On September 21, 2013, two days before she was supposed to run one of the biggest races of her life and where she would attempt to qualify for the Olympic Marathon Trials, Jessica sat beside her husband at the Seidman Cancer Center in Cleveland, Ohio, trying to digest devastating, heart-wrenching news that would ultimately steal away her Tommy.
In August of 2012 Jessica’s best friend and husband had been diagnosed with melanoma on his scalp. Surgeons immediately removed it and everything seemed fine. Six months later, Tommy’s doctors discovered the cancer had metastasized throughout his lymph nodes, his organs … everywhere. Jessica’s Tommy, a loving husband, father, and her most supportive running companion passed away on June 28, 2014.
Back to that dreary day in September of 2013; Jessica told Tommy it would be selfish to race just two days after receiving the devastating news. Tommy would have none of that. He insisted that she run the race because it’s what she loved to do. So, she listened.
Not only did she run the Akron Half Marathon that morning, but she qualified for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials in Los Angeles with a 1:14:20. She can’t help but think that Tommy had something to do with that.
I am so grateful that Jessica took the time to talk with us and share her story! She is open and honest about the battle of losing her husband and becoming the sole caregiver of their son, Max. And to be honest, despite her incredible running resume, I’ve never met a more humble runner.
I met Jessica a few years ago, after I moved back home to the Cleveland suburbs while I attended graduate school. Jessica lived nearby and I saw her regularly running around our neighborhood. Turns out, she and Tommy, newly married, had moved into a house down the street. I worked part-time at a local running store and at that time Jessica was literally on the poster for the store; her picture emblazoned on the side of the race van.
When I went to races, I repeatedly stood in awe of her as she creamed competition at the local, and always competitive, Johnnycake Jog 5-miler. She became a 5-time champion and set the course record of 26:19. Jessica and Tommy were always open and friendly, and she was never too focused to give a friendly smile and an encouraging good luck!
Today, Jessica is focusing on preparing for the trials, training with her Cleveland Elite Development teammates.
Jessica began running when she was a 15-year-old high school sophomore. At that time she was terrified of sports and felt terribly uncoordinated. Her stepdad encouraged her to try out a few local 5ks with him. It’s funny to imagine now, but then she really didn’t want to and had to be talked her into it. She, of course, was a natural; eventually, the local high school cross country team took notice and the coach showed up on her front doorstep one day to recruit her!
That worked and Jessica joined the team. She competed on her high school cross-country and track teams her junior and senior years. After high school, she went to Wright State University and ran all four years there. At her first collegiate cross-country meet, she took 2nd place! She eventually hit a 17:14 cross-country 5k, dropping 2 minutes from her high school time.
After graduating in 2003, Jessica didn’t race much for a couple of years. But then in 2005, she realized she could travel around and earn a little prize money! Vacations with running and cash?! Win-win-win! After earning quite a bit doing this, she thought to herself, I guess I have some potential here. She began doing some track workouts and decided she needed to try a marathon before she turned 30.
She heard of a group called Cleveland Elite Development (CED) and thought “hey, that sounds like something I might want to join!” She credits the CED coach, Glenn Andrews and his regimented training, with much of her success from that point on.
In spring of 2012, she ran her first marathon, The Glass City Marathon in Toledo. She managed a 2:51:50 for the win and a course record in her 26.2 debut. Though her goal was a 2:49, she struggled; running alone from mile 5 while battling nausea and only able to take in water for most of the race.
After her marathon, and with Glenn’s encouragement, she began entering higher caliber races, such as the USATF Jacksonville Florida 15k this past March. Training with her teammates and following Glenn’s advice has helped her continue to significantly improve her times.
Training toward her OTQ
The window of opportunity “just fell into place for her” with her 1:14:20 at Akron. She qualified with that half and believes the stress from Tommy’s diagnosis the day prior “just made me want to run like I never ran before.” She explained:
I just had to keep looking straight ahead. I don’t necessarily believe I’m made to be a marathon runner; mentally I can do it, but my body doesn’t always want to go along with that determination. I’m injury-prone and have had stress fractures while battling ongoing tendonitis in my knee.
Having only run the one full marathon, Jessica wanted to undertake one more before toeing the line at the trials in February just for the experience, but injuries have prevented her from being able to. Three of her CED teammates have also qualified for the trials, most recently Ellie Hess at the Columbus Marathon, and they will all travel together to the trials. No matter what happens it will be quite an amazing second marathon experience!
Finding Support from Her Family
With the passing of Tommy, Jessica lost one of her biggest running supporters; however she feels Tommy lives on in their son, Max. Max sees his mom run and asks if he can run, too. She always lived under the mentality that running was a big part of her life and those in her life would just have to go along with it, and they always did.
She’s had solid support from her family; whether it was coming out to cheer, watching Max while she’s out training, taking care of the dog, or driving along with her on a snowy long run so she wouldn’t be out there alone. Even little Max, now four-and-a-half, has been a motivator. When she feels sad about Tommy, she remembers that Max needs her to be strong. And sometimes, Max will jump in for up to a mile alongside his mom.
“Running is a big part of my life and I’m not in the happiest of moods when I don’t get my run in, so those who love me know they just sort of have to go along with it.”
Jessica’s Typical Training Week
Jessica’s propensity for injury limits her to 60-65 miles of running per week. She’s found she loves the Elliptogo to supplement her running and heads out on it at least once per week for 20 to 25 miles. Haven’t heard of the Elliptigo? It is basically a cross between an elliptical machine and a bike, so you can elliptical outside and travel! She is focused on staying healthy right now before ramping up the mileage again to prepare for the trials.
Being a single mom ups the level of difficulty to getting in her training.
I love training in the morning and will get pretty irritable if that is disrupted! But, on the other hand, I do realize that I am at the mercy of whoever will be able to watch Max for me. He is in preschool 3 days a week but only for 2 hours, so I utilize that time as best as I can. I love being a runner and a mom! I think I am setting a great example for Max and he is already asking if he can come run with me…it’s too cute! It does get stressful sometimes because, as you know, running can take a lot out of you and a 4-year-old doesn’t understand that. I try to nap when he naps, even if its only for half an hour; it helps to recharge my battery.
Nutritionally, she tries to eat healthy. She’s not picky, eats a wide variety of food, and loves to cook so she can really control what goes into her meals. Ever since Tommy’s passing, she’s even more conscious of artificial colors, preservatives, and processed foods generally and tries to keep those out of her own diet as well as her son’s. She also uses supplements to help with muscle repair as she feels the older she gets, the longer it takes to recover. Indulging from time to time isn’t off-limits, especially when it comes to fro-yo!
Her proudest moment is tied between two: when she qualified for the trials at Akron and when she broke the record at the local Johnnycake Jog where she battled it out with two Ethiopians the entire time.
Running has taught Jessica strength. It has taught her to keep moving forward and it has given her at outlet for the endless pain that comes along with losing her soulmate and husband, Tommy. When asked what she wanted to share as advice for us Salties:
You have to have fun with it. You can’t let one bad race ruin your attitude. You are not going to have a PR or the best workout everyday; that’s impossible. You have to spice it up, mix it up and keep looking forward.
Thank you, Jessica, and best of luck to you and the CED crew!