Interview - Cheryl Hile

Cheryl Hile is one of the 2.5 million people in the world with multiple sclerosis, a neurodegenerative disease that affects the central nervous system. Despite the symptoms of the disease, she has not given up on her passion for running.

She runs to feel alive, to inspire others, to support research on multiple sclerosis, to raise awareness about this disease. Thuasne® is proud to count her today as the ambassador of one of our solutions, the AFO that helped her overcome her disability and continue to run.

We had the privilege of meeting Cheryl Hile and asking her some questions about her journey, her motivation, her difficulties and her projects. Discover the answers of this courageous and inspiring woman.

Could you introduce yourself ?
My name is Cheryl Hile and I have been a recreational runner since 2000. My first race was a marathon and I loved everything about it - from the long distance training to the event itself. It is a sport that I enjoy as a mental stress reliever, for maintaining cardiovascular fitness, and for the euphoria I feel long after finishing an event.

However, in October 2006, I was diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). I was scared for my future and began having panic attacks. My doctor prescribed anti-depressant medication, but my husband encouraged me to also keep on running. I found that exercising actually made me feel better than the medication, so I created running goals to try to fight MS and to keep my spirits elevated.

Soon after diagnosis, I started tripping and falling while running due to a common symptom of MS called “foot drop.” My neurologist discouraged me from running and told me to “lower my expectations.” That did not sit well with me and from that day forward my mantra became “I do what I can and I never give up.” I went out on my own to find a solution and it took well over a year to find a way to continue running safely.

In March 2008, I started exercising with a medical device called an “ankle-foot orthosis” (AFO). It is a carbon composite brace that inserts into my shoe so I no longer fall while running. It is light, yet sturdy for long distance running. I was absolutely elated after I ran my first marathon with it and I have since completed 59 marathons and 51 half marathons with an AFO.

The MS community has always been a huge supporter of my journey as a runner living with MS. I want to give back by encouraging others, especially the newly diagnosed, to never give up and to never lower their expectations.

I wanted my reach to have a global impact, so I created a goal to become the first person with MS to run 7 marathons on 7 continents in 12 months. I accomplished the goal in September 2017. (I added an 8th marathon within that year to include New Zealand in case Zealandia ever becomes an official 8th continent!)

Throughout the adventure, I made many friends around the world living with MS who are runners or want to become runners. I wanted to bring them all together, so in 2018 I created a support group called “Run A Myelin My Shoes” (RAMMS). We are MS Warriors who are joined by our family, friends and advocates like Thuasne.

RAMMS holds annual running and walking events all over the US and we are just starting to coordinate events in Europe, too. In addition to our in-person events, teammates join us in solidarity from their hometowns around the world doing any sport or exercise they love. We have steadily grown to over 300 members and through the years we’ve had cumulative representation from 32 countries.

Thuasne has been a huge supporter of RAMMS since day one. Not only do they assist me with my AFO needs, but they help the many team members who also suffer from foot drop. There are numerous companies that provide bracing solutions, but we find that the AFOs from Thuasne are by far the best devices on the market.

In my case, MS disease progression has weakened the entire right side of my body. My AFO is dynamic to not only help with the resulting foot drop, but it provides energy return to help propel my leg so that I do not lose momentum. My AFO is also sturdy and trustworthy. I was able to run 10 marathons and 4 half marathons (plus all the training) on just one AFO over a 2.5 year span. My previous AFO brands only lasted 3 to 4 marathons before they broke down.

Thuasne also helps support RAMMS by co-sponsoring team meals and team shirts. The social aspect of a gathering is meaningful to the team because it offers opportunities to learn more about the complexities of the disease and how MS affects us individually. It affords us the chance to support each other as athletes living with MS. The face-to-face interactions foster a sense of unity, understanding and belonging. Team shirts help elevate team spirit because we cheer for each other along the course as we run and walk the events. Furthermore, team shirts highlight the international component of the team when we see photos of members wearing the shirts with backgrounds of their hometowns all over the world.

Additionally, Thuasne encourages their employees to join RAMMS as in-person or virtual participants. It is uplifting to see a company supporting our endeavors as a team and helping us to make an impact within the MS community.

Which sport do you practice ? And what does it represent to you ?
The sport of running has shaped me in many ways. The long distance training required to run a marathon has given me the mental fortitude to keep on pushing forward during tough times living with a progressive disease. Running gives me confidence that if I work hard, I can reach the finish line. I may be much slower, but I know if I put one foot in front of the other it is possible to achieve my goals. Running sustains me and it plays a huge role in how I handle my life with MS.

Which value would you pick to represent your journey as an athlete ?

How did Thuasne contribute to your journey as an athelete ? Or your life in general ?
My AFO is essential; I cannot run without it and running allows me to sustain a higher quality of life. It is a meditative exercise that calms my mind and staves off depression; it gives me a positive self-image as a person living with MS; and it is a cardio-blasting workout to keep my body strong for the daily battles against the disease. I firmly believe, and my new neurologist agrees, that running has probably helped to moderate the progression of my disease course.

Health and movement in general are an integral part of Thuasne's mission - what does it mean to you ?
MS is a disease with many symptoms because it affects the Central Nervous System, the control center of our bodies. Besides foot drop and muscle weakness, I also live with fatigue, pain, numbness, spasticity, and cognitive impairments. These conditions put me at a huge disadvantage. Movement (i.e. running and exercise) is a critical tool in keeping me as mentally and physically healthy as possible to survive the difficulties I face on a daily basis. Furthermore, exercise helps create new neural pathways and my hope is that all the running miles I log will afford me some resilience so that I can live as good a life as possible.

What skills did you acquire from your journey that are useful to you today in your everyday life ?
Perseverance (never giving up) is a skill I learned from running and it is put to the test every single day when I experience symptoms. The ability to push onward despite troubles I may be experiencing helps me to always keep moving forward.

Anything to add ? A final word ?
I know I am luckier than most people with MS because I am able to run marathons with my AFO. I have MS friends who work just as hard as me and they struggle to walk 5KM. I do not want to give trite advice by saying you can do anything that you set your mind to. It is not that simple when you have a disease that affects the Central Nervous System. Instead, I encourage people to exercise to the best of their abilities and to take pride in knowing that they are trying their hardest.