Heather Laptalo was told she'd never run again after her many spinal surgeries. Today she races marathons and up mountains, and says movement saved her life.

By By Jahla Seppanen
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Photo: Backcountry.com

Running is hard. #truth. Imagine doing it without 40 percent of your lung capacity, a completely immobile spine, and half of one ribcage missing. Hard? Try darn near medically impossible. Somewhere in Oregon, Heather Laptalo is lacing up to speed-run a mountain despite being told by her doctor that this shouldn't even be humanly possible.

Laptalo grew up with braces on her feet and back that "made slumber parties a bit awkward," she says. She was living with discomfort, pain, and mobility issues as the result of severe cases of both scoliosis and kyphosis, two conditions that affect the natural curvature of the spine. "I've never lived a completely pain-free life and grew up going to doctors and specialists who told me and my parents that I was deformed."

At 13, she underwent her first surgery-a spinal fusion procedure for her thoracic spine (upper back). More surgery would be needed, but until then Laptalo managed the pain.

"It's been a journey of accepting my body and building self-esteem. I had terrible body issues resulting in an eating disorder because all my life doctors talked about my face being deformed, my back and body being deformed, and people would refer to me as the hunchback. I had muscular legs that developed faster because of the weakness in my feet and back, so I was told they were 'manly legs.' The only control I had was my weight."

Laptalo found herself in a hospital bed near death from her eating disorder, but she woke up there to the revelation that she couldn't give up and needed to start appreciating her body for what it had overcome. (Related: This Badass Athlete Shares What It's Like to Race Up One of the Toughest Hills In America On Her Bike)

When she was 19 Laptalo had double surgery was performed that removed half of her right ribcage, extracted discs from the lower spine, and extended the rods from her earlier surgery down to the base of her spine. In total, 85 percent of her spine was fused together.

While recovering from her surgeries, Laptalo asked her doctor at every visit, "When can I get back to playing soccer?" The sport was her passion but contact sports were out of the question then. Along with back surgeries, she had total reconstructive jaw surgery, so a blow to the face could be devastating. "I was also missing 40 percent of my lung capacity and my spine was pressing against my organs in a way it shouldn't…but I kept asking."

Eventually, her doctor admitted that she'd be lucky to jog a mile, max.

"I was going to prove him wrong," says Laptalo. "I started going to the track and ran the straightaway 100 meters, walked the turn, and slowly added more and more. Then I got to mile two, walked part, ran part, building up to five miles nonstop." (Related: How a Running Injury Helped Me Become a Better Athlete)

Photo: Backcountry.com

On an early morning at the track, a man stopped her and asked what college she ran for. "I run for myself!" she exclaimed (gotta love those endorphins), and he responded by offering her a spot on the San Jose State University cross-country track team with a scholarship. "There's a fire in your eyes that's hard to find," she recalls him saying. (Related: 24 Motivational Quotes for Athletes and Runners)

A partial scholarship turned into a full-ride running scholarship, and Laptalo was racing speeds and distances considered impossible by the medical world, considering what her body had gone through.

Then, while working part-time at a running store, she was doubted again by a marathon runner who told her she'd never be able to run those 26.2 miles. The flame was ignited again and Laptalo toed the starting line of the San Francisco Marathon having only run a top distance of 8 miles. Not only did she finish, but her time qualified her for the Boston Marathon. "I feel like I shouldn't be able to do what I do according to science," she says.

After college, Laptalo accepted a job at Nike HQ in Oregon and found an exciting new challenge: the mountains. "Driving to Oregon, I saw Mt. Shasta, a massive 14,000 plus-foot mountain, and I wondered what it was like to stand on top and look down," she says. Running a course at sea-level is one thing but high-altitude is another beast, but "I did it," she laughs. "I took mountaineering and climbing classes to climb more peaks, learned to ski off mountains, and now when I look at a route I ask myself, can I do it in half the time?" (Related: This Incredible Freeskier Harnessed Her Fear to Shatter Glass Ceilings)

"Women especially are constantly given the message of you can't do something for XYZ reasons," she says. "'You're too weak.' Those messages are easier to listen to because it isn't easy. Being physically uncomfortable is hard. Now I feel a need to inspire other women to get out and use their bodies. It's what kept me alive. I don't know if I would be here if I listened to the 'can'ts.' Being active has made my life worth living."

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