On any given Wednesday night in Berlin, you're bound to bump into a girl with short hair, a warm smile, and a Midnight Runners t-shirt charging through the streets, cheering on a swarm of runners. You might look at her huge smile and think to yourself “Wow, that girl isn’t just making running look like fun, but she’s making it look easy.”
Having been a Crew Captain for the Berlin Midnight Runners since the chapter opened in 2017, by all accounts Erika does make it look easy.
It wasn't too long ago, though, that leading a group like the Midnight Runners would have been an impossible dream for Erika. While her start in the sport is impressive, it is her return after a life-changing diagnosis that makes her one of the most inspiring members of the Midnight Runner Family.
Erika’s introduction into running was one primarily of necessity, both physically and emotionally. She was an avid swimmer living in New York City, but found it challenging to get across town to a public pool every day. On top of that, she was working as an Opera Singer but feeling mentally and emotionally burned out by the subjectivity of the profession.
“I could practice and prepare, and do everything “right” at an audition, but still not get hired.”
She wanted to do something that was completely objective: Put in the work, achieve the desired result: Running seemed to be the perfect fit. For Erika, though, starting with something small like a 5k or 10k wasn’t enough. So she went big and decided that she to run the New York City Marathon.
“I figured if I followed the training plan and just got in the miles, I would reach my goal and finish the race.”
Finishing the NYC marathon was just the start for Erika. Now that she knew she could swim and run, she figured she’d go one step further and try triathlons. She bought a used road bike and started racing.
“I grew up in California, in the city that hosts the Vineman Triathlon, and every year would watch my mom swim on a relay team. So even though I was an artsy, creative kid, I guess the passion for the sport was in my blood from a young age!”
By the time she had made her big move to Berlin in 2012, she had finished 12 Olympic-distance and 4 Half-Ironman triathlons.
“I really love the challenge of multi-sport racing, there’s always something to improve.”
What Erika didn’t know that in only two year’s time, she would face the biggest challenge of her life.
In February 2014 she woke up in the middle of the night with extremely cold feet. She tried to get out of bed, but her feet had gone completely numb, like they were encased in ice right up to her ankles. Within the few weeks after that, she began to lose feeling in her lower legs and hands. Her feet often wouldn’t flex properly, causing her to trip and fall. When she was finally referred to a neurologists after a host of doctor visits and tests, the reality of the situation was revealed. Erika was officially diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis.
“It was a very scary time for me, as I was living in Berlin, far from my family and support system.”
Where she used to spend her time doing long runs in the forest, she was now spending in doctors appointments in a foreign language, with simple things like making it to the grocery store nearly impossible. She was told she would likely never run again. She was told that without treatment, she would likely be in a wheelchair within a decade. Here she was, a triathlete and marathon runner, facing a life in which she may never participate in the sports that she loved. For a time, she thought that was it.
“I was extremely depressed, and felt irreparably broken.”
That is, until one morning when Erika woke up and realized that this was her story, and if she was willing to work hard, she could change it. Right then she made the decision to take back control of her body.
It was slow at first, with the goal of walking just 5000 steps every day. It was painful and exhausting, but she persevered. She was a runner and triathlete, working hard and pushing through pain and discomfort was nothing new. Sure enough, it got easier, and she walked further.
With the help of her doctors, she found a medication that seemed to work for her. Erika also made the switch to a vegan diet to help reduce the inflammation throughout her body and improve her energy levels. She was a marvel.
She had one “relapse” period during her first year post-diagnosis in which one of her optic nerves had become inflamed and caused her to go blind in one eye. Erika refused to let that set-back stop her, she continued to work hard, and her vision returned.
Like a true runner, walking just wasn’t enough for Erika. Despite what her doctor had originally told her, she decided to give running another try.
“I was very, very slow at first, but, I made a goal: 5k every day for a month. That month turned into 100 consecutive days of running.”
A year to the day of her diagnosis, Erika defied the odds and ran her first “post-MS” race, a 10k in Berlin, and finished it in under an hour to boot. By all accounts, Erika is a walking (or running!) miracle.
While she was successfully running on her own again, Erika had some trepidations about running with groups and at night time because of her foot and vision issues. When she saw a Facebook event for a Midnight Runners Party Run, she thought it sounded too much fun to pass up and decided to challenge herself by attending alone. At the end of the run it was announced that a MR chapter would officially be launching in Berlin and that they were looking for volunteers to be Crew Captains.
“I was terrified that I wouldn’t be able to keep up every week, but I was so on fire after my first run, that I had to try. “
She sent a message offering to be a “sweeper” at the back of the pack. That was two years ago, Erika has been a crew captain for Berlin ever since.
Now (as it tends to do) Midnight Runners has all but completely taken over her social life! The inclusive, positive, and challenging nature of the group inspires her and lifts her up on a regular basis. She is proud to be a part of a group that celebrates every runner, from those at the front to the ones at the back, with equal enthusiasm.
“I have met so many interesting and inspiring people in the group, and it’s amazing to see people from such different walks of life come together with a shared passion for running and fitness...I love that every event feels so full of positivity. Our Berlin runners (especially those in the back) are so appreciative of someone sticking with them, with music and motivational good vibes.”
Midnight Runners was the key factor that helped Erika to let go of her fears and regain confidence as a runner after her diagnosis. When she first started with the group, she made a pact with herself that she would go to every single run from then until the end of the year, despite her fears of running in groups and at night. Three months with the enthusiasm and positivity of the rest of the captains and members was enough to remind Erika that anything was possible.
“Now I hardly worry about my legs giving out, or tripping and falling. I know that even if something did happen, the Berlin crew and members are such a warm and positive group, I know they would be nothing but caring and supportive. And I've noticed that having less fear about MS and running, has somehow transferred to other aspects of my life, and I hear myself saying "yes" to new opportunities and adventures much more often.”
While she doesn’t completely understand the magic that is Midnight Runners, she knows that it’s their unwavering support that makes people come back week after week. When she talks to her other friends and family about her athletic goals, she is often met with warnings and discouragement. Her Midnight Runners, however, not only encourage her, but jump in on her goals with her! Erika knows that without her MR Family, she wouldn’t have had the courage to do the things she is now.
“It's so inspiring to be a part of this running family, and to share our goals, encourage each other, and celebrate our victories. And the Berlin MR family isn't just supportive when it comes to running: many members and fellow captains have come to my singing performances, which is a huge honor. Finally, of course, these crazy runners are always up for a good dance party!”
In the almost 5 years since her diagnosis, she has run several 10k races and half-marathons, with the goals to do at least one marathon and a half-ironman in 2019 and her big goal of completing a full Ironman in 2020 in Roth, Germany. Of course, she’ll be using her MR Family to help her with her training!
Erika has learned a lot since being diagnosed with MS, and is constantly reminded of quote by Ian MacLauren: ““Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a hard battle.” To others, Erika knows she appears perfectly “normal”, but in reality, everyone has “invisible histories”. She says not being quick to judge others, as well as being easier on herself, is the best way to live.
“Sometimes it’s scary to think that I’ll have this disease for the rest of my life; there is no cure, and I can’t “beat it” in some way. This has really made me so grateful for every good day, and taught me to work with my body, instead of try to fight against it… our bodies are so magically adaptive, and it’s usually our minds that stop us from trying new things or going out of our comfort zones. With a little patience and kindness, we can train our bodies to do amazing things, and then our minds start to believe in our own power.”
Favourite Running Memory: I have 2! First, I ran the NYC Marathon twice, as a guide for challenged athletes in the Achilles Track Club. One year was with a full-leg amputee, and one year with a blind woman. It was so inspirational to run with these athletes and help them reach their goals, I didn’t feel any pain when I crossed the finish line with them, only joy. Also, in 2016 I ran the S25 race in Berlin (25k), my longest “post-MS” race to date. I just wanted to finish, but in the back of my mind I secretly hoped to finish in 2h30 (so a 6min/km pace). I crossed the line in 2:28 and was completely overcome with emotion. I’ve signed up for the race again this year...we’ll see if I can go even faster this time around!
Favourite MR Memory: There are so many! The pop-ups in different cities are always a highlight...Barcelona and NYC were both so much fun.
Favourite Running Spot in Berlin: I love doing long runs in the Grunewald, a forest in the west of Berlin.
Favourite Race Distance: Half marathon (and half Ironman, for that matter ;) )
Favourite things to do that aren’t running: As I mentioned, I’m a classical singer, so of course music is a huge passion (check out Erika’s incredible voice here!). I’m also very into meditation and yoga. Swimming is my favorite sport, and I love to travel (I try to get to a new country every few months or so, which feels like such a luxury to this American in Europe!).
Favourite Way to Celebrate After a Race: A yummy vegan meal, an alcohol-free beer, maybe an ice bath followed by a hot shower. I’m boring! (Author’s note: Erika, you are FAR from boring!)