Athlete Overcomes Back Surgery to Run Half Marathon

Alex_Johnson_blogrunA cold race day in Indianapolis gave way to a series of heart-warming moments for Louisville man and his girlfriend.

By Henry Howard

When Alex Johnson arrived in Indianapolis for the Monumental Marathon on Nov. 1 of last year, he was greeted by an unusually cool fall evening. Race-time wind chills were around 20 degrees for Johnson, who was running his first half marathon, and his girlfriend, Taryn Scampoli, who was running the full.

“I’m not a cold weather runner, or cold weather anything, so I was not in a great mood the morning of the race,” admits Johnson, who lives in Louisville, Ky. “However, I also kept in mind that the previous three months had all led to this morning, and that there was one goal to the day, and that being to cross the finish line. As the race started, I turned my music up loud, latched on to each next fastest runner I could find in the pack, and leaned forward.”

While Johnson trained three months for his first 13.1-mile race, his quest was actually years in the making.

Back Surgery to Half Marathon

Johnson, who was an athlete growing up, started feeling some pain in his right leg as a sophomore in college. It wasn’t a muscle or hamstring injury. After visiting several specialists, he was diagnosed with the bulging and partially ruptured L5-S1 and two bulging discs above it. The then-21-year-old chose alternative treatment over surgery.

“I started with chiropractic care, and for the next seven years I felt good, and was able to do most activities, but long distance running was not one of those things,” he says. “Too much pounding on the back, they told me. I stayed active with a little golf, rock climbing, a little indoor soccer, but nothing like distance running.”

That served him well until his first softball practice at the end of 2007. “I woke up the next day knowing immediately something was wrong,” Johnson says. “The pain was there with a vengeance in the back of my right leg, causing me to limp badly. I eventually had my first epidural shot in early 2008, another that summer, and my third round towards the fall. When the third shot did nothing for the pain, I decided it was time to have surgery.”

Johnson had a micro-discectomy in November 2008, shortly after he turned 28. He recovered pretty quickly but stuck to routine daily activities until the fall of 2009 when he played a round of golf. “I slowly integrated more and more activity into my regiment, eventually playing more golf, rock climbing again, exercising and lifting weights, but nothing like distance running.”

A few years later, however, Johnson caught the running bug.

Running with Back Issues

Everywhere he looked, there was a runner. His best friend. His girlfriend. His dad was a longtime runner. Still, Johnson was concerned about his back. Could he run on his surgically repaired back?

“I looked up multiple online forums of runners who had gone through back issues and surgery, and it appeared that they all returned to running,” Johnson recalls. “Even triathletes were getting back in the game. So in early 2013 (4 ½ years after my surgery) I went out one day and ran a mile around the block. I did that a couple times over the next month or so, and thought that would probably be about it.”

Then his employer decided to do a “Warrior Dash” 5K in Indiana during the summer of 2013. “So to keep myself from embarrassment, I started jogging little two-mile loops around the neighborhood a couple times a week,” Johnson says. “My goal was to just build up enough stamina so that I wouldn’t pass out on the course. After the race, I just continued to keep it up, running two to three times a week.”

That led to several 5K and 10K road races, including his first 5K on his birthday, Sept. 17, 2013.

When Johnson’s girlfriend, Scampoli, signed up for the Indianapolis Monumental during the summer of 2014, a spark went off. Johnson decided it was time for a half marathon. He had an ulterior motive, one that would drive him across the finish line.

“Training was not easy, and I was scared,” he admits. “I had never run over seven miles, and my plan quickly ramped up to an eight-mile run. I followed the FIRST training program, which is a three-day a week training program. Each run has a purpose – speed work, tempo run and long run day. Being that I can’t run back-to-back days because of my back, this fit exactly the type of training I was looking to do.”

Johnson fell behind the aggressive three-month training plan and suffered an IT band injury that sidelined him for a week. “One thing I learned about training is the importance of rest. When my training runs were not as fast as I wanted, and at times when I became sick and tried to push through my runs, or push through pain, I became discouraged. However, knowing now the end results, I can better appreciate the importance of rest as opposed to being tough and running through the pain or discomfort.”

Johnson made it through his training and — despite the cold on race day — knew he would finish. His goal: beat two hours.

Race Day

“When I signed up for the race, I swore to myself that I would cross the finish line, whether it was running, walking, or crawling. Having said that, I felt good when the race started, and knew in mile one that I would finish running, it was just a matter of how close to my two-hour goal it would be.”

For Johnson, the final miles were “surreal.” He knew around mile seven that he would have a shot at his goal. “When I turned the corner to the finish line, it was more a feeling of relief than anything to see the finish,” he says. “However as I crossed the finish, I felt the rush of 13 years of emotions pouring over me. My eyes filled with tears, and though I tried to hold it back, I started crying as I was handed my medal and toboggan. I grabbed a bottle of chocolate milk and veered to the left, taking a seat on the curb and just started sobbing. Even as I answer this question I become teary eyed, because this is one of the greatest personal accomplishments of my life.”

Johnson’s official time: 1:57:54.

The successful conclusion of his long journey, however, is only part of the story of that day. About 90 minutes after Johnson finished, Scampoli crossed the finish line with a time that qualifies her for the Boston Marathon.

Could the day be any more memorable for the couple?

Yes, indeed. Hours later, Johnson proposed, Scampoli accepted and they are planning a wedding for July.

They are also running together, though Johnson plans on limiting himself to half marathons. Starting in January, they will start training for the Louisville Mini Marathon.

No matter where their running journey takes them, it may be hard for them to top their experience last November in Indianapolis. “Together we will always hold Indianapolis and the Monumental Marathon/Half Marathon in a special place in our hearts,” Johnson says.

Speed drill

Hometown: Louisville, Ky.
Number of years running: Two
How many miles a week do you typically run: 10-12 miles. I have to keep mileage low when I’m not training to minimize the toll on my body
Point of pride: I’m most proud that I overcame back surgery and all subsequent
fears and became a runner.
Favorite race distance: Half marathon. I’ve only done the one, but there was no
feeling like it.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Chocolate milk, of course!
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “Change” by John Waite. It’s from the “Vision Quest” soundtrack, which was a favorite movie of mine.
Favorite or inspirational mantra: When I was training for the half in Indy, I put a quote on my board at work:

“Your body will argue that there is no justifiable reason to continue. Your only recourse is to call on your spirit, which fortunately functions independently of logic.”

One Response to Athlete Overcomes Back Surgery to Run Half Marathon

  1. Trevor Spencer December 30, 2014 at 10:52 am #

    Congrats to Alex on the half marathon and engagement! Epic day.

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