Running Through Hell
Updated: Sep 29, 2020
My journey with running has been far outside of the norm.
My sophomore year of high school was when I started to really make big improvements and make a name for myself on national platforms. I ran for Rock Canyon High School, and I was just beginning to understand the beauty of the sport. Like many others, my dream was to become one of the few sophomores out of the Southwest region to qualify for the prestigious Nike Cross Nationals meet. I had a healthy season of training and fulfilled my goal, going on to finish just one spot shy of an All-American honor.
In the ensuing track season I ran a new best of 4:08 in the mile, becoming one of the fastest sophomores in the past decade.
Riding high off a successful season, I desired to tap into a new gear and set lofty goals for my junior season. As one of the top returning finishers, I set the goal to be the Nike Cross Nationals champion. I’d seen 2 of my biggest inspirations and now good friends do it the previous two years, and I wanted nothing more than to join the prestigious group of NXN champs.
Not unlike many of the most successful athletes, I let this goal consume me.
I ate, slept, and breathed this goal. It had been 8 years since I had a soda and I was on year three of being fully vegan. I slept 9 hours a night, did yoga and visualized the first place finish I would have in December every single day.
Due to a school transfer, I was forced to sit out of Varsity meets until the Nike series. To make up for the loss of competition I would have had in the regular season, my coach signed me up for a collegiate 8k race in Denver. With a great deal of fear and excitement, I agreed to take on the task and on October 6, 2018, I toed the line at the Metropolitan 8k against some small Division I and Division II schools.
The race proved that everything I had dreamed of was possible.
I hung with the pack through the first 4 miles and had found an extra gear to separate the last mile and handily win the race in a time of 24:59. Somehow, a junior from Mountain Vista had upset a small college field.
I was in the best shape of my life. Every workout was smooth and faster than I had ever run before. I was on track to achieve the all-consuming goal that had gotten me out of bed every morning for months. Needless to say, I was fit and ready.
Unfortunately, this rush didn’t last long.
The very next day I caught the flu. The flu sucks, but I had still had two months before the big race, so I knew that if I could just recover smartly I could still accomplish my goal.
And yet, the next two months proved to be the hardest months I had ever lived to that point. I got the flu a total of three times, and was nauseous all of the days in between.
Something was very wrong, and I had a feeling it was going to last.
Two weeks before the national meet I was still nauseous, but by then I had realized that I had to just run and push through any pain or sickness that came in front of me if I was to fulfill my dream of a national title.
This wasn’t easy, as I was a projected top five national finisher getting passed on easy runs by some of the kids who hadn’t made our JV team. I was absolutely devastated. It was unbelievably frustrating to have the situation entirely out of my control. I had begun what would eventually become a stream of doctors appointments, but the doctors would do a few tests and conclude that there was nothing wrong.
Finally, race day came. In the last month, I had to take a break in training for about two weeks in an attempt to shake the nausea. Other than that, I had made it through and was still fit.
I knew that the odds weren’t in my favor, but the dream was still alive.
That day I raced my heart out and gave everything I had over that 5k race. With one kilometer to go I threw in a surge to take the lead, and held for about 400 meters before being passed by Liam Anderson, Cole Sprout, Nico Young and Cole Hocker.
Despite a very trying health condition, I had finished fifth in the country with one more year of high school to show what I could do. It wasn’t my original goal and I wasn’t satisfied, but I was proud of myself for doing as well as I did in the circumstances.
I knew that I would come back the following year and this time to claim the NXN title.
I have always felt a strong duty to dream and be big. It has been a mission my entire life to do something that inspired me and helped others want to be better. I figured this could maybe have been it. A kid who had overcome so much adversity to finish 5th in the country would help inspire others to push through difficult times.
Little did I know that this was just the beginning of a very difficult road. The next three months made me question every part of life and tore me to pieces.
Shortly after the race, I got sick again and the lingering nausea intensified. After my two week break I tried to resume running, but found myself entirely unable to run longer than 30 seconds without extreme knee pain. I tried several physical therapists, massage therapists, chiropractors, acupuncture, cortisone shots and a whole lot of rest.
An injury such as IT band syndrome is such a common issue that with rest and good care should be fixed, so to not even be able to run 30 seconds with both of these things made no sense. After six months of only tedious cross-training and physical therapy, I finally succumbed to the more aggressive and unconventional method of surgery.
We tried a newer and more promising surgery that removes the bursa from underneath the IT band. Thankfully, after a few months, the surgery proved successful. The sad part was that my dream of becoming one of the first juniors in history to break the four-minute mile barrier was thrown away, as my entire track season was spent recovering from surgery.
While this was a big challenge, I still believed that if I was patient my time would come. I got a late start to summer training, but I was determined to work my butt off for the fall cross country season.
I believed that I could become the first person to become an individual and team national champion. Nothing was going to get in my way.
And yet, I was wrong. A few weeks into training I experienced a plethora of minor injuries, and then ultimately suffered a stress fracture in my left foot that was likely going to cancel yet another chance at a season.
Running was such a large part of my life that it became my identity. Whenever I would go out with girls, make new friends or talk to literally anyone it was with the confidence of knowing that I was one of the best high school runners in the country.
When I lost the ability to run, I began to lose my identity with it. To escalate the issue, I had just moved from Colorado to Utah when I had first gotten injured.
It wasn’t easy, but I slowly began to learn to love myself beyond that aspect. I learned that the true value of a person has nothing to with how fast they run. What matters is what kind of person an individual becomes in pursuit of a goal. Each grueling workout shapes you. It teaches you humility, discipline, strength and love. Who you are is how you treat the people around you.
Nobody cares how fast you run, they just enjoy cheering you on and celebrating with you in your pursuit of excellence. Putting this into perspective has helped me to love myself outside of the sport.
To my chagrin, there were still more life lessons for me to learn.
The year-long cross-training endeavor was an inconvenience compared to everything else going wrong in my life. During the whole period I experienced extreme anxiety, depression and ever-persistent nausea. Going to school, church or really anything was miserable — I wanted to throw up anywhere I went.
If you have ever been car sick and wanted to hurl out the window, it was that level of nausea that I would experience everyday. It ripped me apart.
At first I was able to handle it, but after many months of doctor's appointments and testing with no hope of a diagnosis or healing, it became overbearing. I spent so many consecutive days and nights in absolute agony, slowly I was beginning to break.
I would sit in my room and just rock back and forth in my bed for hours waiting for the feeling to pass; it always felt like an eternity. When it did finally pass I was haunted by the thought of having it back the very next day.
I have always considered myself a mentally strong person, and yet I was having extreme bouts of anxiety that would last for days or sometimes weeks at a time.
I had literally published a book on how to develop a strong mind just a year before.
The irony was palpable.
I went to upwards of 20 different doctors in hopes that one of them would have some idea of what was going on. I tried every method the internet or friend of a friend of a friend had to offer, but could find no relief. Each doctor would ask the same questions, and administer countless tests, only to come to the same conclusion that my nausea was just anxiety.
So, ultimately, it was just all in my head.
I was fighting my mental health, but I was giving up hope and ready to be done. I didn’t have any clue how I was going to make it through the end of the day, let alone a week, month, or years or if I even wanted to. I was completely and utterly desperate, every option exhausted.
Things start to look hopeless when everything you love is taken away.
I couldn’t enjoy anything because of the physical and mental pain that I was constantly enduring. It affected every aspect of my life, and I thought that I would never be able to run well again.
While I was committed to run at Brigham Young University, I honestly didn’t feel deserving of it. I thought I would be sick and injured my entire running career. I was not far from just giving it all up. I almost quit several times, but somehow I decided I would have faith in whatever was going to happen and to just keep pushing. I knew I had to at least cross-train through the season so that I could possibly come in at the end of the cross country season and help my team pull off a national title.
That dream was the only thing that kept me going.
I am not going to say that right before I hit rock bottom I found an incredible solution, because there were many moments where I just didn’t think I could continue. Thankfully, I had an unbelievably strong support group.
Not a lot of people knew what I was dealing with, but the people that did fought for me.
They prayed for me daily. They researched for me and comforted me. They were constantly there when I needed them. I don’t know if I could’ve done it without them.
These people loved me and believed in me at a time where I desperately needed it.
In May of 2020 — over a year and a half since the beginning of my symptoms — a friend of mine with severe and obscure health problems reached out to my mom insisting I see her doc. After visiting far too many therapists and doctors, I had refused to keep trying.
I couldn’t bear to hear yet another doctor ask me the same questions and ultimately tell me it was in my head. After a bit of begging, I was convinced to try just one more. I begrudgingly met with Dr. Coleby, but within five minutes of talking I was diagnosed with a rarely understood condition of renal vein compression.
This actually ended up being one of several vein compressions causing my anxiety and constant nausea, but for the first time in a very long time, I had hope.
While this was a breakthrough, the journey has not been perfect from there. I cycled through a wide variety of different medications and suffered through several more months of nausea. I even traveled to Germany to meet with arguably the best midline compression doc in the world.
After everything, a conclusion has finally been reached. I have an anatomical disorder known as MALS. The syndrome involves compression of vital arteries branching from the aorta. This compression damages the nerves, causing them to send scrambled signals to the brain which are interpreted as intense nausea and anxiety.
It turns out I am not crazy.
Most patients with MALS finally come to a diagnosis after years and years of pain and misdiagnosis. Sometimes they are sent to psych wards and are almost always initially diagnosed with mental disorders as I was.
Most of the time MALS patients couldn’t dream of exercising, and some can’t even get out of bed. Most have feeding tubes, severe weight loss and suffer from severe mental illness caused by scattered nerve signals and sustained pain from eating.
The doctors have been consistently surprised that I am able to both eat and run. I am extremely grateful for the relatively good health that I have considering my diagnosis, and for the mental strength I have been forced to develop. While dealing with MALS and having to be away from running for the better part of a year, I was still well enough to run a 4:05 mile, an 8:58 two-mile at altitude, and I am now training on one of the nation's best college programs at BYU.
This experience has truly exhausting for me and my dear parents. I would never choose to go through it, but along the way I have learned so many things that I am very grateful for.
This experience taught me the meaning of compassion. I didn’t understand just how tough mental illness was until I experienced it. I learned not to judge anyone. Mental illness affects every aspect of life, and those suffering from mental pain deserve love just as much as those with physical injuries and deformities.
We don’t often know what others around us are experiencing.
Mental illness is a very real challenge and struggling with it doesn't make you weak.
Life can sucker punch you in the stomach, but if you hold close to the people you love, serve others, and push through pain, you can do so much. Whenever I was struggling, I always reached out to a friend or a family member I could rely on. It was the only way I could make it through. I would encourage anyone who is struggling to reach out and find help from those who care about you.
Currently, I am set to get surgery in two weeks. Recovery is supposed to be a little bit painful, but very quick. After that, I plan to continue running at Brigham Young University and hope to help bring back another national title for my team. Life is full of trials.
It takes more courage than you ever thought you had to get through, but sometimes you just have to stand up tall and be willing to humbly fight through anything that gets in your way.
There is something to learn in every challenge, take advantage of that. The way you handle your trials will be a major separating factor in your life and in running. Anyone can do the easy stuff. I have no doubt that because of this experience I will have greater strength and compassion in running and in life.
I hope that my story helps you in some way, thank you for hearing me.