‘I Finished A Sub–12 Hour IronMan While Coping With MS’

·8 min read
Photo credit: Christine Giordano / Lissette Galarza
Photo credit: Christine Giordano / Lissette Galarza

When was the last time you felt healthy?

It was 2013, and I was a freshman in college when a doctor asked me this question—and I didn’t know the answer. Vision loss, along with two weeks of eye pain, extreme fatigue, body aches, trouble sleeping, and tremors, had brought me to the ER that day, but honestly it felt like there was always something wrong. I thought it was normal.

I was a teenager when my symptoms began, and I wrote them off as painful puberty. I figured the nausea I experienced must be related to nervousness. And when I couldn’t feel my legs, I assumed I’d sat on them wrong. But following a CT scan, blood work, and an MRI during that trip to the emergency room, I was diagnosed with relapsing-remitting multiple sclerosis (RRMS).

Before my diagnosis, I was very active. I swam, I played soccer, and I did sunrise runs by the beach. Afterwards, I gained weight with some of my steroid treatments, and my fitness declined. When I looked in the mirror and no longer recognized the person staring back, I started wondering if I was really doing everything I could for myself. I knew I couldn't change the fact that I had MS, but I could change my mindset.

I chose to see my diagnosis as an answer—a solution, rather than a problem—and kept moving.

At first, it was back to basics. I went to physical therapy for about a year and half, where I relearned how to walk correctly (basically, it no longer felt automatic for me). Small milestones helped me to keep moving forward. I started going to the gym regularly and eventually began jogging again.

In 2016, I moved from Texas to Yosemite National Park to focus on my health, and I started to hike by myself. I would do the same hikes over and over, timing myself to see how much faster I could finish them. For the next four years, I focused on staying active and getting outdoors. I didn’t want to use my illness as an excuse to not do things.

Then, in 2020, my cousin was diagnosed with MS, too. So, I set out to do a half marathon—my first major feat of endurance—to show her that she could still move her body. I trained for about 16 weeks and fought through symptoms like foot drop (which feels something like running with ankle weights on). That July, I conquered all 13.1 miles in Yosemite. It was just me and my thoughts, and I dedicated the effort to my cousin. I even FaceTimed her for the last mile.

After the half, I had to keep going.

Once I achieved that goal, I wanted to chase each and every dream I had, and grow by facing each and every fear I felt. I set my sights on running a full marathon and—though it was a big leap—completing an Ironman [a 2.4-mile swim, a 112-mile bike, and a 26.2-mile run].

In November of 2020, I completed my first 26.2-mile run. I didn’t compete in an official race, but rather ran the miles solo in Yosemite.

Afterwards, I felt like my body had hit a wall, and I couldn't walk right for three days. The tough recovery was not ideal, and I know it’s because on marathon day, I didn’t feel well—and I didn’t listen. This reaffirmed that I have to honor my body and what it’s telling me, especially during training and racing.

Still, instead of saying, "I never want to experience this again," I asked myself, "What can I do better?"

For the next year I focused on the Ironman. Of course, I knew the journey to 140.6 wouldn't be easy. I have a phobia of open water, and heat, humidity, and stress exacerbate MS symptoms. All of those factors would come into play during the race in Cozumel.

In fact, I'd picked that location in order to face my fears. I wanted to learn more about my body—both my symptoms and my ability to push through them. While I trained, I put a heater in front of me during indoor cycling sessions so I could learn how to deal with my symptoms in a safe environment. I also taught myself to concentrate on my right eye, because my left becomes red and swollen during extreme exercise.

Throughout the training, there were plenty of tears shed and many moments that felt like failures. But there were great moments, too, like running 27 miles on my 27th birthday (and having a much better experience than I did after my first marathon).

On the day of the race, I felt scared of a lot of different things: not finishing, having to deal with what happened after my first marathon, and even just going in the water. I knew from a half Ironman I’d done in October that it’s pretty tough to move through the water (and go the right direction) amid a swarm of people kicking and splashing. As it turned out, though, I totally underestimated myself. I started in the slow section, and ended up passing people left and right.

When I got out of the water, I felt a rush of excitement and remembered that there really was no pressure: The race was about having fun. I took the time to dance to an Usher song that was playing, and even enjoyed a little chocolate before I hopped on the bike.

But as I started to pedal, I was hit with extreme fatigue, and I started to lose sensation in my legs (something that had resulted in frequent falls while getting off my bike during training). I relied on muscle memory to push through, and luckily, the weather worsened. The pouring rain helped me to cool down, speed up, regain feeling in my legs, and concentrate on the race instead of my symptoms.

I started to cry when I got to the run. I couldn’t imagine how I would possibly finish a full marathon after what I’d already been through. I kept telling myself that I’d had worse days. All of the negativity I’d encountered in the past—the times I’d been told I wouldn’t run anymore—flooded my mind. Those memories, along with my boyfriend, motivated me to push harder. About seven miles from the finish, as the sun was starting to set, he jogged alongside me and told me I had it in the bag. Both of us were crying.

I was in rough shape when I reached the finish line, but I crossed it in under 12 hours. Next time, I want to go sub-11.

I have a spark in me that just won’t fade.

I want to do more. I want to be more. I want to find the next challenge. And I don’t think that drive is ever going to go away. I know there will be tough moments, but I see beauty in that: Those obstacles help me learn about myself and my symptoms. And honestly, I’m prouder of my resilience than any of the miles I’ve racked up. I hope I can be a role model for other women, too.

Currently, the main symptoms I deal with are fatigue, bladder problems, spinal shocks, confusion, slurred speech, and loss of sensation in my legs—and they can last anywhere from a few minutes to a year. But I think things have gotten better since my diagnosis. I do relapse (meaning I get new symptoms) every now and then, but I'm more stable, and I've been able to reduce some of the scarring in my brain. I’m happier, too, and I understand my body better. Instead of feeling like a victim, I use my illness as a starting point, a source of motivation to get creative and figure out how to keep going.

Now, I've got new goals on the horizon.

MS is a snowflake disease, meaning that a treatment that works for someone else might not work for me. I've tried Copaxone and Tecfidera, and for about the last seven years, I've been on Tysabri, an infusion I get every four weeks. While on Tysabri, I've only relapsed a few times.

Still, I've always dreamed of not taking treatments and dealing with side effects. I'm planning to start the process of getting off medication soon, and I'm hoping to try more natural ways of managing my illness, like reducing stress and eating well. I already eat healthy foods, but I'm willing to go the extra mile to give the disease a better home in my body.

As for where I’m going next in racing, I’ve got a marathon on the calendar in Santa Rosa, August 28. Then, my partner and I plan to tackle a 48-mile solo ultra in Yosemite. I also think I’ve got some speed in me, and I want to Boston qualify at some point.

I don’t ever want to stop racing. In my opinion, a body in motion stays in motion—so I’ll keep moving my body and doing all the things I love.

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