CF and COVID-19 Couldn’t Keep Me From Running

After a childhood spent running, I had largely given it up by the time I became an adult. But five years ago, it became my outlet. CF and COVID-19 temporarily sidelined me, but as long as there is air in my lungs, I won’t ever give up.

| 6 min read
Jennifer Riley headshot
Jennifer Riley
Jennifer Riley crossing the finish line at the marathon.

Run. There are few words that elicit as many opposing responses like that one, and I’d bet money that many of you cringed just reading it. You either hate running, or you love it, and there’s not much in between. Growing up with cystic fibrosis in the late 70s/early 80s, running and sports weren’t really on my radar. Since I looked sickly and scrawny compared to my peers, a common opinion from others was that I wouldn’t be able to keep up. My parents chose not to listen, allowing me to decide for myself what I was and wasn’t capable of doing — and I’m unbelievably grateful that they did.

Basketball was my sport of choice until I reached junior high school and had the opportunity to participate in multiple sports. Most of my classmates chose to skip track season because of that “run” word, which motivated me to do the exact opposite. I ran a mile for the first time in a 7th grade track meet when I was the only one to raise my hand after our coach asked for volunteers to represent our team. I competed for a couple of years, always signing up for the events no one else wanted to do. I never placed higher than 4th, but I didn’t run for the medal anyway. I ran because my whole life I was told I couldn’t.

As an adult, I developed an on-again, off-again relationship with running until it became my outlet in 2017 when I was going through a divorce. In less than a year I went from thinking “seven miles is impossible” to “10 miles isn’t out of reach” and registered for my first long-distance race: the 2018 Chicago Half Marathon. My lungs were in the best shape they had ever been in for many years, and I felt almost invincible against CF when I finished those 13.1 miles. That feeling lasted less than four months, when my health began to spiral. I had managed to avoid the hospital for over a decade, but that streak ended in 2019 when I was admitted twice and took medical leave for seven months. My lung function plummeted to the lowest numbers I had ever faced, and I was desperate to do something that would make me feel like I had regained control over my health.

I began religiously working out at Camp Gladiator, a boot camp-style fitness program, but it wasn’t enough for me. I needed more.

I needed to run, and I decided if I could complete the 2019 Chicago Half Marathon, then that would mean I had conquered this latest health hurdle. But I couldn’t do it. I just couldn’t get healthy enough to compete and admitting that to myself made me mad.

I was angry and I was scared. Angry because it didn’t seem like it mattered anymore what my doctors and I did. My lung function was gone and it wasn’t going to go back to the way it was. I was scared because it felt like all the years that I was healthy — while my other friends with CF died — were finally catching up to me. The easy thing would’ve been to just give in and quit fighting against a monster determined to come for me, but I had always promised myself I wouldn’t do that, so I kept trying.

Some days all I could manage was to walk a mile, but with time I was able to slowly increase my distance. Just five months after I should have completed the Chicago Half Marathon for the second time, I crossed the finish line in my first running of the Cowtown Half Marathon in Fort Worth. As a Boston Marathon qualifier race, it’s a tough course that draws thousands of people. Finishing it felt like a huge accomplishment against CF. I had set a goal that year of completing three half marathons, but once again, my body had other plans.

Plagued by injury, surgery, and illness, 2020 felt like history was repeating itself — but I was determined to push through. By spring 2021 I was doing well; I had registered to run the Cowtown again, and my training program was going great. I was on pace to bring home an awesome personal record (PR) and had signed up to represent Team CF at the event.

Excited doesn’t even begin to describe how I was feeling in the month leading up to the race. In an instant, that excitement was gone when I got COVID-19.

I managed to avoid the hospital, but the effect on my lungs couldn’t be denied. I was back to square one. Again. All those familiar emotions came back, and the little nagging voice inside my head reminded me this was a battle I would never be able to win. I began to doubt myself and my ability to fight the impact CF was having on my body as I aged. I was discouraged, but I also knew I couldn’t stop trying to regain something, no matter how small. So, again I set my sights on another half marathon, planning to return to the Cowtown in 2022.

On race day I fought back tears as I carried the Team CF name across the finish line, realizing not only had I finished, but I had also earned a 29-second PR in the process.

If you were to search my bib number in the list of results of any race I’ve completed, you’d find a middle-of-the-pack runner, with less than extraordinary results. And oddly enough, my competitive nature is completely OK with that. When I run, it’s not against everyone else. It’s against a disease that’s been trying to beat me for more than 43 years. It’s for my friends that no longer have the chance to run. It’s for the younger generation who needs to see they can be more than this label of “person with CF.” I won’t ever be the fastest. I won’t ever be the strongest. But as long as there is air in my lungs, I won't ever give up. 

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Jennifer is a Certified Management Accountant and has B.S. and M.S. degrees from The University of Texas at Dallas, where she studied accounting and finance. Jennifer has been with her company since 2007, and her roles within the global finance organization have granted her the opportunity for frequent overseas travel. Her favorite travel memories are skydiving over the ocean in Australia and sending more than 220 postcards from overseas back to other CFers in the U.S. Jennifer resides in the Dallas/Fort Worth area of Texas and represents Team CF and the North Texas CF Chapter at events such as the annual Cowtown Marathon. She has also served as the Ambassador for CF Climb. You can find Jennifer on Instagram.

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