If you ever want to put your own struggles in perspective, spend a few minutes talking to Summer Barresi. It worked for me.
I was scheduled to speak with Summer one night last week when she got off work. But the truth is, I’d spent the whole day considering postponing the phone interview. I was dealing with a sinus infection, tired and a little moody. Honestly, I worried I’d sound terrible and unprofessional on the phone.
But the appointment was set, so I called her at the appointed hour. She answered, was very understanding of my apologies and we began talking about her story of how she came to decide to run the 2013 Philadelphia Marathon. How did a woman in her 30s, who’d spent her entire life in Orange County, Ca. decide to move to Philadelphia and start a new life six months ago?
“I got a great job offer,” said Summer, who is property manager at a local apartment complex not far from the start/finish line of Sunday’s race.
“But really, I just wanted to start a new life. Some of the things I faced in California—it was just time to move on.”
Triumphing over Tragedy
This is not your typical, Hollywood-style feel good story about moving to a new city and starting a new life. This is a story about escaping a past with such turmoil and tragedy that you have no choice—and about finding something that gives you the strength to overcome the resulting pain.
“Since I was little—five years old, to be exact—I endured some pretty horrific sexual abuse,” Summer shares. “I was bullied throughout school, and when I became pregnant with my daughter, I was out on the street.”
She pulled herself out of that rut, securing an entry-level job and giving birth to a healthy baby girl. But the nightmare was only beginning.
“I ended up married to an abusive husband who actually kidnapped my daughter in 1997, when she was two,” recalls Summer. “She was missing, out of my life for two years.”
Her husband was eventually captured, and mother and daughter were reunited. But the pain doesn’t stop there. By this point, a life of enduring uncertainty, having her childhood figuratively taken from her and her child literally stolen from her had taken its toll on Summer. She’d become shut off from the world, battled bulimia and generally lost all hope and optimism.
“You wake up every day, and you feel like you’re just waiting for the next tragedy, the next terrible ordeal you’re going to endure,” she remembers. “Like, how much more of this can I take? Can I get through another day?”
That sinus infection? Didn’t seem too important anymore.
Finding a Distraction
A young girl, pregnant, then alone and out on the streets, is not the recipe for a story that ends well. We’ve all seen movies, heard songs, and in some cases known people who’ve gone through such ordeals—most of those stories don’t end like Summer Barresi’s.
And that’s before you take into account her daughter’s kidnapping.
“On paper, I guess it looks like I was well on my way to turning my life around,” she admits. “But truthfully, even after I got my daughter back, I spent years dealing with post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of everything that had happened. I was extremely insecure, riddled with anxiety and panic attacks… I spent most of my time preparing for the next tragedy.”
She survived, persevered, by burying herself in her work. Professionally, it paid off, but personally she was still haunted. “I think I was terrified to be happy, honestly,” she says, “fearful that it would all be taken away again.”
It was running that changed everything in her life. “I made a commitment to myself to run a half-marathon,” she says. “Even though I was way out of shape, and it took me about three hours to finish—I remember feeling like I was in a parade while I was running. People were cheering—for me. People wanted to see me succeed.”
Out on the course, there was no hiding. No place to hide, to be sure, but maybe more importantly, no reason to hide.
“I finished that race, and I wasn’t thinking about anything but getting ready for the next one.”
Succeeding Against the Odds
When she was in therapy, Summer was always encouraged to move forward, put the past behind her, etc… but it wasn’t until she began moving forward in a physical sense that her healing process truly began.
She took up running in 2006, and it wasn’t easy at first. As she wrote in a follow-up e-mail:
I used to run along the ocean every single day in California, the water was calming for me, sometimes I would look at the waves of the Pacific Ocean and think in my mind the vastness of the water doesn't even amount to all the tears I've cried.
But as time went along, running helped her get into better physical condition. Running gave her calm and confidence. “I used to need all kinds of therapy and medication to find those things,” she says. “Now it’s just running.”
After everything she’s endured, Summer Barresi doesn’t take any medications. She’s no longer in therapy, and she hasn’t suffered any panic attacks. She’s facing her past—and more importantly, her future—directly, and she’s thriving. Personally, she’s happier than ever; professionally she’s managing a 1,000+ unit apartment complex that’s undergoing a multi-million dollar renovation.
And she attributes all of it to the healing power of running, and her move to Philadelphia. “I wanted to be in a place where I didn’t look at every street, or every town and feel reminded of something I had to endure, something I had to survive,” she says.
Sunday will be Summer’s third full marathon, and her first in Philadelphia. While the California girl is probably thankful for the mild forecast, she knows it will be a challenging race—as they all are.
“Running is the only place in my whole life that I’ve found where there are no victims,” she says. “Everyone is moving forward, moving toward a common goal. Through times of struggle, times of tragedy, you can persevere.”
“When I’m one mile away from the finish, aching from head to toe with no energy left in me—I know there is something left. It’s what’s in my heart.”
Stay tuned for more 2013 Philadelphia Marathon coverage at philly.com/phillymarathon.
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