On December 31, 2014, Susan Heard was sitting on her sofa with her husband and 12-year-old daughter, watching TV and waiting for the ball to drop in Times Square. “While everyone in the world was celebrating New Year’s Eve and having fun, I was thinking: I hate this holiday. I hate my life,” she recalls.
Susan had good reason to feel down. Nearly four years before, in February 2011, her 10-year-old son, David, had died of neuroblastoma, a type of childhood cancer that starts in the nerve cells.
“From the time he was diagnosed, we practically lived at the hospital,” she says. “My total focus was on him and trying to make the time he had left comfortable and meaningful. After he was gone there were days that I was amazed I was still breathing. When you’re dealing with that kind of intense grief, it takes a really long time to come up from under the water and realize there’s still a world and life going on around you.”
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That New Year’s Eve on her sofa was one of the first moments she began to come out of the foggy haze of mourning—and it felt awful. “Watching the TV, it seemed like everyone was cheerful, and all I could think was, ‘I hate that David isn’t here. I hate what my life has become,’” she says. “But amid that darkness I realized I had a choice: to live and re-engage with the world, or not. I decided to choose the former and the thing that seemed to make the most sense was to start exercising.”
It wasn’t easy. At 5’4”, Susan weighed 265 pounds. “When David was sick, I used food as comfort, and as he got sicker I got fatter,” she says. “When I began exercising, I could only walk or do the elliptical slowly for 30 minutes.” But she bought a Fitbit and started participating in challenges with other people who were on the app. “It was motivating and fun, and I realized I’m competitive,” she says. “I like to win.”
After several months she was able to do an hour on the elliptical—and she started to feel more alive. “There was kind of this moment of, ‘Wow, I’m here. I’m living. I’m breathing. Life is good.’”
Running through the pain
In the fall of 2015, she drove a support vehicle for a friend who was running 100 miles across New Jersey—an adventure that ended with an official half marathon. At the finish line of the event she saw people wearing t-shirts that said “Sub-30” and learned that it was an online support group for people who wanted to run a 5K in under 30 minutes. “The woman who told me about it said, ‘I’ll add you to our group,’ and I cracked up,” Heard recalls. “I was not a runner. I used to joke that the only reason I’d run is if someone was chasing me. But she was so darn encouraging I decided to try it.”
Her first training runs were slow and painful, but she stuck with it and 8 weeks later ran a 5K. Then a few months later she ran another—neither in under 30 minutes. But it didn’t matter. She loved the feeling of freedom she got while running, and the community that the “Sub-30” club offered.
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In 2016, Susan signed up for a half-marathon. At the start of the race, she wrote “David” on her arm. “At mile 12, I was exhausted, but I looked at my arm and it was a reminder: If David could push through the hellacious treatments and horror he went through, I could run 13.1 miles. When I crossed the finish line, I broke down sobbing, and felt my heart open. It changed my life.”
Meeting new challenges
Since then, Susan has added biking and swimming to her weekly routine and in June this year she completed a sprint triathlon—a third of a mile swim, a 12 mile bike leg and a 5k run. “It was an incredible accomplishment,” she says.
“I miss my son every day,” Susan says. “But I feel his presence most when I’m pushing myself physically. When I feel like life is closing in I go out and run or bike, and by the end I’m pumping my fist and feeling good again. I still weigh 180 pounds. But here I am, running half marathons—a big lady who has never been an athlete and who grieves every day for her son. If exercise can change my life it can change anyone’s.”