Running Through Calamity

by Amber Coppolo

I’ve faced a lot of adversity that I’ve had to work through over the past 5 years. I was a runner in college, but didn’t train smart, suffered burnout and injuries a lot, which made me step away from the sport for a while out of frustration. I would run and train here and there for an occasional race but nothing serious. I had to put running on the back burner for a while, because life had other plans.

After the birth of my son in September 2017, I really wanted to focus on getting back into running competitively and I started training again. In early 2018, I was blindsided by an ovarian cancer diagnosis at 28 years old that turned my life upside down. I don’t think anything can prepare you to deal with the possibility of your own mortality at such a young age. My main focus became survival at that point. I tried to keep running, but it just wasn’t possible. I went through the whole 9 yards – a major abdominal surgery, fertility preservation and chemotherapy all within the span of 4 months while taking care of a newborn. Chemo was physically brutal for me. One of the risks of the chemo regimen I was on had the potential to cause pulmonary toxicity, but this was very rare for someone my age, in my physical shape, with a good health history, so I was assured it would be ok. Unfortunately, it was not ok. I had to stop the drug prematurely because it reached a toxic level. I ended up in the hospital with acute respiratory failure for a week, and had a 50/50 chance of making it out alive. At the time, I don’t think I could truly wrap my head around the fact that this could be the end for me. And to this day, I still can’t. Thankfully the treatment worked and I survived, but the damage was already done and irreparable. I have scarring and reduced lung capacity- which is permanent. However, over time I believe we can train our bodies to adapt.

It was a physically exhausting and grueling journey to get where I am. I did months of respiratory therapy, I couldn’t walk more than 5-10 minutes at a time or use the stairs. There was a point where I couldn’t even bathe myself and it was humiliating. When I started running again, there were times I wanted to quit, times I questioned WHY I was doing this when I knew I would never reach the potential I used to have. It felt like a sick joke. It took the one thing away from me that I’ve always loved and I was so angry over it. I had a lot of self hate for taking it for granted but I decided that I was going to change that mind set and maximize whatever potential I had left. I created my own plans on a calendar, ran solo everyday and scoped out 5ks to train for. I did what I could and made the best of it. I got to a point of running 21-22 minute 5ks and was pretty grateful for that, even though it was nowhere near where I used to be. I made it my mission to be better than I was before the cancer, to show I was worthy and capable of coming back from it, even with the odds completely against me. To take back what was mine. And that’s my motivation, to take back what is mine.

In September 2020 at the ADK 5k, there was a large team that showed up in uniform. I was intrigued, but my social anxiety prevented me from any further interest. After the 5k, Mat Nark reached out saying that there was half marathon and I was welcome to join. He told me a little about his coaching and the team, and I became interested in the possibility of joining. I wasn’t sure if my limitations would continue to get in the way, but I made the choice to ultimately complete my first half marathon to see what it was all about and join. I remember being extremely anxious. I didn’t know anyone, which felt awkward and I had no idea how to pace a half marathon, but Mat was able to give me a realistic plan (of which I did not listen to of course). I ended up completing the half marathon in a little under 1:35 and was VERY surprised at how easy it felt. It was much easier than the 5k and I actually really enjoyed it.

Thus began the grueling process to where I am today. It was beyond difficult at first; I had some really bad days, and a lot of suffering. There were times I physically just couldn’t do it. I had a tremendous amount of breathing difficulties in the first 6-9 months of serious training. I pushed through it only to face obstacle after obstacle, enough to make most people quit. I suffered from anemia almost constantly, have a compromised immune system, struggle with keeping weight on, and continue to suffer from severe intestinal issues. Most days I would throw up during and after a hard effort and be in so much pain I couldn’t eat. I would lay on the couch the rest of the day, again, questioning why I do this to myself.

I continued to put in the work despite everything, and follow the coaching Mat provided. With his coaching and my determination, I’m learning that despite everything I’ve been through and continue to go through, I’m not even close to reaching my full potential. Within the span of 18 months of Mat’s coaching, I took my 5k pace and made it my marathon pace. I’ve smashed every PR and record from college I’ve had, from the mile up to the (now) marathon, usually PRing en route to another longer distance. I’ve completed the one event I said I never would, the marathon, running a 2:58 (after a lot of convincing to try it by Mat.)

His race plans and predictions have been spot on, usually within a minute or less. I fought it at first, not following the plan, overestimating my abilities and paying for it at the end of races but I’ve gotten much better with that.

This time, I decided to do this right and follow the plan, hoping to slip just a hair under 3 hours for my first marathon. I wanted a GOOD experience. I took the week prior VERY seriously; I researched a proper carbohydrate load, stretched and used the Theragun every day, hydrated like it was my job, made sure I got enough quality sleep, took epsom salt baths daily, etc. When it came time, I taped the splits he gave to my arm and hit them religiously and within seconds until mile 17, when I picked up the pace. I fueled like it was my job. I waited and waited for the dreaded “wall” but it never came. I was able to negative split by 2 minutes and achieve my goal of a sub 3- by 2 minutes. I’m certain that I wouldn’t have done it without the proper pacing strategy and coaching. I did leave the race feeling like I left a little on the table. I was scared to push myself to the max, not knowing what to expect or how I should feel at the end of it or if I would hit the “wall” at mile 25 and crawl to the finish. None of those things happened. I used this first marathon as a first time experience, reflecting on what I can do better or change the next time. I’m no longer scared of the distance and have a better feel and handle of it. I planned to do another marathon in June, but have had some set backs (bronchitis immediately followed by Covid) so I’m not sure if I will go through with it.

I am so happy and grateful I joined the team, and to be where I’m at. I’ve made lifelong friends and I feel like I have a whole other family, people who care and motivate each other and a coach that truly cares about the success of his athletes. I mean, who else wakes up before the sun is up to follow us around handing out fuel, and feeding us breakfast after long runs?

I’m just going to keep on keeping on, and see where the future brings me. I’m optimistic and excited and ready to GET GOING. I’m going to continue to fight through every obstacle I face, because that’s just what I do and have done since day one. I’m going to take back what is mine.

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