Spina Bifida Hasn't Stopped This Woman from Running Half Marathons and Crushing Spartan Races
Misty Diaz was told she'd struggle to walk her entire life—now, she's defying the odds in the most miraculous ways.
Misty Diaz was born with myelomeningocele, the most severe form of spina bifida, a birth defect that inhibits your spine from developing properly. But that hasn't stopped her from defying the odds and living an active lifestyle no one thought was possible.
"Growing up, I never believed that there were things I couldn't do, even though doctors told me I'd struggle to walk for the rest of my life," she tells Shape. "But I just never let that get to me. If there was a 50- or 100-meter dash, I'd sign up for it, even if that meant walking with my walker or running with my crutches." (Related: I'm an Amputee and Trainer-But Didn't Step Foot In the Gym Until I Was 36)
By the time she was in her early 20s, though, Diaz had undergone 28 operations, the final one resulting in complications. "My 28th surgery ended up being a totally botched job," she says. "The doctor was supposed to cut out a part of my intestine but ended up taking too much. As a result, my intestines push too close to my stomach, which is quite uncomfortable, and I have to steer clear of certain foods."
At the time, Diaz was supposed to go home the day of the surgery but ended up spending 10 days in the hospital. "I was in excruciating pain and was prescribed with morphine that I had to take three times a day," she says. "That resulted in an addiction to the pills, which took me months to overcome."
As a result of the pain medicine, Diaz found herself in a constant fog and couldn't move her body the way she used to. "I felt so incredibly weak and wasn't sure if my life was ever going to be the same again," she says. (Related: Everything You Should Know Before Taking Prescription Painkillers)
Consumed by pain, she fell into a deep depression and, at times, even contemplated taking her life. "I had just gone through a divorce, wasn't earning any income, was drowning in medical bills, and watched the Salvation Army back into my driveway and take away all my belongings. I even had to give away my service dog because I no longer had the means to take care of it," she says. "It came to the point where I questioned my will to live."
What made things harder was that Diaz didn't know anyone else who had been in her shoes or someone she could relate to. "No magazine or newspaper at the time was highlighting people with spina bifida who were trying to live an active or normal life," she says. "I didn't have anyone I could talk to or seek advice from. That lack of representation made me unsure about what I had to look forward to, how I was supposed to lead my life, or what I should expect from it."
For the following three months, Diaz couch surfed, offering to pay back friends by doing chores. "It was during this time that I started walking a lot more than what I was used to," she says. "Eventually, I realized that moving my body actually helped me feel better both physically and emotionally."
So Diaz set a goal of walking more and more each day in an attempt to clear her mind. She started with the small goal of just going down the driveway to the mailbox. "I wanted to start somewhere, and that seemed like an attainable goal," she says.
During this time Diaz also began attending AA meetings to help her stay grounded as she self-detoxed from the drugs she'd been prescribed. "After I decided I was going to stop taking my painkillers, my body went into withdrawal-which is what made me realize I was addicted," she says. "To cope, I decided to go to AA to talk about what I was going through and build a support system as I tried to put my life back together." (Related: Are You an Accidental Addict?)
Meanwhile, Diaz upped her walking distance and began making trips around the block. Soon her goal was to make it to a nearby beach. "It's ridiculous that I'd lived by the ocean my whole life but had never taken a walk to the beach," she says.
One day, while she was out on her daily walks, Diaz had a life-changing realization: "My whole life, I had been on one medication or another," she says. "And after I weaned off morphine, for the first time ever, I was drug-free. So one day when I was on one of my walks, I noticed color for the first time. I remember seeing a pink flower and realizing how pink it was. I know that sounds silly, but I had never appreciated how beautiful the world was. Being off of all medications helped me see that." (Related: How One Woman Used Alternative Medicine to Overcome Her Opioid Dependency)
From that moment on, Diaz knew that she wanted to spend her time being outside, being active, and experiencing life to the absolute fullest. "I got home that day and immediately signed up for a charity walk that was taking place in a week or so," she says. "The walk led me to sign up for my first 5K, which I walked. Then in early 2012, I signed up for a Ronald McDonald 5K, which I ran."
The feeling Diaz got after completing that race was incomparable to anything she'd ever felt before. "When I got to the starting line, everyone was so supportive and encouraging," she says. "And then as I started running, people from the sidelines were going crazy cheering me on. People were literally coming out of their houses to support me and it made me feel like I wasn't alone. The biggest realization was that even though I was on my crutches and was by no means a runner, I started and finished along with most people. I realized that my disability didn't have to hold me back. I could do anything I put my mind to." (Related: Pro Adaptive Climber Maureen Beck Wins Competitions with One Hand)
From then on, Diaz began signing up for as many 5Ks as she could and started developing a following. "People were taken to my story," she says. "They wanted to know what inspired me to run and how I was able to, given my disability."
Slowly but surely, organizations began recruiting Diaz to speak at public events and share more about her life. Meanwhile, she kept running farther and farther, eventually completing half marathons all around the country. "Once I had several 5Ks under my belt, I was hungry for more," she says. "I wanted to know just how much my body could do if I pushed it hard enough."
After two years focusing on running, Diaz knew she was ready to take things a step further. "One of my coaches from a half marathon in New York said that he also trained people for Spartan races, and I showed an interest in competing in that event," she says. "He said he had never trained anyone with a disability for a Spartan before, but that if anyone could do it, it was me."
Diaz completed her first Spartan race in December 2014-but it was far from perfect. "It wasn't until I finished a few Spartan races that I really understood how my body could adapt to certain obstacles," she says. "I think that's where people with disabilities get discouraged. But I want them to know that it takes a lot of time and practice to learn the ropes. I had to do a lot of trail hiking, upper-body workouts, and learn to carry weight on my shoulders before I got to a point where I wasn't the last person on the course. But if you're persistent, you can definitely get there." (P.S. This obstacle course workout will help you train for any event.)
Today, Diaz has completed more than 200 5Ks, half marathons, and obstacle-course events around the world-and she's always down for an extra challenge. Recently, she took part in the Red Bull 400, the world's steepest 400-meter race. "I went as far up as I could on my crutches, then I pulled my body up (like rowing) without ever looking back once," she says. Diaz completed the race in an impressive 25 minutes.
Looking ahead, Diaz is constantly looking for new ways to challenge herself while inspiring others in the process. "There was a time when I thought I'd never make it far enough to grow old," she says. "Now, I'm in the best shape of my life and looking forward to shattering even more stereotypes and barriers against people with spina bifida."
Diaz has come to look at having a disability as an extraordinary ability. "You can do whatever you want if you put your mind to it," she says. "If you fail, get back up. Just keep on moving forward. And most importantly, enjoy what you have at the moment and allow that to empower you, because you never know what life will throw your way."