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Chasing the Light: Susan Jennings

In thinking about what it means to chase the light, I came to one conclusion. To chase the light means that there is darkness to be freed from. In my life that has been a theme – periods of darkness followed by chasing the light. And it is not the light that defines our character, but rather the depth of the struggle and the fight to overcome, to chase the light.

My first real encounter with the darkness came when I had a miscarriage, four years into our marriage. I remember the long ride to the hospital, the contractions fast and furious, and the blood. I remember being numb, laying in the hospital bed after emergency surgery, and wondering why God would give us the desire to have a child and then take him away from us. But we chased the light and a year later were blessed to have born our one and only daughter.

The amazing birth came with its own set of troubles and six months later I was having hernia surgery and being diagnosed with hypothyroidism. I’ve always been a pseudo athlete. I played basketball in high school but sat on the bench. I switched to soccer and started, but wasn’t the star player, just a good player. I wasn’t a runner, I played defense. In college, I struggled to keep my weight in check and turned to running to keep the weight down. But the weight struggle has always been there, lurking in periods of stress to rear its ugly head.

After my daughter was born, and the hypothyroidism, the weight came on quickly. The fatigue, coupled with a long commute, and the joys of motherhood led to years of inactivity. I tried all kinds of diets – keto, low carb, vegan, vegetarian, Nutrisystem, Physicians Weight Loss, Weight Watchers – some success, but it never lasted.

In 2008, I rejoined Weight Watchers with a renewed desire to make it count. This time I had the right mindset and the weight began to come off. I lived near the Appalachian Trail at the time and began to walk on the trail daily. I hiked the section called the roller coaster, a series of ups and downs that stretch over 13 miles. After a year, I had lost 135 pounds and gained a new passion...running.

My first race was a trail half marathon in which I placed first in my age group. I then did an 8-hour race and ran 33 miles, my first ultra. I felt that I had once again emerged from the darkness and was chasing the light. I had a few good years. In the short races, such as 5ks, I could win my age group. But my real love was the ultras. Whether it was a trail 100k in the mountains or a 24 hr race on a mile loop, I loved to challenge myself.

In training for my first 100, I ran in the snow until my water froze, then finished with 37 miles on the treadmill. My friends, not familiar with ultrarunning called me the Warrior Princess. In 2010, I did 15 marathon distances in 15 days as a fundraiser for my husband’s ministry Teens Opposing Poverty. In running those 400 miles, I traversed across Virginia and raised about $8,000 for the ministry. My best ultra was at the Crooked Road 24-hour race in November 2012. I wasn’t the fastest runner out there and I was “old” - 51 years of age. But I was in the zone, walking/running in the light. That night, it got very cold, but I kept moving. It never occurred to me that others had stopped and left to go warm up. At 2 am, the race director told me I had just tied for first place, and the leader was asleep. I kept going, taking short breaks in the warm bathroom. I was tired, almost Zombie-like but I kept moving and emerged from the darkness of the night into the morning light with a strong enough lead that the fast young runners couldn’t catch up. It was my one and only overall win, and it also set an age group Virginia record that lasted for about 4 years. I even was mentioned in Ultrarunning Magazine as one of the few women over 50 who had won a race. But all good things come to an end.

Financially, we were struggling. My dad’s company, in which I was the business manager/accountant, was closed and after 32 years, I had to build a resume and find a job. The first job I had was at 50% of my pay and included long hours of overtime to try and make up the difference. We had to sell our house and downsize, selling, giving away, and trashing 90% of what we owned, and moving into a 480 square foot house in town.

I eventually got a job in my field and started making better money. I continued to run but was struggling – the light I had felt when running was dimming. In 2016, I started having multiple health issues. A routine thyroid ultrasound led to the discovery of a parathyroid tumor, which had to be removed, it was causing calcium to be dumped into my bloodstream. A month after the surgery, I participated in the National Championship 24hr race at North Coast and was able to manage 70 miles and 3rd in my age group as a USATF runner. But a month later, I DNF’d at the Oil Creek 100k.

In 2017, I fell and had a meniscus tear that required surgery. In another routine scan, a large salivary stone was noticed. Eventually, in early 2018 I had surgery to remove the gland as the stone was too big. I fought back from that, but then my Achilles tendon deteriorated until it also required surgery – Surgery that meant 6 weeks no weight-bearing, followed by 4 weeks in a boot. Scar tissue quickly built up and I required another surgery with the same recovery – 6 weeks non-weight bearing. It was during this period of inactivity, that I noticed a small tremor in my right hand. I ignored it for a while but began doing some research. Stiffness, slowness, falls, fatigue, resting tremor, the feeling that something was wrong – that it just wasn’t my thyroid or arthritis.

Finally, in May 2019, I went to a neurologist. In July 2019, he confirmed my biggest fear. I had Parkinson’s. Given a diagnosis of a chronic, incurable, and progressive deteriorating disease was the moment of looking into a dark tunnel – was this my future? Would I never run again? How long before I would be in a wheelchair? On multiple support groups, there seemed to be only gloom and doom. This can’t be it. I was determined that I was going to fight back. I began on the standard medication for Parkinson’s and am still working to find the right combination. But the one thing that was emphasized over and over in conferences and lectures was that exercise, and lots of it was the best medicine and the best hope for slowing progression.

I started walking and then running as I healed from my Achilles tendon surgery. But it was slow going. A year after surgery, I still had pain when running. Then came COVID-19 and all our lives were turned upside down. Last summer, I took the challenge of doing the GVRAT – the Great Virtual Race Across Tennessee and managed to average 12, mostly walking, miles a day and to accomplish 1270 miles in 101 days. But by the end of August, I was beaten and worn down. Fighting back is hard work and sometimes it feels like two steps forward, one step back.

It was time to chase the light again. Across the river, near our West Virginia cabin (that’s another story), on the C&O Canal towpath is the Paw Paw tunnel. When looking into the tunnel at one end you can see the faint light at the other end. But to get to the other side, you have to enter into the darkness. Using a flashlight, you tentatively move forward on the narrow uneven path, wet with condensation. You are looking down with each step and the darkness is all around. But if you dare to look up and towards the end of the tunnel, you will see that the light is growing. Soon you will not need the flashlight, you will be walking out into the light.

As I contemplated my journey, I knew I had to do things differently. I knew of Michele Yates – I had followed her journey through the years. I knew she had struggled with health issues and had come back from them to be successful. I knew if I wanted to have hope of overcoming my injuries and health issues and make a comeback, then she would be the one who could help me. I tentatively sent out a request and wondered if she would accept the challenge of an older, broken runner who wanted a new start. She readily said yes!

We have started this journey, it hasn’t been easy, I still struggle with injury, but I am learning about myself, my running and am slowly improving. Her approach is new to me. It’s not about going out and running a bunch of miles but about being smart and learning how to get stronger. She modifies and adapts my training to focus on my biggest areas in need of improvement.

In 2021, I dream of what can be. Parkinson’s will not beat me, injury will not beat me. I will race again and I will be successful. It’s like I’m in that Paw Paw tunnel. The path is dark, but Michele is holding the flashlight and showing me the steps I need to take. By doing this, it allows me to look up and see the light shining at the end of the tunnel. The darkness is only a reflection of the light we chase. I will never give up, I will chase the light. I am the Warrior Princess.

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