Editor's note: Sylvana Smith, a long-distance runner from Mebane and also a free-lance writer who completed Saturday’s Triple Lakes Half Marathon, offers her thoughts about her stroke and recovery and trying to run again.
I had my stroke on the evening of Friday, August 14, 2020, after a perfectly normal work day. I was out at the barn where I boarded my three Thoroughbred foster horses when I started to feel a little woozy. I thought I was just dehydrated and sat down on the picnic bench, thinking I would feel better and continue on to dinner. Fortunately my friend Shira recognized that it was more serious than that and called an ambulance, which got me to Duke Hospital in less than 20 minutes from northern Alamance County, which is pretty remarkable in itself.
I was in a brand-new neurology ward at Duke Hospital from August 14 through October 4, seven weeks to the day. In spite of inpatient physical therapy, when I was discharged from Duke, I still could not lift my right leg, use my right arm, or walk a single step.
That first night at my boyfriend's house, I tried to get up to walk to the bathroom and crumpled on the floor, clutching at the bed sheets. I was in complete disbelief and denial that I was actually disabled.
I stayed the next six months at his place, struggling my way back to at least being functional. Starting with outpatient physical therapy at Duke, I progressed over the course of months from a wheelchair to an old lady walker to a fancy-wheeled walker to trekking poles. I actually hiked to Eagle Rock in the Santa Monica Mountains with the rolling walker in June. I only graduated to the trekking polls since coming home from that trip.
My recovery has been a daily struggle trying to build strength and mileage, but I understand that it takes even longer to rebuild neural pathways that have been destroyed by the stroke. I had a hemorrhagic stroke, whereby a blood vessel in the brain bursts. Unlike an ischemic stroke where there is a clot, and the doctors just use surgery and blood thinners, there's not a whole lot they can do for a hemorrhagic stroke except wait and see.
I started training on my boyfriend's dead-end road with the rolling walker in January, struggling to make a 5K but in reality barely making it over a mile each day. On vacation in Florida in February, I had access to a treadmill and advanced my mileage to 2 miles a day. When I returned home in April, I joined Frank Idley's Big Time Fitness gym only 2 miles from the house, and I am a fixture on the treadmill and elliptical there every morning, advancing to 4 miles a day on the equipment and another 2 to 4 miles with the trekking polls on local trails.
I was sure that hundreds of miles in training, gathered in 4- and 5-mile increments, would be enough to carry me through a half marathon. But I DNF'd my first half-marathon attempt on October 10 at the Mangum Marathon in Ellerbe. It wasn't just a matter of being tired. As a veteran long-distance runner, I know how to push through fatigue. I lost my equilibrium, and my affected foot was swinging crooked through the air and coming down flat-footed and slapping the ground. The wheels were falling off in strange ways that I could do nothing to stop. I had to call it.
I was pretty despondent that day and cried much of the way home from Ellerbe. As an established long-distance runner, I simply couldn't believe that I could only do 8 miles. Denial, fear and disbelief – punctuated by brief moments of advancement and achievement – mark every step of this journey after I wake up in the morning.
Since that event earlier in October, I have been to California again, hiked for hours in the Santa Monica Mountains, hiked the Nat Greene and Piedmont trails from the course as well as many more miles in local preserves, plus the usual mileage on the treadmill and elliptical.
Progress has been very slow and hard-won, but I do see progress. I couldn't have finished the Triple Lakes Half Marathon without my boyfriend to hold my hand the second half of the course and keep me upright in the last miles, even though I fell five times on course, but it worked. I am determined to come back, so Saturday's finish, as slow as it was, was incredibly meaningful to me.
My next event is probably going to be the 7-mile Run at the Rock in early December at Cedarock Park, my home turf, or the 10K at Dix Park on Thanksgiving Day. I was planning to do the 8-miler at Camp Chestnut Ridge in Efland in three weeks, also my home turf, but it looks now like we're going to be in Florida that week. I promised Dean no more half marathons until I am certain I can do it alone. I leaned on him quite a bit, figuratively and literally, on Saturday.
I'm not exactly tearing up the trails, but I am pressing forward. The mantra, "relentless forward motion," means more to me than ever.
With the Triple Lakes Half Marathon – a longtime goal – now a done deal, I will turn my attention back to my other grand passion: my horses.
My next-door neighbor, Jackie Cole, executive director of the North Carolina Therapeutic Riding Center, and longtime friend Lara Katz, NCTRC program director, got me back on a horse with four sessions on bombproof horses last winter.
A young trainer, Beth Ann Tate, continued their work and got me riding my own horses, scrambling on from the wheelwell of the horse trailer. I rode a gentle borrowed horse in the 10-mile Red Mountain Hounds Hunter Pace in May, with Beth Ann as my partner riding one of my Thoroughbreds.
On a June trip to California, my sister took me on four epic trail rides all over the Southern California area, from the beach to the mountains.
I still could not get on and off a horse without assistance, but on the horse I am not disabled. It's glorious.
This is now my usual ride, Alyona Jones' Luna, who is much steadier and more reliable than my own horses. That predictable good nature and calm is so critical now that I am disabled. It's ironic, because before my stroke I specialized in working with troubled and fractious horses and starting young horses under saddle.
I certainly plan to continue trail riding, but I don't see that kind of professional training in my future.
I'm glad to report that I can now get my leg over the horse's back to dismount by myself. I have ridden horses for 50 years, at least 30 years of that as a professional trainer, so it is humbling to now have to engage a young trainer just to help prepare my own horses. And it was really unsettling to be on a horse knowing that no matter what happened, no matter what the horse did, I could not get off. But now I can.
In running and riding both, I'm not too proud to try, even if the effort will be severely compromised. I'm willing to crawl on the trails where necessary, and I would rather walk and trot the horse than say I can't do it because I cannot gallop and jump anymore.
A lot of things about my life and what I consider achievable were recalibrated in a few moments in August 2020. But I have not quit any aspect of my life, and I keep pressing forward.