Lee Falk has been running her whole life: track meets in high school, jogs to keep in shape as an adult. But never as competitively or as religiously as when she learned a two centimeter-wide tumor was nuzzling her brain stem in 2014.
When doctors first found the tumor, they told her it was benign; so long as it didn't grow, they said, they wouldn't have to operate.
But by March of 2016, it had grown half a centimeter, and was squeezing her facial, acoustic and vestibular nerves. Falk was suffering from tinnitus, dizziness and an odd slackness in her right cheek.
She was booked for a June 8 operation. Not knowing what to expect, she dialed a hotline for people with the same condition.
"I talked to several people, and I heard horror story after horror story," she said. "One guy had the surgery and a whole year later still couldn't ride a bike, was still off balance."
"I felt like I had a ticking time bomb in my head."
Falk didn't know if she'd be able to run after the surgery, so she signed up for a race every weekend, from April 1 through June 5. As a physical therapist, Falk knew going into an operation in good health made for a speedier recovery.
But the races also gave her a weekly goal, something to train for and strain towards and complete, before moving onto the next one. The races helped her inch towards June 8 without dreading the passage of time.
"There was always something to train for," she said. "It took my mind off things."
On June 8, surgeons at Yale-New Haven Hospital excised the tumor. The next day, her sister pinned a race bib from one of Falk's earlier half-marathons to her hospital gown and, with the help of a walker, Falk took a lap around the ICU unit.
"I remember asking my sister, 'How many laps around the unit do you think equals a quarter mile?'" she recalled. "And everyone thought I was kidding, but I was totally serious."
In the weeks after the surgery, Falk, by then discharged and recovering at home, began taking walks around her Bristol neighborhood. Twenty days later, she walked to Bristol Eastern High School's track, her old training grounds.
"I walked a mile, and then I said I was going to run. And I broke out into a jog and I ran a mile."
"I felt like I had just qualified for [the Boston marathon]," she said.
In August, Falk ran her first post-surgery race, a five-miler in Torrington. The operation left her deaf in her right ear and prone to bouts of dizziness, but she finished.
A few months later, on Oct. 8, 2016 she took to the starting line of the Hartford half-marathon. The date was significant —before going to Yale-New Haven, she'd consulted with a group of doctors who told her she wouldn't be able to run for four months after the surgery. That day marked four months to the day, and there she was. At the starting line of a half-marathon, with 12 weeks of training under her belt.
"Before the surgery, I ran every race as if it was my last," she said. "Now, every race I run, I cherish so much more."
At this year's Hartford Marathon, Falk will be running the full 26.2 miles — "new territory," she said. She's never run a marathon before, but she's been training all year with her friends. They line up to Falk's left whenever they train, she laughed, because she can no longer hear out of her right ear.
Today, Falk volunteers with the same hotline she called before her surgery. But hers is no "horror story," like the ones she heard. She tells people life can, and will, resume. That if they put their mind to it, they can run a mile 20 days after brain surgery, and a half-marathon four months later.
On Saturday, 16 months after losing the treacherous growth behind her right ear, Falk will take to the starting line to check off her longtime goal of running a marathon. She was planning on running the full length of the Hartford course last year, but the tumor derailed those plans.
At the line, as she does before every race, she will tell herself, "I'm here; I'm alive."
"I think of all the things I went through to be at that start line," she said. "I have a whole future ahead of me."