Run, Sully, Run.
For hockey coach Brent Sullivan, the concept should have been as simple as in the classic Dick and Jane children’s book series, with their dog, Spot. (Run, Spot, run!)
For those who suffer multiple head injuries, like Sullivan, with 14 documented hockey concussions, plus a serious car crash, the act of running, often viewed as child’s play or a dog’s pleasure, becomes a greater challenge.
At Ottawa’s Race Weekend (May 26-27), Sullivan will be running the half-marathon on behalf of concussion suffers who cannot run but might someday after witnessing his personal, life-changing venture.
Nearly 12 months ago, the Carp native took his first strides. Baby ones. He’d gone online and found a “couch to 10K” running program. The kind of program designed for a man who had ballooned to 280 pounds while dealing with the aftermath of brain trauma. Never mind how easily Sullivan had run in his youth.
“It was extremely humbling,” says Sullivan, once a rugged OHL defenceman with the Sarnia Sting. “Run for one minute, walk for three. That’s how I started. Three to four times a week.”
Run, Sully, Run.
Three words became his mantra.
By the fall of 2017, Sullivan was finding his way. Sleeping better. Finding slivers of light where once there was darkness. Before he began this journey to run on behalf of the Concussion Legacy Foundation, Sullivan was often irritable. Depressed. Difficult to be around, by his own admission and that of family and friends.
An assistant coach for the University of Ottawa men’s hockey team, Sullivan signed on for cross-fit sessions last September, pursuing that taxing regimen two to three times a week while also running – more fluidly now – three times a week. His panic attacks abated. Moments of anxiety continued, but only in certain situations.
As race day approaches, his transformation is nearly complete. The 28-year-old is altered, mentally and physically. Sullivan has lost about 55 pounds, down to 225 on his broad, 6-3 frame. He could use a clothing allowance now that his waist size has shrunk to 34ish from 44. He looks years younger.
“People guessed my age at 37, 38, which would break my heart,” Sullivan says. “Now they actually guess my age right, which is kind of nice.”
He found sleep, where once he wrestled, getting up pre-dawn and overdosing on caffeine to stir from a zombie state. Now, he’s in bed between 9-10 p.m. and up smartly at 6-7 a.m.
“Maybe it’s from the overall exhaustion,” Sullivan says of his new-found success counting sheep.
Run, Sully, Run.
That’s what his T-shirt reads.
So many concussion stories end badly. A growing number of ex-hockey and football players die too young. Their families share stories of shattered life with an individual suffering from CTE (chronic traumatic encephalopathy). Sullivan wanted to write a positive chapter about brain trauma. With the support of the foundation, he printed up shirts, sold more than a hundred of them to raise money for the cause of awareness.
The body aches. His calves and hips hurt, but these are normal runners’ pains, far from the symptoms he knew in post-concussion hell. As he started to train, the hurdle was mental. Now it’s physical.
He spoke at a conference at Carleton University, sharing his concussion experiences and heard from a man in the audience who has had headaches for seven years. Sullivan was taken aback yet again by how different everyone’s concussion experience can be.
He runs for those who can’t, but also those who can and are perhaps afraid.
“From Day 1, I said I wanted to help at least one life, and I’ve accomplished that by basically saving my own,” Sullivan says.
He is tapering now. His last long run was a couple of weekends ago, 18 kilometres. In his mind, he wonders how the final bit will play out on race day, just before he finds himself a cold beer past the half-marathon finish line.
“Am I going to be emotional? I’m not a guy who cries, but how the heck am I going to feel through the race? Am I going to cry? I don’t know. I just know so many people have supported me through this journey, and wonder — is that feeling going to completely take over in the last kilometre?”
Everyone seems to ask him, what happens when the race day dust settles and that singular focus of the past 12 months is over? What is beyond that cold beer at 11:05 a.m. or so on May 27 and the long-awaited pregnant pause?
Sullivan vows he will continue to run. He will likely do the Army Run in September, perhaps other events. Try to keep that svelte new body in shape.
“It’s been the most important change of my life,” he says.
“I’m not healed. My memory is shot on some things. I know I’m still unable to finish a (university) degree if I were to start. I’m still affected by the head injuries. But the drowning effect of the mental health consuming me, I’ve been able to tackle.”
Run, Sully, Run.
This article was reprinted with the permission of the writer Wayne Scanlan of the Ottawa Citizen.
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