Finding Inspiration through Loss

Laura Saltsman

Gazelle Girl

When registering for Gazelle Girl my initial reaction to sharing my story was no thanks. As a fairly private person this idea sounded terrifying, but I couldn’t get the thought out of my head. Maybe my story could serve as inspiration to others? And for that reason I felt I could and should share.

My running journey started with the influence of my high school best friend who became my roommate during my third year of college. I was intrigued by her healthy habits and soon discovered the mental and physical benefits running had to offer. I was stretched working two jobs in addition to babysitting and teaching aerobic kickboxing to support my way through a competitive design program. The mental break I felt running became a quick forming habit. My dad was also an influential casual runner and encouraged this new found interest of mine. My typical distance ranged between 2-3 miles and I did my first 5K race at Potter Park Zoo after about a year of training.

After graduation, I was offered a job in Minneapolis, MN where in my spare time I was able to continue my running routine around beautiful paved lake paths. The city was designed to encourage physical activity and I loved it. As I grew stronger, my distance increased around the neighborhood chain of lakes that were approximately 3 miles each. The first night I made it around 2 lakes I felt like I had experienced the ‘runners high’ that I had heard about.I was in the zone. That night is one I will always remember but not just for running my furthest distance. To the shock of my family, my father passed away unexpectedly from a massive heart attack. I lost my biggest fan instantly, and I was not able to share with him my latest accomplishment.

This tragic loss lead me to moving back to Michigan to help my mom, who was battling kidney failure and needed assistance going to dialysis 3 times a week. Running was on hold for me at that point. I focused my attention on diet and walking with her for physical activity in hopes it would build her strength up for when she would eventually receive a transplant.

After living back home in Holt for about 6 months, I took a job in Grand Rapids and soon discovered the path around Reeds Lake. Jogging this route became my new outlet as I adjusted and processed all that had happened in the past few months.

A year to the day my dad passed away, I went on a date with a work colleague that was intending to tell me he didn’t want an office relationship. We were married two and a half years later. After returning from our honeymoon in Mexico, he went to the doctors because of a stomachache. The doctor did a routine exam where he noticed a suspicious mole on his upper left shoulder. It was biopsied and results came back as Melanoma. Additional surgery was performed to remove deeper layers in hopes it had not reached the blood system. We were told they removed it all and the margins were clear.

Soon after that, I was pregnant with our first baby and again running was on hold. Energy was gone and continued to be depleted the three years following due to colic and acid reflux which resulted in long restless nights. Just when things were shifting, our second born came along and had the same conditions, leading to a six year stretch of chronic insomnia. During this time, a yoga studio opened directly across the street from our house and I felt like that was accomplishable. I just needed to go across the street, show up and do what I could do.

Slowly I built up my fitness routine again by walking and practicing yoga on a regular basis. As the kids grew older, I got back into aerobic kickboxing but after only a few months developed planar fasciitis in my right foot. This condition set me back from doing cardio for a little over a year. I focused on 30 minute cross-training videos until my leg got better.

Things were improving and routines were becoming more established, and then my husband discovered a large mass under his left armpit. It wasn’t painful, just annoying. He had multiple appointments, scans and biopsies and after about six months of investigation we were finally told that he had stage 4 metastasized Melanoma that had spread internally all over his body.

This was the beginning of a transformational year and a half journey in efforts to try and fight the ‘ninja’ disease, as the doctors called it. All time and energy was spent balancing this new way of life with two young children. Initial treatments went well and conditions improved for about nine months. Once the first treatment was no longer effective, there were a series of hard trials that did not work. Soon after the holiday’s and two days before my oldest son’s 11th birthday, his battle ended in January 2018.

It’s hard to put into words what this type of experience is like, but one thing I can say with confidence is how fortunate I feel for everyday I have, and it is my complete intention to live life to the fullest with the abilities I am fortunate to have. It can be so easy to take things for granted and to focus on the things that aren’t going our way, but I refuse to feel set back and I believe that if I can, than I must.

I was skeptical to try running again, but never forgot the mental clarity it gave me and how rewarding it felt after I was done. I slowly started back around Reeds Lake, mostly walking then running in small increments. I wasn’t worried about time, just getting around the lake.

I had the encouragement and support from a great friend, who had also been through life’s trials and understood all the benefits running provided both physically and mentally. To say he was an inspiration is an understatement. I saw him challenge his abilities and perform distances that were unfathomable to me, and with top ranking results.

I decided to make it a goal to do a 5K by the end of 2018 and signed up for the Bridge Run. Although I had run a 5K before, this one was very different. Massive amounts of people were there, I wasn’t sure about any of it, and it was really hot that morning. Just finish I kept thinking, just get it done.

To my surprise and delight, that great friend of mine showed up and ran beside me the whole way. It was hard and exhausting for me, but I finished and it made me want to do it again. And better next time.

I trained over the following fall/winter/spring and decided to sign up for my corporate run club which committed me to 3 future 5K’s – the Irish Jig, Diemer and Reeds Lake. Seeing my results at each race made me want to rank higher next time, or cut my time shorter at the next one. I kept signing up for more races, and although I didn’t always beat my time or rank higher, I learned something new and felt like I grew stronger from each. I discovered what worked and what didn’t – I could drink coffee and water on race morning but food gave me side cramps. Listening to music kept my mind from wondering how much further. Tracking distance and pace on my phone helped me slow down if I started off too fast, or pick it up at the end if I was feeling good. If I needed water at an aid station I learned to stop and drink it instead of trying to choke it down and spill it all over myself while moving.

When I saw that the River Bank 2019 was on my dad’s birthday I felt like I needed to make it my first 10K. This would have been close to the distance I ran the night he passed away. Much to my surprise, my pace was better than ever – in the 8:40’s. Coincidentally, he would have been 84 on that day.

It wasn’t until I started writing this that I actually sat down, looked at my bibs and metals and reviewed my rankings for what I had accomplished in 2019. In total I ran 14 races – six 5K’s, four 10 K’s, one 4-mile, one 5-mile and two 15K’s. I placed 1st in my age group in each a 5K and 10K, and ended the year beating my personal record and meeting my goal time which was to run under 8 minutes per mile.

I feel truly blessed with how running has been a part of my life. It’s something I have easy access to, and the flexibility of when and how I get it done is something that keeps me from having excuses. I love the freedom of going where ever it feels right each day and experiencing and appreciating the outdoors in so many different ways. It can be satisfying to accomplish alone, or in the company of wonderful encouraging friends. It’s a choice I make – to put forth the effort and try to be the most healthy version of myself I can within my control – and it comes with so many rewards.

This will be my first Gazelle Girl and my first ½ marathon. I signed up because I wanted to challenge myself to the next level, and I look forward to all the experiences it will provide through training and the event. Everyone will show up with different stories and reasons that day, but we will all share a common goal and an awesome accomplishment that I feel privileged and excited to be a part of!