For many, running a marathon for the first time is a massive challenge that requires mental fortitude and physical strength. Considering the countless hours and days of training, the strict dieting, and commitment to the tough regimen that come along with a marathon race, not everyone is cut out for the task. For Kristen Szustakowski, Director of Customer Experience at AfterShokz, another obstacle stood in the way of her achieving the goal of completing her first marathon: her autoimmune disease. Discover how Kristen overcame the limitations of systemic lupus erythematosus to cross the finish line of her first-ever 26.2, the 2020 NYC Virtual Marathon earlier this month.
AFTERSHOKZ: What made you decide to run a marathon and why did you choose the New York Marathon specifically?
KRISTEN SZUSTAKOWSKI: Working the booth for AfterShokz at the NYC Marathon in November 2017 was so inspiring! Our booth was positioned near the information booth, so in addition to meeting all the amazing marathoners in our booth, I got to hear on a loop over loudspeakers what running the marathon would be like. I remember walking back to my hotel room in a daydream, plotting in my head what I needed to do today in order for me to run a half-marathon in 2018 and a marathon in 2020.
I had an autoimmune disease and about ten years of sedentary lifestyle working against me so I knew it would take a lot of work. That’s why running the NYC Virtual Marathon was so special to me this year! Not only did it first inspire me to change my life, it felt symbolic to come full-circle.
AS: Can you tell us more about your autoimmune disease and how it affects your day-to-day life?
KS: I have systemic lupus erythematosus, which is an autoimmune disease that causes your immune system to attack healthy tissue and organs. It impacts everyone differently, but for me, it predominantly impacts my skin, joints, and lungs.
The disease can shift between being mildly active to being highly active. When mildly active, for the most part, I feel well. When highly active, everything hurts, my joints become stiff, I lose all my energy, and it becomes difficult to perform everyday tasks.
Through immunosuppressants, and being meticulous with diet, sleep, exercise, and stress management, I’ve been able to manage it reasonably well!
AS: Did you have to consult with your doctors before you started your training regimen?
KS: I did, because I wasn’t sure if running would cause additional damage to my joints and lungs. But the opposite was true! They were so enthusiastic and saw running as a huge benefit. They ask me how it’s going every time I come for a visit.
AS: How did your autoimmune disease affect your running and your training for the marathon?
KS: I’ve had lupus derail races before, so with embarking on my first 26.2, I took a more cautious and scientific approach to this training cycle, knowing that stress in general, whether it’s physical or mental, can cause a lupus flare. I paid extra-close attention to nutrition, hydration, stress management, and sleep. While I felt strong and healthy week to week, one challenge I still had on nearly all my runs was simply breathing! Because my lungs are scarred, breathing while running often feels like breathing through a bendy straw. Sometimes I’d have to walk or take a break for a minute. It can really slow me down. I would have to remind myself that while this is frustrating, it doesn’t make the goal impossible.
AS: How could someone support a friend or partner with an autoimmune disease through their training?
KS: I think the biggest thing is believing in them. Getting diagnosed with an autoimmune disease can be scary, and can feel limiting, and it’s important that we don’t let our minds limit us of things we really can do.
AS: Do you have a race-day ritual or superstition?
KS: I like routine, so having race day mimic my long runs as close as possible is always a priority for me. For example, it became very crucial the night before the race that I have a way to make two cups of coffee in the morning.
AS: What was your favourite running fuel/pre-race snack?
KS: Favorite running fuel is Clif’s Strawberry Gels. I did have a week where I ventured out and tried some other flavours. I fell in love with Citrus, Razz, and Espresso, but Strawberry is still my ultimate jam! Favourite pre-race snack was half-a-piece of toast with peanut butter and at least two cups of coffee. At least.
AS: How did you balance work, being a mom, and training for a marathon all at once?
KS: I’m a morning person, so I found it easiest to wake up at 4 am or 5 am and have my run completed before anyone else was up. That pretty much guaranteed no human, dog, email, text, or household chore would pull me away. It sounds SO early for some people, but one trick I used was not letting myself make the decision about running or not running until I was out of bed, dressed, and ready to go. By then, you may as well. Worked 100% of the time.
I’m also super lucky to have a supporting husband, who was accepting of my 7:30 pm Friday night bedtime, and a supporting 4-year-old, who loved filling the bathtub for me when I got home from a long run. Now she wants to run a race too!
AS: What advice would you have for someone who is a first-time marathon runner?
KS: It’s easier when you have a tribe. If you don’t have friends or family who run, running podcasts, books, or articles can help create that community to keep you motivated. Also...don’t wait to check how many miles are on your shoes until 4 days before race day.
AS: How did you feel when you crossed the finish line?
KS: Overwhelmed with happiness and gratitude and love for those who supported me, and total disbelief that I actually completed 26.2 miles, which at Mile 21, I realized is really a whole lot of miles.
AS: What did your rest days look like during training? And what did your recovery look like after the race?
KS: A couple of products I swear by for rest days are Nuun Rest, Oofos, and this thing. As for the recovery after the race, I took it easy for a few days, indulged in Epsom salt baths, and ate all the protein I could find.
AS: Okay be real with us; what was the absolute worst part about the whole process?
KS: That it’s over!
Did you like this story about how Kristen ran her first marathon with an autoimmune disease? Check out this blog post for tips on How To Make Your Virtual Runs More Fun.