26.2 Miles in the Face of PTSD

26.2 Miles in the Face of PTSD

Training to run 26.2 miles is as much a physical experience as it is an emotional journey. This is especially true for those who use distance running to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder, or PTSD.

Miguel Ocegueda and Leah Elmquist are both Iraq War vets who will be running the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon. Both are using their training to push past mental barriers erected by traumatic life experiences. The miles they run in New York on November 5 will be some of the most meaningful of their lives.

Miguel Ocegueda: Running to Reestablish Routine

New Jersey native Miguel Ocegueda was a freshman in high school when the events of 9/11 occurred. In the days following the attacks, he obsessively watched the news as policemen, firefighters, and the US military searched through rubble.

Ocegueda recalls a constant “feeling of inability to do and act.” Eventually he joined the US Army. As an active duty solider from 2007 to 2012, he was deployed to Iraq.

After he returned from active duty, Ocegueda suffered from PTSD. “It’s a feeling of helplessness when you take off your uniform,” he says. Without a schedule dictating when he should eat, sleep, exercise, or socialize, he felt adrift.

To reestablish some structure and discipline, he made running part of his daily routine. “I ran to help myself cope with the stressors that often accompany the transition back to civilian life,” he says.  

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On November 5, Ocegueda will run the TCS New York City Marathon with the Headstrong Project, a non-profit mental health organization that provides support for post-9/11 combat veterans. “I’m running to remember those who paid the ultimate price and to help others heal hidden wounds of war,” he says.

Ocegueda will traverse the five boroughs this fall as a shining example of how running a marathon is as much a mental game as it is a physical commitment.

Leah Elmquist:  Domestic Violence “Didn’t Break Me”

Aside from a few high school cross country meets, running was never a big part of Leah Elmquist’s life. It wasn’t until she joined the US Navy at age 21 that running became a constant in her routine.

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Elmquist was deployed to Iraq, stationed in various locations throughout the Anbar Province in 2007 and 2008. Being in the Navy not only required her to be “perfectly fit,” but also taught her the importance of sticking to schedules, developing short- and long-terms plans, and being extremely self-disciplined.  

Elmquist ran her first in 2011, but after completing her second 26.2-miler in 2012, her healthy lifestyle of fitness and discipline took a dramatic turn when she was physically assaulted by someone she loved. She suffered a traumatic brain injury, which left her with hearing loss, short-term memory issues, and PTSD.

Throughout her recovery, Elmquist needed assistance walking and was told that her chances of returning to serious running were slim. But despite what her doctors had said, she began running two years later and has completed several races since, growing stronger with each one.

“He didn’t break me,” Elmquist says of her assailant. “When I run, I feel strong and alive. I do not take for granted this amazing life God has given me and my awesome network of family and friends who support me.”

The 2017 TCS New York City Marathon will be the first marathon that Elmquist, now 35, has run since her head injury. She’s taking the streets of NYC with Team Red, White & Blue, a running community for US veterans.

She admits that “starting is the hardest part.” The encouraging and social atmosphere of Team RWB helped her get stronger and more competitive.

This November, the team—along with Elmquist’s 11-year-old daughter, who accompanies her to weekend track workouts—will be cheering her on and celebrating the incredible odds that she’s overcome.

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