Racing for recovery: the story of Stacey Grady

Stacy Gradey - Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER
Vincent Ta/HIGHLANDER

Stacey Grady was one of the 36,000 runners to run of the Boston Marathon on April 21, 2014. After three tries, she finally qualified for the marathon in February 2013 when she ran the Surf City Marathon in San Diego in just 3 hours, 39 minutes, 42 seconds. Perhaps you celebrated with Stacey as you watched her dreams being realized this week; maybe you didn’t know her, but you’ve seen her around on campus. She works in The Well, UC Riverside’s health and wellness center, as the interim director, where she uses her background in psychology to help students manage stress and achieve better physical and mental health. But the marathon is no simple task, either: It took 600 days and 1,998 miles of training to qualify. Running the Boston Marathon was her life-long dream — what she calls her “heaven on Earth.” She recalled race day, and the days leading up to it, being different from any other race she had run, describing them as “heartwarming.”

“Marathon day itself was incredible from start to finish,” Grady said. She recounted how many of the runners from last year’s race were honored this year: Those who had not been able to finish, due to injury or otherwise, bore markers on their backs with the mile they stopped at and were partnered with able-bodied runners who helped them finish what they started that fateful day in 2013. Stacey was surrounded by runners and spectators the entire time, soaking in an overwhelming sense of camaraderie. “From Athlete’s Village all the way up until the 26.2 mile marker, there honestly was not an area that wasn’t six or seven rows deep with spectators,” she remarked. Uniquely, the atmosphere was very noncompetitive, something peculiar to that race in her own experience of running full and half-marathons. Anytime anyone was struggling, a good number of runners stopped and helped them through. “This year, they just wanted to cross the finish line,” she observed.

But something set Stacey apart that Monday on the course. At the young age of 11, she was diagnosed with osteoarthritis and in June of 2013, she would find out she had colon cancer. “If you would have told me I would run the 2014 Boston Marathon, I think I would have smiled and said, ‘That’s just not possible.’” Thankfully, through surgery, the cancer was removed. She beat incredible odds in the face of such obstacles. But when she looks back, she’s thankful. She’s thankful that doctors were able to catch and treat her cancer so quickly. She’s thankful for the tremendous support she received from her husband. And on some level, she’s even thankful that Boston didn’t happen for her last year.

Stacey’s relationship with running developed as a way to treat her arthritis. She was raised in Maryland and completed both her undergraduate and master’s degrees there, but would relocate to California to alleviate some of the harsh effects the East Coast’s humid climate had on her arthritis. When her husband was unexpectedly deployed to Iraq, she moved back home briefly and her arthritis began to flare up again. It was then, in 2004, that her doctors prescribed running to keep it in check. Stacey’s first mile on the treadmill was challenging, to say the least. “I’ll never forget it,” she said. Because of her arthritis, running was something she had to make a part of her everyday routine. And it is something she will have to do for the rest of her life — but luckily, it has become something she wants to do for the rest of her life.

This year marks Stacey’s 10th anniversary in her relationship with running. It’s not necessarily the long, hard hours she pounded out every day in training that she attributes her success to (pivotal as they were), but more than that, she said, it’s camaraderie. Fittingly, Stacey exudes a sort of light and positive energy so pervasive that you wish you were on her team; it’s hard to do much but smile when in her company. Her handshake is hearty and when she recounts her story, she relies heavily on the use of one simple word: we. “Anything you want to do — if you have the right team of individuals around you — is possible,” she claimed.

Stacey had not only the support of her friends and family, but also that of a medical team who iced and worked on her knees at certain mile markers. She said, “It was certainly a team effort; I would have never been able to do it without their assistance.” Running, Stacey said, has taught her valuable life lessons like perseverance and the importance of togetherness. She admitted that she is a much happier and stronger runner when the headphones are at home and she’s planted in the moment with friends, saying, “Running with others has provided stress relief like no other.”

She wants to prove that people can succeed in the face of adversity. Stacey hopes that by sharing her story  —  something she used to be private about — she can help others, “Some days, simply getting up and walking is a milestone. If I can help to spread awareness through sharing my story, I hope that I can help at least a few people with arthritis … as so many have helped me along the way.” Her experience has allowed her to connect with and encourage others who have also been diagnosed with arthritis. She also challenges students and colleagues to make lasting lifestyle changes to become healthier. But she’s no pollyanna. To UCR students facing pressing challenges, she said, “There are some odds that we just can’t beat. But there are also many challenges in life that we can overcome. It does not happen overnight. We’re fixers — we want instant fixes. It’s a long road; it’s a long haul. It took a good 18 months of me running before I started seeing positive results. It’s taking baby steps and appreciating small successes. Knowing that you’re in for the long haul makes taking baby steps okay.”

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