When University of Toledo distance runner Janelle Noe was in the hospital after suffering serious burns up and down her body, she never gave up the idea of running.
As her coach Linh Nguyen and teammates visited her, seeing her run again was the furthest thing from their mind.
“At that point I wasn’t even thinking about running, even though she was,” Nguyen said. “I was just thinking, ‘Can we get her back to a normal life? Can we get her back to class and up and walking?’ Competing was so far from my mind.”
More than two years removed from when she was severely burned at an off-campus party in January, 2016, Noe is at the peak of her running career and recently capped a dream season by finishing 11th in the country in the 1,500-meter run at the NCAA outdoor track and field championships in Eugene, Ore.
In the semifinal race June 7, running in what Nguyen called the “Heat of Death” with five of the top six runners nationally, Noe shaved six seconds of her personal-record time to finish in 4 minutes, 10.83 seconds. The five top runners in each heat automatically advanced, so Noe’s fourth-place finish punched her ticket to the final.
“I told my assistant, I thought she had two or three more seconds in her [from her MAC-record time of 4:17.01],” Nguyen said. “I thought she could go 4 minutes, 14 seconds. If she could go 4:14, I thought she could make the finals. Then she goes 4:10, so I guess it’s good to be wrong sometimes as a coach.
“She just elevates herself to what the people around her do.”
While she was unable to recapture that magic in the final, finishing in 4:20.37, she earned second-team All-America honors and claimed the best finish by a Rocket in the national meet since 2007.
“I still can’t really put it into perspective,” Noe said. “It’s crazy to think how far I’ve come in the last couple of years. It wasn’t easy getting there. Even last year, I never thought I would have been at this point. It’s kind of crazy to even try to put in perspective, because I really can’t. Years down the road, I will probably be able to look at it and think back to all that I accomplished.”
The road to recovery has had its share of setbacks and second-guessing.
“I was frustrated because I knew what I wanted to do and what I probably could have been able to do, but I just couldn’t,” said Noe, a Northview graduate. “I would always think if that didn’t happen to me, I wonder where I would be. There are still limitations with training in heat and sun and some stuff with lifting. I just have to try to work around it and try to do the best with what I can do.”
Since the incident, running has played a key part in Noe’s growth. While competition seemed far-fetched in the early stages of her recovery, it has led to self-discovery and resiliency along the way.
“[Running] really has been, and continues to be, a healing thing,” Noe said. “It helps keep me in shape and helps with keeping myself moving. It’s a time of day where I can just focus on trying to better myself at something that I know I have the potential to be good at. It just gave me something to work toward and set goals for. Even though it had seemed like I wouldn’t be able to reach those goals, I guess it worked as a way to give me something to have drive and determination for.
“You’ll have those runs where you just go out there and you feel really good and you finish and you are like, ‘Man, I wish that run could have lasted longer.’ Those are the kind of the runs that you can sit there and just think about all you have gone through.”
Noe’s inspirational story has started to spread around the country, largely because of a story in Runner’s World.
Nguyen recalls a moment in Eugene when he saw just how powerful her story can be.
“After the prelim race, a guy came up to us and said he read the [Runner’s World] article and it was inspirational,” Nguyen said. “He said he read it to his kids and they were big track fans and they wanted to meet her. It was like an 8-year-old girl and a 10-year-old boy, and they came up to her and were star-struck.”
When Nguyen thinks back to seeing Noe at the hospital, this whirlwind of a year never seemed possible.
“Now being a MAC champ and a MAC record holder and an All-American, those kinds of things were so far from my mind that I didn’t even conceptualize it,” Nguyen said. “But I have a front-row seat to one of the best shows in the U.S. this year. She is just an amazing kid and is just very happy and very engaging. She is just an awesome person.”
With her story starting to gain traction, Noe said she hopes people can draw strength from what she has been able to overcome.
“I hope to use all the attention that I’m getting to send out a message that with determination, you can get through things,” Noe said. “It’s hard to get past things that are bad that happen to you, but I want to be a role model to show that you can get through tough times.”
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