Those in the INKnBURN community probably know Sarah Speer, an enthusiastic and passionate INKnBURN ambassador. Sarah shares her life openly on Facebook, sometimes lamenting her inability to go trail running due to a hectic schedule, while at other times sharing her successful runs. Almost all of her posts include Sarah, decked in one of her favorite INKnBURN outfits with a bright, wide smile on her face.
Over the past few months, however, Sarah, 47, and mother to daughters Jillian, 17, and Hannah, 15, has shared news of a different kind: most notably, about her husband of 24 years, James Speer. In a post dated February 21, Sarah shares that “James is definitely eating! His appetite is less than before but food is tasting normal again.” In another she describes that, against her personal recommendations, James walked a mile–elevation changes and all. In one of her most recent posts, she writes, “I am optimistic that [James] is finally out of the woods. I cannot tell you how relieved we are. We received his INKnBURN Phoenix shirt yesterday…I told him he was rising from the ashes. It was a sobering thought…” Coming from a man who has always been active in both physical labor and sports, this is a surprise. In fact, James’ initial illness and consequent diagnosis was a shock for both husband and wife. What was thought to be a mild flu quickly disintegrated into something far more life-threatening, placing both James and Sarah in a position that neither of them thought they would ever be.
Says Sarah, “He was vomiting, asking for Pepto Bismol.” As his condition worsened, Sarah insisted that he be taken to Urgent Care. Unfortunately, he never made it into the building. “He had a seizure in the parking lot and was taken by ambulance to the hospital.” After multiple tests, James, 52, was diagnosed with pancreatitis. “Jim’s pancreas was, in essence, digesting him from the inside out,” says Sarah. He was in a coma for 19 days in total. “I viewed every day as a number game. Protein numbers, red blood cells, white blood cells, ammonia levels…I looked for any number moving in the right direction to share with the girls and family daily.” Weeks later, when James regained consciousness, he went through the devastating shock of learning about his new condition. “There was plenty of poking and prodding and coming to grips,” he says. “However, Sarah never left my side for one second, comforting me and consoling me in order to keep my spirits up and giving me the will to want to recover.” Her presence, he says, served as a beacon of hope.
“I was waiting on him constantly,” says Sarah. “He couldn’t sit up, eat, monitor his insulin or change his bandages.” Sarah’s training became second to running a household and caring for her family–but it was running that kept Sarah sane. “It was time that altered my mood. I was able to temporarily put down the weight of trauma and leave it in the woods.” Oftentimes Sarah would find herself running miles into the forest only to lean against a tree, cry, then return home. “I was able to pick up responsibilities after a shower. We just juggled as best we could.”
While running is now Sarah’s time to unwind and take care of herself, it wasn’t always this way. Growing up, Sarah was, as she calls herself, “an artsy bookworm.” “I power walked and tried to stumble my way through exercising but I didn’t know what I was doing.” It wasn’t until Sarah met James that she was introduced to the world of weightlifting, powerlifting and bodybuilding–which, Sarah is quick to point out, are all different from one another. James had been bodybuilding and quickly taught Sarah the ropes. Within a few years Sarah was benching more than 145 pounds for multiple reps. “I even power lifted until I was almost 8 months pregnant with each child,” she says. “At 4’11’’ and carrying 10 pound babies, I was just as wide as I was tall!”
Sarah continued to lift with James, but it was a runner–a mother at her children’s elementary school–who inspired her to give running a try. “Despite me telling her many times that I couldn’t run, she kept telling me that yes, I can. She never let me have the last word and she planted a seed: what if I could?” Sarah decided she would try running and told James. While he wasn’t thrilled with the idea, it didn’t take long before James was trying it himself. Soon, he was running with Sarah. Says James, “When I was down and not wanting to work out, she would lift me up and vice versa.”
Now that James has returned home and his appetite has improved, the husband-wife team are back in the gym three times a week. Sarah also runs three times a week, while James walks–however, he’s recently begun working running intervals into his routine. As James explains, doctors credit much of his strength to the physical activity in his life prior to his diagnosis. Still, their journey is not without daily challenges. “Prior to being sick, I would heal relatively quickly,” says James. “This was not the case in my recovery. It has been painstakingly slow.”
“We have always lived by the motto of no pain, no gain,” he explains, “but we never expected to put that motto to such a severe test.” While James’ diagnosis has brought challenges that the couple faces on a daily basis, Sarah and James have chosen to see the silver lining amidst the struggle. “The severity of my illness caused us to be more honest and open with each other,” says James, “and we are now closer than we have ever been.” Sarah shares similar thoughts: “We fought, defended and survived. We depended on each other and we share the same wounds.” Although Sarah originally hesitated to think that undergoing illness or trauma could bring a family closer together, she now thinks otherwise. “As long as your heart is beating and you’re breathing, you just keep hoping and fighting.”
As James’ appetite returns, so too does his weight and muscle mass. Sarah continues to train for her first ultra marathon and a triathlon while James hopes to not only regain his health, but to be in the best shape he’s ever been. Every day, Sarah still checks and records James’ weight, his balance, and his ability to walk, drive and perform activities that were once second nature to him. “We cheer every advancement,” she says, as long term they’re hoping to be running and traveling, together.
Recently, James got on a bike for the first time in months. Sarah was by his side, of course, together the two of them rising from the ashes.