories of how they dealt with the setbacks and came back to running and racing.
Kristina Castillo-Simons of Champaign
Kristina Castillo-Simons ran in college but gave it up once she became busy with graduate school, her career as a special education teacher and her family.
Her second son, now 5, was born premature at 31 weeks. Castillo-Simons had a full placental abruption, when the placenta separates from the uterus — a condition that can have serious health consequences for both mother and baby and can be fatal. She lost half the blood in her body and had an emergency cesarean section to save her baby.
“I was so elated that we had been blessed, that we had a baby that was crying and that was good,” she said.
But she began experiencing survivor guilt, knowing other women in the same situation have lost their babies, and that both she and her son nearly died. She started to re-evaluate her life and went to therapy for several months. Ultimately, she decided the way to show her gratitude for having lived through the ordeal was running.
“My body could have given out, this body that hadn’t exercised, that I hadn’t been putting the right things in,” Castillo-Simons said. “It was clear as day. I needed to run. I felt like it was something that would be good for my body, but also good for my brain, to have that quiet time for myself.”
She was working at a high school in Oregon at the time, and Nike had given the school a grant for teachers to train students to run a half-marathon. Castillo-Simons began the training program and ran her first half-marathon in the hills outside Portland along with 150 teachers, students and community members who had participated in the training.
“I needed to show the kids that no matter what happens in your life and no matter what trauma you have, running is something that you could do to practice mindfulness, to help you get over whatever you’re going through,” she said.
She ran the half-marathon twice more. She moved back to her home state of Illinois last August, and she trained this winter for her first Illinois half-marathon.
“I’m grateful I’m here to do that. It definitely gives me a sense of purpose and accomplishment and pride,” Castillo-Simons said. “It’s still a very mindful time for me. It’s a really good way for me to keep a healthy mental perspective on life and how to appreciate that.”
Melinda Miller of Champaign
Melinda Miller never thought of herself as an athlete. She volunteered at the 5K race put on by her church instead of running it.
She was overweight, and she knew she needed to do something about it. Running seemed the cheapest and easiest way to start exercising. No gym to join; no special skills needed to be part of a team.
When she started running, Miller would try to make it to the next telephone pole or tree. She slowly increased her endurance, and she was ecstatic the first time she ran 2 miles. Then she entered that 5K and finished it.
She eventually lost 80-plus pounds. She continued to increase her distance, running the 10K at the Christie Clinic Illinois Marathon two years ago and the half-marathon last year. Then she set her sights on a personal record when she ran her church’s 5K race last October. She got her PR and second place in her age group.
And a week or two later, she got a nagging pain in her hip. She kept running until she “couldn’t pretend it wasn’t there anymore.” She took a week off. Then two weeks.
Her brother-in-law, an athletic trainer, diagnosed bursitis. Miller stopped running and bought a foam roller. And cried.
“I felt that running was the thing that stood between me and being overweight,” she said.
She took two and a half months off from running. She didn’t gain the weight back, and in January she began a training program for this year’s half-marathon. She tried to run at the same pace she had the year before, but she had lost a lot of fitness and it wasn’t fun.
“That was a lot to battle back from. I had taken two to three years to build up to where I was,” Miller said.
She finally decided to slow down and run at whatever pace felt comfortable.
“When I first hurt myself, if you told me I’d be running the half-marathon significantly slower than last year, I would say, ‘That’s unacceptable,’” she said.
But now she’s grateful to be running again. She said a Bible verse that ends with the phrase, “For when I am weak, I am strong,” will help her get through the race. So will the fact that she is running for a charity, Abolition International, which helps women and girls rescued from human trafficking.
“I want to be able to say I finished. I did what I set out to do,” Miller said.
Lisa Victorius of Evanston
Lisa Victorius is not one to shy away from a challenge. She ran the steeplechase at the University of South Carolina because she wanted a challenge.
She was practicing hurdles during her junior year, in the spring of 2009, when she caught her foot, tripped and went down. She tore a number of ligaments in her knee. Her iliotibial band and her largest hamstring muscle were both torn away from the bone, and she damaged her peroneal nerve, the one that allows a person to raise his or her foot and flex the ankle.
Victorius had surgery to repair the damaged ligaments. The surgeons told her the nerve, although damaged, was still intact. She regained some function, but not all, and was left with what is commonly called foot drop. Her college running career was over.
But she didn’t stop running.
“When I was recovering, I said I want to run a marathon. I never really wanted to do that before, but to me, running a marathon would signify I’m not letting the injury hold me back. It’s my way of conquering the injury,” Victorius said.
She was able to do so with the help of a brace that uses the energy from her body weight when she pushes down to take a step to help spring her foot back up.
“I feel extremely fortunate to be able to run, and I would not be able to do it without the brace,” Victorius said.
She ran her first marathon in Savannah, Ga., in 2012, and her second last fall in Chicago, where she missed her Boston Marathon qualifying time of 3:35 by two minutes. She hopes to run 3:30 at Illinois and qualify for Boston.
Victorius is now part of TeamUP, a group of 10 runners who all have foot drop. The condition can be the result of multiple sclerosis, muscular dystrophy, spinal injury or peripheral nerve diseases. The team members run races or appear at events as part of an awareness campaign called “Get Back Up Today.”
“We want to encourage people out there to get back up, whatever get back up means to them, whether it’s playing with grandkids, going to the grocery store, walking to get the mail, because at one point all of us needed some encouragement, so we want to encourage and inspire them,” Victorius said.
She’ll draw encouragement from others as well during her marathon.
“When it starts hurting in those last few miles, I’ll be thinking about all my teammates and all the people who can’t run, and I’ll use that as inspiration and motivation,” she said.
Photos: Top, Kristina Castillo-Simons is running the half marathon after a life-threatening childbirth five-plus years ago. Photo by Heather Coit/The News-Gazette. Middle, Melinda Miller shows off her medals from previous events. Photo by Robin Scholz/The News-Gazette. Bottom, Lisa Victorius, who has foot drop as a result of an injury, runs with the brace that helps restore a normal gait. Photo provided.