Ryan Heitz has grown used to pain. For 12 years, he’s struggled with two herniated discs in his cervical spine. Plus he’s been diagnosed with fibromyalgia, a chronic condition defined by musculoskeletal discomfort that makes soft tissues tender to the touch. But the 28-year-old was still surprised to wake up one morning in December 2015, jerked to consciousness by his alarm clock only to find his back locked up. He couldn’t move, and after a trip to the emergency room, doctors told him that in addition to his current sources of pain, he also had stenosis, a narrowing of the bone channel occupied by the spinal cord. It’s a condition that can put a terrible strain on spinal nerves, and over the next year, Heitz had lost all feeling in his left arm, neck, and back.
The injury was devastating. Heitz had grown up wrestling, lifting weights, and training in martial arts. This latest diagnosis seemed to be another sign that he’d no longer be doing the things he once loved. “When the discs got worse, I was barely able to push myself off the ground,“ he says. “It even got to a point where I couldn’t completely grip things with my left hand or move my head freely. It made the simplest tasks unbelievably hard.”
He was using meds to manage the pain, but he still felt helpless and borderline depressed. He knew that things would never improve unless he tried something big, so in September 2016, with his wife Erin by his side, Heitz went in for a full cervical disk replacement, a surgery meant to restore movement to his spine. When he emerged from the hospital, he set a goal to motivate himself: By the next summer, he’d run a Spartan Sprint. He started physical therapy with that in mind.
“Doing a Spartan had always been on my radar,” he says. “And after surgery, it became my number one goal. I wanted to prove to myself that I was capable.”
His muscle had atrophied, so he set to work reclaiming his lost strength. He had to retrain his neck and back muscles to support his spine, and when he was able, he started jogging to build his endurance.
Having a clearly defined challenge was critical to his recovery. “If it wasn’t for the training and that specific goal, I may not have recovered as fast as I did,” says Heitz. “I felt like I was winning both physically and psychologically. I was realizing all that I was capable of.”
It also helped that he wasn’t alone—the support from his wife made him stronger everyday. And when it came time to race, he was ready. In June of this year, the man who couldn’t feel his fingers just nine months prior finished his first Sprint in 2 hours and 5 minutes.
“I was so happy to [cross the finish line] that I felt no pain,” he says. “I felt invincible, like I could have gone on forever.”
Since tackling his first Spartan, Heitz has continued to challenge himself with new goals. The daily training helps him manage the pain from fibromyalgia and nerve regeneration, and it builds the support muscles along his spine. This month, he completed his first Super in Barre, Massachusetts, and next up is the Beast in Vermont. The Spartan Trifecta is finally in his reach.
“I’m ready to push myself beyond my limits,” Heitz says. “Ultimately, I just want to continuously improve myself mentally and physically, compete in the competitive races next year, and take on the Elite heats after that. This is only the beginning, and I now know what I’m capable of.”
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