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Chasing The Light: Val Zajac

Three years ago, I wrote this on the best day of my running life. After completing 4 100 mile races in 11 weeks I really thought I would never do anything more challenging.

Today, however, I’m going to have to say: challenge accepted. Grand Finale of the Grand Slam. It’s just sinking in now that it’s over. These races have challenged me like nothing I have ever done previously and yet somehow I was able to dip into reserves I didn’t know I had. Wasatch was the toughest yet most beautiful course I have ever run on. Highlights were definitely the views of Salt Lake at night from the ridge.

To all of my family and friends, thank you for the encouragement and well wishes along the way. They gave me something to draw on when it got tough out there.

My eagle will always be a reminder that no matter how bad things get, nothing is so hard that you can’t take one more step. This is one journey I will never forget.

Halfway through this epic journey, what was thought to be a hamstring injury from high school started to flare up. It had bothered me on and off for almost 10 years so I made a decision that once the races were over I was going to get some imaging done and really deal with it. I got an MRI and made an appointment with Dr. Mei-Dan, a hip specialist at CU Sports Medicine. I was honestly expecting to hear I had some kind of tear in there. Dr. Mei-Dan came in while his resident was doing a screening with me and asked her if she had told me about the X-ray. I immediately asked him “is it bad?” He looked straight at me and said “yep”. He went on to tell me I was born with hip dysplasia, which basically meant my hip sockets were too shallow and my joints were more prone to arthritis. The left still had a normal amount of cartilage but the right barely had any at all. He asked when the last time I could run on it was and was shocked to hear I ran on it that day. The prognosis was grim. My options were hip resurfacing or total hip replacement as it was too far gone to do anything corrective. I don’t even really know what I felt. The thought of not being able to do what I considered the first real love of my life ripped me apart.

I told my friend Grace about it a few days later trying to figure out my next move and she told me I needed to talk to Michele Yates. Michele had had 2 hip surgeries herself and had come back to win RRR 100 twice as well as many other races. I was really intimidated by sending that first email. To my surprise and excitement, Michele wrote to me right back and went above and beyond. She told me all about her journey through hip surgery, gave me mobility and strength exercises, supplement recommendations, did a gait analysis, recommended shoes for me, and talked about the importance of crossing training. I got a stem cell injection in order to cushion my joint to jump right into Michele’s recommendations. I’m convinced this bought me more time. Through cycling, swimming, and strength training, I was able to get some speed back and race pretty well on way less running mileage. Michele has always emphasized it’s quality over quantity. As someone who always believed you could never be a good runner without high mileage and running every day I was definitely proven wrong. Following Michele’s plan and working on my goal of getting speed back at the shorter distances, I had really good races at Behind the Rocks 50k, Northface Marathon, and San Antonio half marathon.

Last December unfortunately my hip decided it had had enough and I started to make plans to get it resurfaced. Michele again has been there every step of the way helping me come up with new ways to challenge myself with strength and cycling which I’m convinced allowed me to train hard right up until the day before my surgery. My surgeon told me beforehand he was amazed I did not have any muscle atrophy which I really credit to Michele.

The surgery was 5/10 so I am a little over 1 month out. I am walking further every day without the crutches and will soon get to drive, swim, and ride a stationary bike. It will be 5 months more before I am allowed to take a running step. Right now I am crazy bored and every day is Groundhog Day but I think back to what I said at the end of the Slam, “nothing is painful you can’t take another step.” And am now forced to live by words. The love and support of my friends and family have been beyond incredible. The game nights, the thoughtful little gifts, and the company on my crutch walks have meant so much. Although everything is still very uncertain at this point, Michele’s support through this journey really has kept me fighting. She has really helped me believe that running life number 2 is still possible and we can accomplish some big goals together!

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