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Finding Freedom in Trail Running – Michelle Johnson

trail running after cancer Michelle Johnson's story
Michelle Johnson
Year started: 2019
Next race: Rim2Rim2Rim in June 2023
Favorite gear:

My Garmin Instinct – it can backtrack the same way I went if I get lost!

Trail running after cancer would be a great story if it ended there. For Michelle Johnson, the story doesn’t start or end there. Her story is one of resilience, overcoming and inspiring. From cancer to near fatal car accident to founding SWCHBAK. Michelle’s story is the type of story that movies are made from.

Michelle Johnson started running in 2009 when she was 25 years old. At that time, she had gained about 40 lbs due to depression. She decided to pull herself together while setting a better example for her 7-year-old daughter. Her ‘running’ started with a daily walk, then progressed to a brisk walk. Eventually, Michelle was able to progress to a walk/jog. She lost weight, gained confidence, found a decent job, and met the love of her life, Greg. They got married in 2011 and were enjoying everything in life together.

The Diagnosis That Changed Everything

But in November of that year, Greg and some friends had become concerned about a mole on Michelle’s arm. When it started bleeding, she went to the dermatologist, who suspected melanoma, the most aggressive kind of skin cancer. Michelle was diagnosed with cancer only three months after her marriage. The lesion was so deep that the cancer had spread, and she had to go through multiple surgeries and five months of chemotherapy. It was a painful experience, and her diet consisted almost entirely of mashed potatoes. But Greg was an amazing caregiver, and Michelle was declared NED (No Evidence of Disease) in 2012.

Michelle realized how much she missed moving her body, so she slowly started walking/jogging again and signed up for a 5k a few months later. After that first 5k, her running started to evolve, and she joined a community of young adult cancer survivors who run to raise funds and advocate for cancer survivors, research, and awareness. She ran with the first-ever all-cancer survivor team to run Ragnar SoCal, a 200-mile relay from Huntington Beach to San Diego. This gave her inspiration to continue running and pushing boundaries. She fell in love with trail running when she joined San Diego Trail Runners in 2016, and she started running longer distances, such as 50k and 50 Mile races.

Everything Changed Again

Trail running made Michelle feel free, and the community made her feel happy. She found herself in trail running. But on August 8th, 2018, everything changed. Michelle had a run planned for the next morning, probably just a short run of 5-6 miles. Her daughter went to a show at a theater in downtown San Diego, and Michelle dropped her off and planned to pick her up later. On their way back home, they were chatting when Michelle heard tires screeching. She looked toward the sound and saw a truck coming from the opposite direction, flying over the median. Michelle screamed, and she heard the impact. She thought she was going to die.

After a few moments of sitting there and realizing she wasn’t dead yet, Michelle was able to open her car door. She tried to stand up but couldn’t. After being rushed to the hospital, Michelle was diagnosed with a T12 fracture. This diagnosis meant that her spinal cord was possibly damaged. Her recovery was long and painful but she was determined to run again, and she started with walking, then progressed to jogging, and eventually, trail running.

Overcoming Adversity To Achieve Her Goals

Michelle’s story is one of finding freedom in trail running after cancer. It’s also a story of resilience and determination in the face of adversity. Michelle never gave up, even when the odds were against her. She kept pushing herself and inspiring others, showing them that anything is possible if you put your mind to it. She is a true inspiration to all athletes who are searching for motivation to keep going. Endurance sports are hard but Michelle’s story proves you can keep moving forward.