Why ultra runner Sylvana Smith's half marathon is 'a very big deal'

She's a veteran of 60 marathons and ultras. 'I didn't want to leave this behind,' she says.

Why ultra runner Sylvana Smith's half marathon is 'a very big deal'
Mebane's Sylvana Smith after finishing the Triple Lakes Trail Race Half Marathon on Saturday at Bur-Mil Park in Greensboro.
Click on the video to see Sylvana Smith, with Dean Taker, finishing the Triple Lakes Trail Race Half Marathon.

Sylvana Smith's long-distance running career has taken her across finish lines in 60 marathons and ultras.

She crossed another finish line Saturday at the Triple Lakes Trail Race in Greensboro, this one coming at the end of a shorter distance but marking a milestone in an ongoing journey that is oh-so-remarkable.

"I didn't want to leave this behind," the Mebane resident said, "just because I had a stroke."

Smith suffered a hemorrhagic stroke on Aug. 14, 2020, and spent seven weeks recovering at Duke. She left on Oct. 4, 2020, in a wheelchair, because she couldn't walk, lift her right leg or use her right arm.

"They said I was going to make a recovery," she said. "But I think they were thinking a recovery for a 60-year-old woman is you can go shopping, go out to tea."

Sylvana Smith with Dean Taker approaching the half marathon finish line (Cary Hahn, Trivium Racing)

Walking the course, leaning on her trekking poles and on her boyfriend, Dean Taker, for support, Smith finished Trivium Racing's 13.1 miles along the Piedmont, Nat Greene and Owls Roost trails around Lake Brandt in eight hours, 35 minutes and 14 seconds. She took the last few steps as a cover version of Aerosmith's "Walk This Way" appropriately filled the air.

"Today was really meaningful," she said, "because I set my sights on it, and I did it."

Sylvana Smith: In her own words
Mebane’s Sylvana Smith shares her thoughts in her own words. ‘I’m willing to crawl on the trails where necessary,’ she writes, ‘and I would rather walk and trot the horse than say I can’t do it because I cannot gallop and jump anymore.’
Click on the link to read Sylvana Smith's thoughts on her stroke, her recovery and her efforts to stay active.

As close as Taker has been to Smith – "He's been my rock through this," she says – and having seen her halt a similar attempt in the ninth mile on Oct. 10 in Richmond County, even he admitted his astonishment.

"Amazing. I did not think she was going to pull it off. I really didn't," Taker said. "It's a big deal, especially out here. These trails are not easy. So it's a very big deal."

Sylvana Smith and Dean Taker on a greenway stretch of the Triple Lakes Trail Race Half Marathon (Cary Hahn, Trivium Racing)

According to the American Stroke Association, hemorrhagic strokes makes up about 13 percent of cases. They're caused by a weakened vessel rupturing and bleeding into the brain.

Smith chalked up her success after months of training and re-training to what she called "foolhardy courage."

"I do four miles on the treadmill and elliptical every day," said Smith, who couldn't cover a mile when she returned to training in January. "But I hadn't done half marathon distance in my training. I was just sure that I could do it."

Smith, whose first 26.2-mile race was the 1995 Marine Corps Marathon, also credited work in the gym and on an adult tricycle and bike.

"We went out on all the greenways," she said. "The American Tobacco Trail, the Neuse River Greenway, the New River Trail. The Tobacco Heritage Trail up in Virginia. We hit every greenway we could think of with the tricycle. And then I graduated into a two-wheeled bicycle. We actually did the Virginia Creeper Trail just a few weeks ago."

Smith, now 61, is a free-lance writer for Cisco. The stroke has robbed her of dexterity, notably in her right hand.

"I used to be able to type as fast as people could speak," she said. "I could capture a transcript of a recorded webinar just like that, and then write a white paper from it. That was one of my gifts to clients."

She also can't run or jump now.

"My right leg and my right hand are quite profoundly affected because it was a left-brain injury," Smith said.

So for now, 13.1 miles. She plans to enter the Trophy Trot 10K on Thanksgiving Day in Raleigh or the Run at the Rock's 7-mile race on Dec. 4 in Burlington.

But Sylvana Smith is moving forward, a few miles at a time.

"The doctors didn't imagine what a full recovery meant to me," Smith said. "It meant going back to running ultras. 50K was my distance. ...

"It's been a long journey," she said, "and I just keep getting better."

Sylvana Smith and Dean Taker after crossing the finish line (Cary Hahn, Trivium Racing)

Triple Lakes Trail Race top finishers

40 Miler

Men's top five

1. Joel Shores, Greensboro, 5:34:37.80

2. William Connell, Astoria, N.Y., 6:22:46.71

3. Adam Jones, Danville, Va., 6:40:45.07

4. Andrew Snow, Asheville, 6:49:02.19

5. Jody Nelson, Greensboro, 7:28:25.97

Women's top five

1. Delores Ford, Danville, Va., 7:29:16.36

2. Joanna Downer, Durham, 9:33:34.63

3. Alixandra Mackey, Southern Pines, 9:54:17.93

4. Neala Jones, Summerfield, 10:03:45.76

5. Jeannine Fishel, Greensboro, 10:09:08.07


Men's top five

1. Owen Calvert, Lewisville, 3:49:39.41

2. Danny McCormick, Greensboro, 3:56:30.20

3. Troy Morris, Summerfield, 4:18:48.49

4. Anonymous, 4:32:10.51

5. Jarrod Mills, McLeansville, 4:34:26.13

Women's top five

1. Abigail Toth, Granger, Ind., 4:36:17.41

2. Katie Martin, Blackstone, Va., 4:53:07.70

3. Lauren Presgrove, Aberdeen, 5:14:46.00

4. Laura Cristina Pagani, Cornelius, 5:23:10.72

5. Rebecca Greene, Durham, 5:42:00.24

Half Marathon

Men's top five

1. Michael Koballa, Summerfield, 1:27:03.31

2. Gilliam Hill, Browns Summit, 1:30:23.98

3. Joshua Anderson, Ringgold, Va., 1:47:02.92

4. Stephen Dagenhart, Summerfield, 1:49:22.38

5. Dennis Helms, Greensboro, 1:50:27.27

Women's top five

1. Julie Lemanski, Durham, 1:54:07.09

2. Amanda Tanner, Winston-Salem, 2:04:35.77

3. Sheryl France, Greensboro, 2:04:48.82

4. Patricia Oelschlager, Southern Pines, 2:05:46.40

5. Teresa Chilton, Efland, 2:06:06.94

40K Relay

1. Definitely Inane, 3:37:31.86

2. Beer Run, 3:45:14.43

3. King Juliens Show Ponies, 3:59:04.34

Click here for full Triple Lakes Trail Race results