I was born with a dysfunctional heart valve, and when I was 6 weeks old, I underwent surgery to place a band around the valve to help my heart function normally. The band didn't grow as I did, though, so I was in and out of the hospital undergoing treatments to keep my heart from malfunctioning. My doctors cautioned me to avoid doing any activity that would overexert my heart, so I rarely exercised.

Then, when I turned 17, I underwent open-heart surgery again to fit my heart with an artificial valve that would keep up with my now grown-up body. This time, I endured a grueling recovery period since the incision in my chest took weeks to heal. During that time, it hurt to even cough or sneeze, let alone walk. However, as the weeks went on, I started healing and I became stronger. Two months after the surgery, I began walking for a few minutes at a time, increasing my intensity until I was able to walk for 10 minutes a session. I also began weight training to build muscle strength.

Six months later, I started college and had to walk everywhere, which built up my stamina. With this strength, I ventured into running - at first for just 15 seconds and walking for two minutes. I continued this walk/run program for the next year, and by then could run for 20 minutes at a time. I loved the thrill of pushing my body to new limits.

I ran on a regular basis for the next several years. One day, I heard about a marathon-training group and was intrigued with the idea of running a race. I didn't know if my heart could handle running 26 miles, but I wanted to find out.

Since I knew my body had to perform at its peak, I changed my dining habits and began eating more healthfully. I started making smarter food choices because I realized that when I ate better, I ran better. Food was fuel for my body, and if I ate junk food, my body wasn't going to perform well. Instead, I concentrated on eating a balanced diet.

During the marathon, I took my time and didn't care how long I took to run it. I completed the race in less than six hours, which was amazing since just 10 years earlier I could barely run for 15 seconds. Since my first marathon, I have completed two more and plan to compete in my fourth this spring.

My heart is in excellent shape, thanks to my healthy diet and regular exercise. My doctors are astonished that someone with my condition runs marathons. I've learned that as long as I stay positive, I can do anything I set my mind to.