Superior woman 'Made Strong' through running
Two years after being diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, at the age of 33, Alyssa Meller decided she needed a way to take charge of her body and her life.
Meller was not wheelchair-bound from the debilitating, incurable disease, but the Superior woman moved very slowly and usually needed help from someone to get around.
Complicating matters was the loss of a job she loved, further sending her world spiraling downward.
“I lost who I was for a little bit; there was a lot of change at that time,” Meller said earlier this week. “It wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that I said, ‘Enough. I need to refocus on my kids and get my life back.’ That’s when I started my personal mantra, my ‘Move More Campaign.’ ”
It started simply — mowing the yard or walking up stairs rather than taking an elevator — then progressed to going for walks and learning yoga.
“I choose to move when I have the opportunity to move; it became real personal that way,” she said. “By 2012, I was done with walking and said I needed a new goal.”
That’s when she met with her neurologist at Essentia Health-St. Mary’s Medical Center and told him that she was going to train for a 5K run that fall.
“He looked at me and said, ‘You are not limited in anything that you can do,’ ” she recalled.
That limit has stretched from 5 kilometers to a half-marathon. She will participate in this Saturday’s Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon for the first time.
Running with a purpose
The former Alyssa Carlson was a soccer player at Hermantown High School and played for two years at Wisconsin-Superior.
While working full-time and raising two children — daughter Grace turns 13 later this month and son Sam recently turned 8 — curtailed her athletic endeavors, she still tried to stay active.
Looking back, Meller says she experienced symptoms of MS but didn’t check it out. When her feet went numb and the numbness traveled up to her waist, she finally went in and was diagnosed with the disease where the body’s immune system eats away at the protective sheath that covers nerve endings. Nerve deterioration is non-reversible.
“That was a life-changing moment,” said Meller, who lost her job as public program manager with First Plan of Minnesota later that year, unrelated to her illness.
Michael Meller, her husband of 14 years, said the couple began learning about the disease they knew little about.
“It was one of those things that you knew about it, but you didn’t completely understand it until you had to start looking into it,” said Michael, a strategic business analyst for St. Luke’s. “I remember when I was younger, knowing people with MS and they weren’t in the greatest shape. But I think things have changed a lot in terms of treatments.”
Michael, who ran some in high school at Solon Springs, picked up the activity first when his children had a school fundraising 5K a few years ago. He’ll be running his third consecutive Garry Bjorklund this weekend.
His wife ran her first race in October 2012, the Harvest Run 5K in Duluth.
“I did something I never thought I could do — even before I got the MS diagnosis,” Alyssa said of finishing. “To prove my mind wrong and my body wrong was pretty cool.”
She completed the Gobble Gallop and Fitger’s 5Ks before turning her attention to more challenging runs. She entered the Garry Bjorklund Half Marathon and received an entry through the lottery.
“I thought, ‘Oh no, what did I get myself into?’” she said with a laugh. “But it’s been a great experience training for it, and I’ve been able to stick to it.”
Alyssa trained on a treadmill over the winter, eventually getting out on the road near her Pattison Park home in late April. She runs four days a week and supplements her activity with yoga, which helps reinforce her core muscles.
More than just helping physically, running has improved her mental attitude as well.
“It’s a good stress reliever for her and really helps her focus,” her husband said. “She doesn’t want the two letters to define who she is.”
‘Made strong’ by running
Now 38 and director of operations for the National Rural Health Resource Center in Duluth, Alyssa Meller’s life has gradually improved.
Running has played a huge role.
“I’ve worked really hard mentally and physically to not let (MS) impact my everyday life,” she said. “It’s taken some time to learn to approach things in a different way. I’ve had to alter my standards of what I can do. I’m not limited in what I do, but I just need to approach it from a more practical standpoint.”
Husband and wife will begin Saturday’s race together, but Michael generally runs a faster pace. During a recent 12-mile training run, however, Alyssa stayed within eyesight.
“We’ll start together, but she says I stress her out when we run together,” Michael said. “I don’t think she’ll finish far behind me.”
Alyssa will be the one wearing a T-shirt with the slogan “Made Strong” on it. She has decided to parlay that catch-phrase used by a T-shirt manufacturer into her own. Battling MS has made her stronger.
“It’s been a real personal adventure for me,” she said. “I’m proud of myself, I’m not going to lie. It’s a big deal for me. Until you have that ability to move taken away from you or limited, you don’t realize how much you count on it from a physical and mental standpoint.”