Melissa Ossanna’s doctors told her exercise could help. So she started with a marathon—and has never looked back.
Melissa Ossanna has a nickname among her community in Bar Harbor. To her friends on the island off the coast of Maine, the ultrarunner is affectionately known as “Smiley,” because when she logs miles around the town, she smiles from ear to ear.
Even at the finish line of a grueling 100-mile race, she can always be counted on to smile through the pain.
Ossanna has a lot to smile about. After years of living with debilitating symptoms of multiple sclerosis (MS)—a disease of the central nervous system that disrupts the flow of information from the brain to the body—she started running. She hasn’t experienced an MS-related exacerbation since.
Now, in her seventh year of racing distances ranging from marathon to 100 miles, Ossanna will celebrate her 50th birthday on April 30 with her biggest challenge yet–four, 100-mile races in one summer, also known as the Grand Slam of Ultrarunning. In the process, she aims to raise $3,500 for Vermont Adaptive Ski & Sports, a nonprofit dedicated to providing people with disabilities the opportunity to participate in adaptive sports programs.
“It’s so important to spread joy, and I want to be able to do that with more people,” Ossanna told Runner’s World.
Ossanna will carry that positivity into the Grand Slam, an award given to runners who complete four of the oldest 100-mile trail races in a span of 10 weeks. On June 1, Ossanna will begin her Grand Slam with the Old Dominion 100 Mile Run in Fort Valley, Virginia. Then, she will compete in the Vermont 100 Mile Endurance Run on July 19 in West Windsor, Vermont. On August 17, she will toe the line at the Leadville Trail 100 Mile Run in Colorado. The challenge will finish when Ossanna crosses the finish line at the Wasatch Front 100 Mile Endurance Run on September 7.
“I have to keep going bigger and bigger,” Ossanna said of the 400-mile race series. “The first race I ever signed up for was marathon. That’s just me.”
If Ossanna finishes the Grand Slam, she will be one of just 363 people to complete the feat since its inception in 1986. She will also be one of a select few women–55 total–to do it. But while the goal seems lofty for even experienced ultrarunners, it was a natural progression for Ossanna, who has never been one to back down from a challenge.
The upheaval of an MS diagnosis
At just 27, Ossanna was diagnosed with MS when she was a nursing student. For years, she suffered from symptoms that included dizziness, weakness in her limbs, and temporary blindness, among others.
In 2009, the symptoms began to severely affect her job at a pharmaceutical company. She suffered from overwhelming fatigue, and was forced to go on intermittent disability. She couldn’t stay awake during the entire work day, and needed to take naps at odd hours to get through them. Ossanna feared that she would lose her job or worse—her ability to be active with her husband and 13-year-old son.
Ossanna hiking with her husband and son.
Then, her neurologist discovered that she was also suffering from sleep apnea, which can occur as a result of MS. Once that was treated, Ossanna saw a huge improvement in symptoms: She was able to get more sleep, work full hours, and enjoy more energy throughout the day.
Under the advice of her doctors, Ossanna decided to use this newfound energy to exercise. Science backs up its importance for those with MS: According to a 2015 review published in Current Neurology and Neuroscience Reports, exercise can boost the quality of life in MS patients, by improving symptoms of depression, balance problems, fatigue, and other effects of the condition.
She was running errands in town the day before the 2011 Mount Desert Island Marathon when she noticed how enthusiastic and happy the runners appeared to be. Intrigued by the energy of the race, Ossanna decided to sign up for the 2012 marathon.
“They were all looking so fit and happy and energetic and my thought was, ‘Oh, I wish I could do that,’ and then I caught myself and I said, ‘Maybe that’s what you need to do. Maybe you just need to get fit and do something crazy,’” she said.
Buying some trainers—and going right to a marathon
At that point in her life, Ossanna didn’t own running shoes. She dabbled in running in her mid-20s, but never competed in any races. Since her MS diagnosis, her exercise included short hikes in Acadia National Park on the weekends.
To run a marathon would be an enormous feat, but Ossanna was committed to her goal of not only finishing her first marathon, but also raising money for the National Multiple Sclerosis Society in the process.
She followed a marathon beginner training plan from coach Hal Higdon, which helped her progress from running and walking down her 0.8-mile block to proudly running 12-milers in the span of a year. By the time she raced the 2012 Mount Desert Island Marathon, Ossanna was hooked. Next, she went even longer, going from 50Ks to 50-milers, and more recently, 100-milers.
“Since I’ve started running, I feel healthier and more energetic than I have since I was much younger, which is fantastic. It gives me hope,” she said. “I’ve accomplished all of these interesting adventures and races. Even if tomorrow I wake up not being able to move my legs anymore, it’s been fantastic, and I won’t ever trade any of this running time for anything.”
Ossanna has made the most of her time and energy by running many of her races for causes that she feels connected to, especially Vermont Adaptive. Now, she wants others to experience the same life-changing benefits of activity like she did.
“I really want people to get out and do athletic things, because it’s amazing what that can do for you, whether it’s physical strength, emotional strength, it’s a wonderful thing,” she said.