After his first half marathon at The Island School, alumnus Evan Wood (Sp'11) went on to triumph in many more long running competitions. Here is Evan's story about battling disease and overcoming personal struggles to end up the face of the 2015 NYC Marathon:
I came to The Island School as an escape from a series of personal tragedies back home. In my early teenage years, I lost my father, Erik Wood, to cancer. Then, after a year of intense stomach pain, I was diagnosed with Crohn’s disease. And then my doctor, Kena Valentine, suddenly passed away. For years, I was very underweight and in constant pain, yet I did my best to maintain as normal a life as I could, keeping up with all of my school work and my extracurriculars. Though I was always an active kid (I loved to play tennis with my brother and had a short stint on my elementary school track team), I had no background in running whatsoever—in fact, I spent much of my childhood on a nebulizer because I also suffered from asthma.
Then came the unique opportunity to attend The Island School—an academically and physically rigorous semester-long program in The Bahamas featuring kayaking expeditions, SCUBA certification, and a climactic end-of-semester Half Marathon.
So, normally, you might ask yourself, how on earth did anyone (including myself) think that isolating myself from my family and my doctors to take part in a physically rigorous academic program in another country was a good idea? What exactly did I see in The Island School?
What I saw in The Island School were challenges that would reward me for my hard work and dedication. My struggles at home would become more manageable with time, but in the turbulence of my adolescence, it was very difficult to deal with problems that were out of my control. At The Island School, I could confront well-defined challenges, be a part of a team, and overcome obstacles—if I willed myself. When I arrived, I had difficulty learning how to SCUBA dive, I could barely jog the 4-mile loop without using my inhaler—heck, I didn’t even know how to ride a bike! But these were challenges that I could work toward—each with their own small goals that would lead to small victories. The challenge that would present the greatest opportunity for me in the long run (no pun intended) was the Half Marathon.
When I was at The Island School, I struggled to get the miles in, but every time I laced up, I made it my mission to leave nothing on the pavement. I pushed myself as hard as I could, which was foolhardy at times, but I sought to improve with every run. Even if it was difficult—even if it was painful, it was nothing compared to the pain that I had already been going through. And over time, I did improve—I slowly but steadily climbed from the back of the pack to the front, and as the semester continued I was becoming stronger and healthier, relying less on my inhaler, and my confidence grew. I had also entered a state of remission from Crohn’s disease for the first time, becoming symptom-free. At the end of the semester, I was the third student to finish the Half Marathon in 1 hour and 46 minutes—a surprise to myself and just about everyone!
Shortly after returning from Island School, my life began to improve dramatically—I regained my health, gained over half of my bodyweight in less than a year, got accepted to the film school of my dreams, NYU Tisch, on a full scholarship, and remained mostly pain-free for the longest time since before my diagnosis. I fell in love with running, considered it a part of my treatment, and continued to train back home. I was winning against my disease, but I wasn’t finished just yet—I was determined to run the NYC Marathon for Team IBDkids, a pediatric Crohn’s and Colitis charity led by my doctor Keith Benkov, who would also become my coach. I trained with the same vigor that I had at Island School, and even though my first outing was cancelled by Hurricane Sandy, I met my fundraising goal and joined thousands of other runners to run the distance in Central Park anyway. When I had finished, I was overcome with emotion and fulfillment—I had come a long, long way since the sleepless nights, doubled over in pain. Life didn’t have to be a constant repeat of “woe is me”—not if I had any say in it.
Still, Crohn’s disease isn’t something that I had. It’s something I have, and it’s something that I will be constantly battling for the rest of my life, whether I like it or not. Since my time at Island School, I’ve still been confronted with occasional relapses and flare-ups, emergency room visits and bad spells, but because of the mindset Island School helped me realize, the tough times have only fanned the flames of motivation. Since then, I have run the (official) NYC Marathon twice, will be running it for the third time this year, and have run eight Half Marathons—my personal best is now 1 hour and 27 minutes. Every finish line I cross evokes the same triumphant emotion that I once felt when I touched that iconic flagpole on Eleuthera. I always belt out a battle cry and leap as high as I can to release the physical and emotional pain that I once internalized for far too long. At last year’s NYC Marathon, New York Road Runners decided to make my picture the cover of their official finisher photo album—and in the year since, they’ve used my photo on their website, their ad campaigns, and most recently on billboards, in the subway and on the sides of buses! To me, my journey is just one of over 50,000 who run the marathon every year—but thanks to Island School and the support of my family, friends and Dr. Benkov, I have been able to bite Crohn’s back and send a message to others that no matter how difficult and out of control life can be, we can choose to work hard and will ourselves to reach even our greatest goals.