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Denise Sauriol: Life is good


Denise and "Shelley" cheering on runners at the Chicago Marathon

If you've run on the lakefront path, you've run into Denise Sauriol.  An avid runner for years, you could recognize the lean blond with the perpetual smile from a half mile away with her perfect running form that looks so effortless.

A veteran of 34 marathons since 1994, Denise worked her way up to a marathon personal best of 3:15:40, and the 2008 Illinois Womens' Masters Championship in the Chicago Marathon. 

Denise lined up with the 35,000 runners on October 11 this year, but with no intention of running.  What would have been her 15th consecutive Chicago Marathon finish was not going to happen.  On August 16, Denise was struck by a car running to the New York City Half Marathon start.  She fractured five vertebrae and her head hit "either the hood or the street".  She is lucky to have survived.  Most runners would have shunned the 2009 Chicago Marathon.  But Denise, in a hard shell that covered her entire torso that she's had to endure for months, headed to the start line to be part of the experience.   On the front of the shell that served as her protection sat her bib number, and on the back, only a sticker centered perfectly that said: "Life is good."

Days after she was released from the shell, which she fondly calls "Shelley", she is back to walking 90 minutes around the East Bank Club track.  It's hard not to recognize the fear in her eyes when she sees another runner approaching.  She simply does not want to get knocked over again.  But, she stays in the inside lane, and walks on, smiling that constant smile.  It's only when you ask her how she's doing and if she misses running that tears come to her eyes.  She answers not that she misses running but that she knows how lucky she is to be alive.  And how she is grateful that she can walk.  I asked her how recovery is going, and what her expectations are for running again, and how she feels about running now.

NF: You're a really experienced runner. When did you start running? 

DS: I started running in the 4th grade. Mainly because it was the only sport that didn't require eye-hand-ball coordination. That was something I definitely lacked and still do. Even though I wasn't fast, I would just put my shoes on move forward and bam, I was a part of a sport, finally.
NF: You were the top Illinois female master last year in Chicago. How did that feel?

I have run 34 marathons since 1994. My fastest marathon was 3:15:40 at Chicago. Wow, last year I couldnt believe that I was the first Illinois Masters woman.  That was my 14th year of running Chicago so that shows you how much I have to practice before I do well. It took me 14 times to win at Chicago!

NF: Do you remember the accident in New York? What happened? 

DS: It was 8-16-09 (my new birthday) and I was jogging to the start of the NYC 1/2 marathon. I was crossing the street and out of nowhere I got hit by a car. On impact when I was on the hood of the car, the first thing that I thought was, "Oh my gosh this is not happening, I am going to die, get run over or be paralyzed." I had no control over the next second. We think we have control over our lives in planning out our days, our vacations, our race schedule, etc. but we don't.  I shattered the windshield and flew off the hood into the street. I hit my head but I don't remember if it was on the hood or the street. I ended up breaking 5 vertebrae in my back and bruising my head.
NF: I found it really devastating and terrifying to come back from an injury - especially an acute injury like an accident where you had no control? How are you doing?

D'S: After my accident my friends and family were concerned that I was going crazy from not being able to run. I had been running 6 days a week, averaging 60-70 miles.  Honestly, I am grateful to walk, talk and breathe on my own and I am in no hurry to start running. I am doing great and am happy to be walking.

NF: Did the accident change your feeling about running?

DS: Before the accident I was so focused on my splits, Personal Records, rankings.  If I didn't do well in a race I would beat myself up and figure out what do I need to change with my workouts. Now, I am just grateful to even walk, talk and breathe on my own.  I am all over participating in a race versus racing a race.

NF: What are you doing now to recover? Where are you in the recovery process? And how long is the process?

DS: I just started therapy so I am following my PTs orders trying to build up the muscles that have been atrophied.   My doctors tell me that it should take 6 months for the bones to heal so I am just staying tuned.

NF: You went to the start of the Chicago Marathon this year?

DS: This year I walked the first mile of the Chicago Marathon all the way in the back. This was the year I was the "back of the pack" This would have been my 15th Chicago Marathon in a row. I was really nervous about going down to the start with the crowds and my broken back. But I knew I would regret it if I didn't try. After I did my first mile I found a safe spot on the course to cheer on the runners. That was my favorite part. I saw all of these runners (some friends, lots were strangers) all sharing my passion. I did not want to get off the course. I wanted to cheer for everyone. I just had to look in their eyes and I so could relate to what they were thinking.  I wanted to tell them that they are very fortunate to be able to start and/or finish a marathon...and to take the race for all it is, embrace the pain you are feeling, talk to some of your fellow runners, hi five a little kids hand along the don't know how lucky you are to be out there.

NF: Are you looking forward to getting back to running?
DS: I am looking forward to when Humpty Dumpty is completely put back together and I can go for my first run.  No stop watch though. I don't care about my splits.  I miss running with my friends and the new friends I have yet to make!  Running is the common language that has allowed me to befriend strangers. My life wouldn't be as rich if I didn't have the running language to share with people that I meet at work, at a party, at the airport, at the doctors, etc. 

NF: You are beginning to coach other runners. What is that like?

DS: I love working with beginning runners and walkers. I like to get rid of the "deer in headlight" look that they give me when I tell them they CAN do a 5K or even a marathon.  I didn't have any talent with running at all before I started working with a coach and running group. But I had a love for running and I had the drive and determination to see what I was made of. That's where a coach helps. They have the science behind the training so that you don't get hurt and they also see more in you then you see in yourself. I also love to give back to the running community because running had given me so much, that's why I like to motivate people to just do their first race and then remember that feeling you have when you cross that finish line!

NF: What advice would you give a beginning runner?

DS: YOU CAN DO IT!! Every finish line that you get to is a gift to yourself. You don't have a boss, spouse, parent, coach, partner, etc. telling you to do the race and that's why it is so empowering because YOU got yourself to the start line and YOU got yourself to the finish line. So wear that race t-shirt with pride!
NF: What is the best lesson you learned from running?
DS: Everyone has untapped talent, finish lines are empowering,  runners have less stress, running doesn't have to hurt like it did in gym class...because now your are in control of your pace -  not the gym teacher's stop watch.