Today we were fortunate to have an incredibly candid conversation with Team SFQ'er and ironwoman Jessica Evans. Jessica is an emergency room physician who has been working on the frontlines of the COVID battle while pregnant with her first baby, due any day now. She is a true HERO and we appreciate so much her taking the time to share her incredible story with us.
Can you tell us about your journey to becoming an ironwoman? Have you always been an athlete? What inspired your pursuit of long-distance triathlon?
Growing up, physical activity and sports were always a part of my life. In grade school I did volleyball, tennis, swimming, competitive dance. In high school, I switched to tennis, swimming, cheerleading, and track. In college, I was a cheerleader and tennis doubles player for my school. In medical school, however, I started to have some health issues (thanks to the overwhelming stress of medical school combined with a genetic predisposition) and was diagnosed with Lupus during my first year of medical school. I went from being a healthy, very active individual to not being able to walk from my couch to my kitchen without difficulty breathing and severe fatigue. It took several months for the medication to start working and for me to get back to a somewhat normal. This was in 2008. After that happened, I wanted to take control of my health. I slowly started working out again and trying to build strength. I actually used the P90X videos in my home as this worked the best with my schedule. After I regained some strength, I started running again. I told my rheumatologist that it was my dream to do a full marathon and he told me that I should never attempt that, saying it was a bad idea as it could send me into a Lupus flare. I also was married at the time to someone not very supportive of my athletic pursuits who agreed that I "could never run a marathon because I just physically could not accomplish that." I felt like my dreams were crushed. I decided that maybe I could do a half marathon and just see how that felt. I could go slow and if I started to have issues, I would stop. I convinced a friend in med school to do it with me so it was fun having a running buddy. We did the Akron Half Marathon and I actually felt great and had no health issues. Over the next few years, I did several 5Ks and kept active with exercising. My sister convinced me to do a sprint triathlon and I thought sure I will give it a try- I mean I already run and I have been a swimmer since I was 3 years old. I borrowed a friend's rusty mountain bike and somehow finished in the allotted time, but it was not pretty haha. I did not realize everything that went into a triathlon.
In 2015, I went through a difficult divorce. It was after this that I thought, why did I let him hold me back from my dream of running a marathon? My health had been good for years now at this point and I just listened to that negative voice telling me I couldn't do something? Well, no more. I started training for a marathon in 2016. I did this training and race solo and it was very therapeutic for me to have lots of time to think and self-reflect while running. I completed the Air Force Marathon in 2016 in Dayton, OH. It was a huge accomplishment for me and my lupus never flared. Shortly after, I went on a trip to the Grand Canyon. While there on a white-water rafting excursion, I saw a woman with an Ironman hat on. I was very intrigued so I asked her about it as I had heard of Ironman but just never felt it was something I could do. She said " If I can do it, you can do it." And those words completely changed my perspective and my life honestly. I thought, Heck yeah I can do it! So I set out on a mission to learn about triathlons and start my training. I signed up for a sprint triathlon that following summer and it went well. So the following year my plan was to tackle longer distances. In 2018, I did an Oly and the Ohio Half IM using the training plan from the Be Iron Fit book. I then moved on to IMLou in fall of 2018. Unfortunately, it was beautiful the day before the race, and miserable the day of the race. Freezing rain all day. My lupus does cause me to have Reynaud's disease which is when blood flow essentially gets cut off to your hands and feet in very cold weather. I remember not feeling my feet from before the race start......for a total of about 6 hours. The swim was cut short that year but I made it through the swim fine. On the bike, at about mile 30ish, I knew I was getting in trouble. I was slowing down...I could not feel my feet at all, which made biking and dismounting very difficult. I saw my boyfriend (now husband) at an aid station and could not even speak to him because I knew I was going to have to pull myself from the race and I was so sad. He kept telling me "you are doing great! you are making all the time cut offs!" The next 20 miles I convinced myself that it was OK if I quit. I have to put my health first. I thought the aid station was at mile 56 but it was actually I think at mile 60. So the last 10 miles I was cursing the course and trying to just make it to an aid station so I could stop. I thought surely by now I am getting frost bite to my feet. I also noted my heart rate had dropped to 38 while biking and knew I had hypothermia. I couldn't stop on the side of the road because it might be a long time before someone found me. I pushed through and made it to the aid station. I couldn't speak and was confused. They took me inside and attempted to warm me up. My dream of the IM finish was not happening that day. I know I made the right decision for my health, but boy was that hard to make.
I wasn't going to let that be my last IM attempt though. I came home from that race, determined more than ever that I would be an IM. I asked my tri club and got referred to a coach. I followed the workouts religiously. I worked incredibly hard. And I signed up for IM Texas 2019....I thought there's no way I could get hypothermia in Texas (haha!). So April of 2019 I finished my full IM in Texas. It was incredibly hard, but amazing. I felt great on the swim and bike. On the run, after about 10 miles I started having alot of GI distress (thank you contaminated Texas water) and ended up in the porta-potties every mile after mile 10. But I finished! Crossing that finish line was an amazing feeling, one that I will cherish forever. I did end up in the medical tent because of dehydration afterwards but was able to go home that night and I recovered quickly. In fact, 3 weeks after my IM race, I did my first 50K ultramarathon trail race. I actually had no idea it was trail (I did not pay attention when I signed up and had never ran a trail race in my life)....but because of my endurance training, I made it through and still felt great afterwards!
The crazy thing is, ever since picking up the endurance training/sports, all my Lupus blood markers have become negative! My doctor is completely amazed and every year when I see him, he asks me to tell him about all my latest races and accomplishments! So I guess my biggest inspiration for continuing the endurance lifestyle, is for my health and to be in control of my life.
You are expecting your first little one in a matter of days and we are over the moon with excitement for you!! We appreciate so much how open you've been about your difficult journey to motherhood and are wondering if you could share a bit about that experience / words of wisdom for others who may be going through something similar?
My trying to conceive (TTC) journey started all the way back in 2009 with my ex-husband. We had some infertility issues (that got blamed on my lupus) and were TTC for over 5 years. I went through multiple rounds of IUI and 2 rounds of IVF, last one resulting in a miscarriage. Shortly after, I was divorced. I had to put my dreams of being a mother on hold for several years, which was extremely difficult when it had become the one thing I wanted most in the world. Also, starting over at age 30 can be very daunting.
I met my now husband in 2017 (through EHarmony!!! yeah, it matched us great!) and we were married in 2019. We immediately started trying to have a family as we knew with my history it could be a long and difficult road. Also, at this point I was 33 years old and of course with fertility, the chances go down with passing years for a woman (thanks mother nature!). Anyway, we tried for several months without success so we went straight to IVF in January 2020. This unfortunately ended in a miscarriage at about 7 weeks pregnant. We were devastated. We also had no embryos to freeze, so this meant we would need to go through the whole process again. For me this meant, continued months of steroids and daily injections. Our plan was to jump right back into another round for April 2020. COVID had different plans though. This was considered an "elective" procedure so it was shut down bc of COVID. This was so hard to accept....more waiting. And now I was 34 years old. I went off the steroids and thought, well I need to get healthier again, lose a little weight, and concentrate on myself for a few months (steroids and hormones make you gain a bit of weight). So I started training again with biking and running and weights. We planned our IVF cycle for August. In May, I was grumpy I was a little late for my cycle and my husband said, why don't you take a test. I am pretty sure I laughed in his face. I said it isn't possible and now this is messing up our time table for IVF. The next morning, however, I took a pregnancy test and ....it was POSITIVE. I could not believe it! I started screaming and crying! I had never been pregnant naturally!
The whole first trimester I was anxious about a miscarriage but I made it through and I am now 38.5 weeks pregnant....expecting little one in 8 days!!!!!
My advice to others in a similar situation: TTC journey is difficult. It helps when you have a supportive partner and a good support system. If you do not know anyone in your personal life that has gone through it, then reach out to online communities. It can be lonely and daunting and you need people who understand what its like in your corner. Also, self-care is so important. Make sure you do everything you can to stay healthy both physically and emotionally.
We have loved seeing how active you have remained throughout your entire pregnancy!! How did your goals and training routine change in 2020 once you became pregnant?
My goals and training were alot different in 2020 because of the pregnancy. My current coach recently had a baby and I knew she trained during her pregnancy so I stayed on with her despite no races for the year because I trusted her advice and help with a good training schedule. First, all my bikes became indoor. As an ER physician, I just know the risks and was not willing to risk an outdoor cycling accident while pregnant. I still ran outside and enjoyed that quite a bit (as did my running buddy, Wally- my australian shepherd). I did not swim at all this year because of COVID. I did not want to risk going to a pool and where I live, there are not many choices for outdoor swimming. I focused on running and biking as well as core and weight training. As the pregnancy progressed, I did shorter workouts. In my third trimester, I made all workouts less than 1 hour in length. My running also changed to mainly walking but with short running sprints sprinkled in. At 37 weeks, this was the first time I could no longer run at all- just walking (because of all the pelvic pressure). I worked out up until 38 weeks when I finally have been forced now to take it easy for my final week because of intermittent contractions. My goal was to stay as healthy as possible for my pregnancy and so that I would have an easier/quicker recovery after the baby is born. I feel like it definitely has made a difference staying so active as I feel pretty good despite being so far along in pregnancy and I have gained an appropriate amount of weight to stay healthy and keep baby healthy.
Which SMASH items have been your faves for training-with-bump?? :)
I was so happy that I could continue wearing some of my face SMASH gear during pregnancy! It was comfortable and of course I love wearing stylish/cute clothes to workout as it helps with motivation! First trimester I could still wear all my normal gear. Sometime during 2nd trimester, I switched to the Bibs for cycling and this helped alot because it did not put extra pressure on my lower abdomen. I also could still wear my long-sleeved tops during my entire pregnancy as well as the gray running tank. I purchased the pregnancy/post-partum running shorts and those were amazing! I also have a comfy SMASH lounging T shirt and a few hoodies that I have been wearing lately!
You are one of our team's HEALTH HEROES: an Emergency Room physician during the time of COVID and while pregnant, no less!! We are SO happy you are fully vaccinated, especially in time for Baby A's arrival. Would you be willing to share a bit about your experience working on the front lines during this unprecedented time?
Working in the ER during this pandemic has been difficult, humbling, and scary. First, being pregnant and with Lupus, I have been highly concerned with my own health during the entire pandemic. I know if I caught COVID, I would be much more likely to have a severe case. So going to work was definitely scary. I was very meticulous about cleaning my work station, hand-washing, wearing an N95 and goggles my entire shift, and suiting up even beyond that for procedures. Running around in your third trimester with 2 masks, a gown, goggles, and a helmet with shield is quite difficult and I often would need to take a second to catch my breath. but it was worth it and worked! I did not fall ill once during the entire time and I was able to safely receive both doses of my COVID vaccine, which I am incredibly thankful for.
As far as caring for patients with COVID, this was quite a humbling and scary experience. Our job as an ER doctor is to save lives and sometimes we felt helpless during this pandemic as we just did not know enough about this virus to be able to save everyone. Hospitals have become overwhelmed, workers get sick, those who continue to work are working longer hours with less staff. It has been very difficult. We try our best to help those but sometimes what I have to offer is just holding someone's hand and understanding that I may be the last person they see in this life. It has been heart-breaking.
Also, there is a fear as a front-line worker of possibly infecting our own loved ones. Because of this, I have not seen my family or friends as much as I would want, and when I do...there are no hugs...only waves from afar, talking with masks on, and staying 6 feet apart.
I am so hopeful for the future, though. I know there is still a long way to go but the vaccine gives me hope.
What will 2021 look like for you once Baby A arrives: work, training, racing etc? Do you already have goals in mind?
2021 will start with recovery and slowly building again. I plan on taking 3 months off of work. Once my doctor clears me to begin working out again, I will be back at it! I know it will be different being a new mom with a little one at home, but I will make time for my health as this is so important for me and for caring for my baby. My only race planned so far is the half IM in NC in October 2021. I figured I will have plenty of time to be ready by then and my hope is the country will have some more normalcy by then too. My husband is so supportive of my training and racing so I am quite lucky as I know he will help me achieve these goals. I also have the BOB stroller so I plan on baby girl and my running buddy Wally helping to push me on my running! I also have alot more cute SMASH gear I get to try out post-partum!!!
Thank you so much Jessica for your time!! We cannot wait to meet baby A and to cheer you on this fall!