Defying the odds and breaking down barriers— these courageous people never give up. Take a look inside the journeys of Northern Michigan runners Amy Spegele and Nicole Enger.
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On a snowy, cheek-blasting evening, Amy Spegele, a volunteer coach for the Traverse City Track Club, explained to her two mentees—me and a 20-something runner—that instead of running, she run/walks. Forty-five seconds of running, 30 seconds of walking. And she meant a leisurely, chatty kind of walk. Hmmm. I remembered triumphantly running my first straight three miles. So back to run/walking? But, hey, I was open.
As the wind bit our foreheads along the Boardman River Trail, Amy called out, “Start!” “Stop!” During one of the walking intervals, she casually mentioned that she suffers from two medical conditions that cause her to blackout when pushing too hard. But not to worry. She only has to stop running and there’ll be no need to call 9-1-1.
So naturally, I was surprised to learn she not only is a running coach but also teaches yoga, holds a third-degree black belt, and founded and runs a nonprofit martial arts school. Intrigued, I talked to her a few nights later about her unstoppable approach to exercise.
Amy agrees, it is surprising that she’s so active, given all her physical challenges. In fact, her health problems began in early childhood, when she suffered from vesicoureteral reflux (VUR), a malady caused by cockeyed neurons that sent urine from the bladder back to the ureters, and sometimes all the way to her kidneys. Her condition caused recurring urinary tract infections, not to mention embarrassing accidents.
“I couldn’t run, jump or laugh without an accident, which makes you very uncool on the playground,” she says. “I never grew out of it, as the doctors hoped, so I finally had surgery when I was 12.”
With the operation, accidents and infections became maladies of the past. But it wasn’t so easy losing her ingrained self-image as a non-athlete.
Her turning point came in her early 30s when she signed up for a martial arts class with her 5-year-old son. She was instantly enthused, but again, confronted obstacles.
“During one of my first days, I was working with a head instructor, and he was showing me how to punch, and he wanted me to do it quickly,” Amy recalls. “We were drilling over and over again, and my vision started leaving me. I told him, ‘I can’t see very well.’ He said, ‘Keep going! You can do it!’ So, I kept going. Then I told him, ‘The world is black. I can’t see a thing.’ He said, ‘Stop!’”
She did, and the world came back into focus. She later learned that she was afflicted with vasodepressor syndrome (VDS); her blood pressure plummets when her heart rate peaks at around 180. There is no cure for it, but she only has to stand still to avoid blacking out.
Despite the medical setback, Amy’s confidence was bolstered by her success in martial arts. So much so that she began running with a friend. Knowing the risk of blacking out, she opted for the walk/run system made famous by Jeff Galloway. For months they enjoyed running together, but then her friend began pushing for speedier, longer run intervals. Amy exerted herself to keep pace, but then another medical malady popped up. On faster runs, she’d make an asthmatic, high-pitched sound, a symptom of paradoxical vocal cord dysfunction—essentially her vocal cords began closing off her air supply. Taken too far, she’d pass out. The solution? Again, just stop.
As it turned out, her friend grew into a competitive racer, and they parted ways—at least when it came to running. Dejected, Amy stopped running altogether.
“I was hard on myself,” Amy says. “I thought, ‘This is horrible for my body,’ ‘Why can’t I keep up?’ ‘Why can’t I go faster?’ But then I realized, ‘This isn’t how I want to talk to myself, this isn’t how I wanted to feel about me.’”
Amy decided to place her ego firmly on the shelf, tie up her shoelaces and return to the shorter splits of 30/30.
“It was then that I realized I actually loved running,” she says. “I loved being out in the fresh air and everything else. And that I had to let go of my times. I am a person just running for myself. Even if I didn’t have these medical issues, I was never going to win anyway … It was ridiculous to put pressure on myself.”
Photo by Michael Poehlman
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Amy says she runs just as fast this way as she would without the restful walk intervals. But the benefit—above and beyond remaining conscious—is that she doesn’t get injuries. The 30-second walk provides her heart, her breathing and her running muscles with a calming break. She uses the “interval timer” app and bone conduction headphones so she can hear what’s going on around her or talk with a friend. On long runs, she takes time to drink or eat an energy gummy. Sometimes, she just stops altogether to take in a beautiful view.
Amy loves to share what she’s learned with others, envisioning a world where everyone runs, hikes, golfs, swims–whatever—in a joyous way without the mental baggage of judging themselves or others. Carina Conklin, 33, says she teamed up with Amy when she first started running and learned the mindset of running “happily.” But her husband took the opposite tack.
“He was trying to qualify for the Boston and was constantly injured. I just ran for me. That approach eventually clicked for him, too, and that’s how we both run together now,” Carina says.
In the last dozen years, Amy, now 45, has run 31 half marathons, three marathons and a 31-mile ultra, extending her splits into a two-minute run, one-minute walk. In one race, she clocked 10-minute miles.
She has this advice for folks who apologize on social media for their slow pace: Let go of people’s opinions and celebrate yourself for just getting out there.
“When somebody asks, ‘What was your time?’ I say, ‘I passed everybody on the couch. Every single person.’”
When Nicole Enger took her maiden run in her Bass Lake subdivision, she decided to leave the house at midnight. Like some folks who are overweight, she preferred to avoid people’s judgmental stares. She ran nearly a half-mile—lit by the stars and a bright full moon—and went unseen by anyone.
Night after night, she ran a little farther, alone with her thoughts and the sound of her feet hitting the pavement. The beginning of her transformation was quiet and unannounced, and so were all of her runs that summer. But over the next nine years, she became loud and proud. She made many friends, explored new trails, raced her first sprint triathlon and is now training for her first, in-person marathon. Along the way, she’s lost 95 pounds and shrunk 10 sizes.
“It changed me as a person,” she says. “For the better.”
The journey for Nicole began on a late spring day, looking out the office window of her family business, thinking she was 34 years old and it was time for a change.
“I got into a crappy relationship—this sounds so cliché—that was on its way out,” she recalls. “I had gained a bunch of weight. I thought, ‘You know what, I want to do something to fix the things that I can change.’ So, I started running, thinking it wouldn’t cost me anything.”
Nicole confesses to hating running in high school—she preferred to walk. But that first summer—each night after the sun went down—she donned a pair of running shoes, a loose cotton T-shirt and leggings, and willed herself out the door.
“I was too embarrassed for people to see my fat butt running,” she recalls. “I remember when I couldn’t get through half a mile, and it was so frustrating. In the beginning, I said negative things. I called myself a fat ass, things like that. But I stuck with it. ‘Gosh, I can run a mile now. Oh! Okay. This is good, this is a good thing.’ And I stuck with it.
“I came to a spot where I didn’t have to constantly reinforce negative thoughts with positive thoughts,” Nicole continues.
“It was more, ‘Hey, I did this! It was just a run, and I’m enjoying it. I’m running at night under the stars, no dogs, no cell phones, no barking, no kids screaming.’”
She had proudly reached the three-mile mark when a friend invited her to join the Wednesday “fun run” with the Traverse City Track Club.
“I thought, I’m a fat person, I run slowly. Runners are tall, they’re thin, they have decent bodies. I am not that,” Nicole says, a pretty brunette who’s on the shorter side. “But I eventually did go and thought, ‘My gosh, why didn’t I run with these people sooner?’ On the first run, I was the last person to finish. But the people who passed me said, ‘Good job, good job, good job!’ I thought, ‘I don’t even know this person, why are they saying this to me?’ People were so encouraging to me, so I stayed with it.”
Nicole believes many people allow their thoughts to stop them in their tracks. To overcome her own negativity, she told herself she didn’t have to fit a certain mold, that no one would persecute her for not being the fastest runner. So, she kept showing up for group runs and “met the most amazing people.”
Photo by Michael Poehlman
Chats with friends made (and still make) the long hours fly by. Nicole talks about her side job as a makeup artist for movies, her two cousins she helped care for, past adventures as a “day roadie” for famous musicians and creating a campaign commercial for a congressional candidate.
Meanwhile, she cleaned up her diet. Although a vegetarian for several years, she knew she wasn’t eating a healthy diet. “Vegetarians can eat a junk food diet too,” she says, laughing.
So she took a hard look at her cupboard, throwing out all the high-sugar, high-fat foods while cutting down on salt and foods with additives. She also reduced her portion sizes and began cooking at home nearly all the time.
“Once I cut out all the processed stuff, the weight fell off,” she says.
For Nicole, running is never boring. Over the years, she’s tried different things— different race distances, exploring new trails, doing adventure runs.
“I’ve learned a lot about how I run and what kind of runner I am. I have friends who are very fast, but I’m great at running long distances for very long periods of time,” she says. “Right now, I’m at 19 miles. It feels good. ‘Gosh, that first two miles sucked, your body is not warmed up.’ But always at the end, I am so glad I did that.”
She remembers getting off course on a 5K race and accidentally running a 25K, long before she thought she was ready for that kind of distance. “When I crossed the finish line, someone took a picture of me and yelled, ‘How did that 25K feel?’ I thought, ‘What!’ You could see the astonishment and relief on my face all at once. I never thought I could do something like that.”
Now she’s running longer mileages each weekend, with a 20-miler planned for the weekend after our interview. To keep it fresh, she tries to choose a different place to run each time.
“I’ll pick somewhere that’s absolutely beautiful, where I don’t have to worry about traffic. Not too busy,” Nicole says. “I just go. Sometimes I’ll play music. I enjoy the scenery, especially in the mornings. The sun is rising, and I get to see the change of day.”
Anne Stanton is a freelance writer and the editorial director of Mission Point Press, a Traverse City-based company that helps independent authors achieve literary excellence and publishing success.