Positive running story – Melissa Kukulski

This week’s positive running story is about a runner that ran her first half marathon in March this year. Many runners do that at each year, in fact nearly 30% of the runners at the 2016 Zion Half Marathon were first timers for 13.1 miles.
The difference for Melissa Kukulski was that she was told at an early age that she has a disease that meant she would have to avoid running, not just some, running period. I met Melissa before, and after, the Zion half marathon this year. I was so impressed with her determination and courage, and wanted to share her story with other runners.
Here is the content of an interview that I carried out with Melissa after her half marathon in March in Zion.

How long have you been a runner, and how many races have you taken part in up to the end of 2015?
Calling myself a runner did not come naturally to me. I previously thought of a runner as someone who is fast and runs effortlessly. Silly, I know. I have consistently been running for just about a year but had spent some sporadic time running in the two years before that as well. Before the end of 2015, I had participated in 4 races. The Pat Tillman Run (this is a very large run in Phoenix, about 35,000 runners) which is 4.2 miles, the Rugged Maniac mud run and obstacle course (5k), and the Hot Chocolate Run (15K).

Melissa during the 2016 Zion half marathon

When you were younger, you were diagnosed with a rare disease. Can you share what this disease was, and what impact you were told this would have on your life?
I was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis (JRA) at the age of 6 with symptoms first appearing at age 3. The JRA mainly affected my right knee however other joints were also involved. Every 6 months I received steroid injections in my knee as well as having the fluid drained that caused swelling and pain. Upon awakening each morning, my knee was stiff and difficult to move. One day I was unable to walk due to swelling and pain but refused to stay home from school. I was only in the 1st grade. I still remember my dad carrying me into class so I could be with my friends.

My doctor said that running and jumping were not the best activities and if I had pain they should be avoided. Ultimately, my parents did have to end up withdrawing me from physical education in 2nd grade. I continued to be treated by a rheumatologist until age 12 when my symptoms started to subside but did not disappear. Throughout the years, doctors told me that over time my knee would deteriorate and I would most likely need a knee replacement at an early age.
Despite physical difficulties as a child and medical advice not to run, I decided to take on the challenge at age 28. I looked at people who ran and thought they looked free. They could run where they wanted and when they wanted. No machines were needed, no gym was required, just a pair of a running shoes and the road.

You entered the Zion half marathon that took place in March 2016. Was this your first half marathon, and what was it like to actually enter, and then think about running in this race?
The Zion half marathon was my first half marathon, my longest race to date. After I signed up, I was nervous and scared. I could not believe that I committed myself to run 13.1 miles. The most I had ever ran was 5 miles so I knew I had a lot of training. I gave myself 9 months to train to ensure I was well prepared. After I started training and approached 7 and 8 miles I was sore and had doubts I would be able to complete the race.

Melissa at the finish of her Hot Chocolate race

Did you ever have moments where you wondered if you could be a runner, and what did you do to turn any negatives into positive thoughts?
About 4 years ago, a friend told me that she was going to run a 5K. I remember thinking that a 5k seemed impossible. How could someone ever run 3.1 miles? When considering running, I was unsure how much pain I would feel in my knee. I honestly felt that this would hold me back from accomplishing my goal.

Training for Zion took a lot of commitment and positive thoughts. I work full-time, attend graduate school, and often have commitments with friends and family. I have a full plate. There were moments where I would have awful runs. I would sometimes cry after a run with fear that I would not be able to achieve the goal I had committed myself to. I felt that although I did not have an obligation to complete the race, I would be letting myself down if I didn’t keep trying. I feel running is a time to reflect on life and have me time. I often would think about how it would feel to cross the finish line. Sometimes, that was the only thing that kept me going.

What was your race experience like at Zion, and what made you choose that race?
I wanted to run a half marathon last year on my 30th birthday but had a shoulder injury that prevented me from running. So this year, I signed up for the Zion half marathon with my boyfriends brother and his fiancée. We are all about 3 months apart in age and love the outdoors. We thought this race would be a great way to celebrate our birthday’s.
I knew the race was in March, but didn’t know the exact date until I went to sign up for the race. To my surprise, the race was on my birthday. I was so excited. Having the race on my birthday definitely contributed to my success in training and positive thinking. I wanted to do something for myself and doing it on my birthday couldn’t have been any better. Unfortunately, my boyfriends brother and his fiancée were unable to run the race. I did not let this stop me. In fact, it made me more determined.

Melissa after the Zion half marathon with her beloved AJ, a Karelian Bear Dog

How did you feel once you had finished the race, and how did this compare to your dreams and expectations when you were preparing for the race?
Finishing the race was amazing. My parents traveled to the race and surprised me at the finish line. My boyfriend and dog (running partner) were also there to share the excitement and celebrate my moment. I was so full of emotion, I cried. I cried for myself, I cried for the support from my family, I cried for achieving my goal. The moment felt surreal. I accomplished what I had set out for and felt damn proud about it. Crossing the finish line was exactly what I had hoped for.

What plans do you have now for yourself as a runner, and how does this compare to the life you were told you would have?
I can’t stop at a half marathon. I won’t. I realize that training for a full marathon takes more time and dedication. After I finish graduate school in September, I will plan my training and choose a race. Much like Zion, I want the location and/or cause of the race to be meaningful.

I smile when I think about the doctors that said I would never run and my knee would always cause me problems. I run at least 3 days a week and my knee does not hold me back. If I knew how to reach those physicians, I would send them a picture of me with my Zion finishers medal and a message stating I proved them wrong.

I have signed up for the Missoula half Marathon in Montana on July 10th. I am also doing the big 3 challenge that weekend which consists of a beer run on Friday (3-5 miles), a 5k on Saturday and the half marathon on Sunday. I am so excited to find out what more I can do.

Do you have any advice for anyone else that has been told they may not be able to do something they really want to?
Try. Set small goals for yourself and celebrate those accomplishments. Once you see that your big goal can be achieved, go for it! Most of the time what holds us back is ourselves. Know that there will be ups and downs and not everything will be perfect. If you work hard and push through it, your goal is attainable.


The 2016 Zion half marathon was the first in a series of half marathons based at National Parks in the US, from Vacation Races.
We hold a Positive Race Workshop the day before each race – 2016 races are Zion, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, Yellowstone, Rocky Mountain, Great Smoky Mountains, Yosemite, and Lake Powell.
You can see the schedule for our Positive Training Camps and Positive Race Workshops at this link.
Subscribe to activacuity, the first guided imagery app for athletes, and learn how to focus on the many positives about you!