Ultra champion’s journey to overcome assault
By Henry Howard
Editor’s note: The following story refers to an attempted sexual assault. Please note that it may be triggering for some readers.
The assailant grabbed Michelle Magagna from behind, knocked her down and held a knife to her face. She got away mostly physically unscathed from the attempted sexual assault but the attack left her emotionally wounded.
She was attacked while on one of her morning runs, returning from a hill workout on familiar roads in a suburb. Yet, it was the love of the sport, the sheer joy it brings and the guidance of a coach that helped return her to running.
In fact, she not only has returned, she has performed at a high level. Magagna took first place at the Big Turtle 50-miler in April, finished 11th at the Western States 100-miler in June and recently won the Marquette Trail 50.
“I feel so incredibly lucky. Most stories like that don't end how mine did.”
Understandably, she continues to heal and come to grips with what happened.
“Lots of stress and no sleep,” she says of the months that followed. “After that I had to work through a lot of triggers. The feeling of a person behind me and the sound of footsteps running up behind me are among my biggest triggers. Getting back to running on trails, especially trail racing when you're in a single file line, was really hard.”
A determined runner
Victims of such attacks must recover at their own comfort level. For Magagna, she turned to running and continued to do so after the May 2020 attack.
“I can be stubborn sometimes,” she says. “I'm not sure that was the best thing to do. I just muscled my way through it. Part of me just wanted to hold onto some semblance of control and routine in my life.”
She started out slow but determined.
“Running is a generous use of the term for what I was doing,” she says. “I was half walking, half jogging just around my apartment complex parking lot. That's what the next couple months really looked like. It took me a few months before I even started doing little out-and-backs on the sidewalk.”
If she pushed too hard, Magagna feared she would have a panic attack.
“I finally realized it was because I was trying to run really fast on the same street where I had been running away from this man who was chasing me with a knife,” she says. “I think my body just remembered that. I had to change where I was doing my workouts, changing the time of day helped.”
A step at a time, a mile at a time, a day at a time. Magagna rebuilt her strength and confidence.
“I worked my way up eventually to do short loops,” she says. “I never really got back to running like I used to. If I had a 10-mile run, I'd just go run a 10-mile loop around town. I still haven't been able to do that yet. I'll do three three-mile loops and tack on a mile after.”
Magagna has undergone cognitive behavioral and EMDR therapies since the attack. EMDR (Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing) is a form of psychotherapy used in the treatment for PTSD. She took some medication to allow her to sleep. She had gone from seven to eight hours a night to half of that.
“I wasn't sleeping. I had terrible nightmares. That went on for a year,” she says. “It really broke my body down. Still, I'm starting to feel better, but I think it's going to take a while to completely reverse the effects of that. I just trashed my body last year.”
First ultra in Hell
Magagna began her running journey about nine years ago while at veterinary school at Michigan State University. With limited time, she saw running as “a really efficient way to be outside and moving.”
She dabbled in shorter distances, built up to the marathon and did a handful of ultras each year until finishing her residency in 2019. “I've been a full-fledged adult with an actual job since then, so I’ve had a little more freedom running-wise.”
Her first ultra was the 50-mile Dances with Dirt in Hell, Mich., in September 2015.
“I got a lot of self-confidence out of the training, showing up to the race and completing it,” she recalls. “I really had a good time during that race. It was a very nice race in the sense that I didn't actually have any hardcore suffering in that first ultra. I kind of wanted to be done by mile 40. But nothing actually went horribly, terribly wrong and I came away with this really good experience. I was shocked that I was able to train for it during school and just show up and do it.”
Magagna won her debut ultra and repeated the victory at Dances with Dirt the following year.
Just before COVID started shutting down races and other events, Magagna placed second at the Bandera 100K. That earned her a coveted Golden Ticket into Western States and motivated her to reach out to David Roche for coaching.
The majority of their time as coach-and-athlete followed the assault.
“He’s helped me a lot,” she says. “I've been feeling good again for about two months now and I'm excited that the next race that I train for, I'm probably going to actually get to train for it, as he might have me normally. We were just sort of inching me through the least amount that I could handle last year.”
Thanks to Roche’s guidance, Magagna has rebounded.
“I don't know how he did what he did because I was a wreck. I could not give a lot to my training. I was a mental basket case. I had really bad PTSD, just a lot of running-related triggers. It wasn't pretty. He’s a magician with me.”
Magagna technically returned to racing in December 2020, running the half marathon at the Applegate Trails 100, before doing the Groundhog Day marathon the following February. In April, she won the Big Turtle 50-miler in Kentucky.
“I almost did not make it to the starting line,” she says of Big Turtle. “I was so nervous about being in a situation where people were going to be running directly behind me, which sounds so stupid, but I was so nervous about it.”
Those triggers accompanied her to Western States. Concerned about how she would react to people running behind her, Magagna asked Roche if she should start toward the back. He advised her to start on the side and things progressed well. “It was better than I thought it was going to be, for a first 100-miler,” she says. “I had a good time. It was a lot of fun. It was amazing to me. I live in a very flat area of Michigan, so those canyons are — wow — like nothing we have here. But I did it, made it 100 miles and came out intact and hungry to do it again. I liked the distance, I'd to give it another try.”
After finishing 11th at Western States, she took a couple of weeks off before gearing up for the Marquette 50-miler in August. Still the anxiety remained. The race in Marquette started off in the dark. “I had people running behind me in the dark and I did really well,” says Magagna, who won the race.
“That's probably the thing I'm most proud of with that race. I've been working really hard, I've been going out and walking really slowly on the sidewalk and having people walk behind me or run slowly behind me and just trying to desensitize to it. I'm seeing a lot of progress. It took a while to get back to normal.”
Winning is nice but for Magagna, it’s about the joy of running and the community.
“Every race I just try to run the best I can and if I win it, great, if I get last, if I tried as hard as I can and gave it the best effort, that's also OK,” she says. “I was having fun. Regardless of how close or how far someone is behind me, I'm just still going to be trying my hardest.”
What women can do
There have been no charges filed in the case. While that understandably is a stressor for Magagna, she is focused on living her best life.
“I’m trying to structure my life and my running in a way where I can go out and run and feel safe and be happy, and not be constantly thinking about it.”
Sadly what Magagna has endured is not unique to her. Other women runners have suffered something similar or even worse. Magagna offers some suggestions on what women can do to protect themselves.
“After I got attacked, David actually sent me this little wrist mace thing that Velcros onto your wrist. It’s a little can of mace, and I've worn it on every single run except for the three races and the Western States training camp runs. It makes me feel a lot safer.”
She has also taken self-defense classes and plans to start training in jujitsu.
“It was harder than I thought to go back and willingly put myself in the scenario that I was in, even in a safe and controlled environment,” she says. “But I also have a really logical brain. It helped me to see that I was pinned in this way and the knife was here. So this is a move that I could've used to get out of it. I think I need a lot more practice to actually be able to use a move confidently, but knowing that there are certain moves that I could've used, and just having a basic understanding of how to do them, really gave me a lot of my confidence back. I think self-defense training is great if you're able to afford and have the time to do it. It's invaluable.”
Roche has been by her side all the way.
“David got me in contact with the mental health resources I needed,” she says. “He was incredibly supportive. He was super flexible with the training. I couldn't have done it without him. And Team SWAP is awesome. It's been a fun year and a half. I'm looking forward to hopefully many more. It's so cool seeing what everyone does every week.”
Name: Michelle Magagna
Hometown: Portage, Mich.
Number of years running: 9
How many miles a week do you typically run: “I think around 60ish? I just do whatever is on my schedule for the day and don’t worry too much about the weekly totals.”
*Point of pride: “I helped author the first report of gallbladders in hummingbirds in the scientific literature! Probably the number of people who actually care about the specifics of the hummingbird hepatobiliary system is incredibly low … but if anyone was wondering whether hummingbirds have a gallbladder or not, the answer is YES!”
Favorite race distance: 50 miles or 100K.
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Oreos!
Favorite piece of gear: Handwarmers and a good pair of mittens in the winter are the best!
Who inspires you: My brother. Also the entire SWAP team, every single week
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: “I don’t listen to anything while running.”
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: “If you are badass enough to feel your pain, you are badass enough to heal from it.”
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Facebook: Michelle Magagna
Henry: I have to ask this. I don't know how many of these interviews I've done, probably well over a hundred. No one has ever answered either hummingbird or gallbladders and certainly no one has answered with both. So tell me about hummingbird gallbladders and what got you interested in that.
Michelle: Well, I don't actually specifically study hummingbird gallbladders. I was doing a retrospective study of causes of mortality in wild hummingbirds in California. I'm looking at cases that came into San Diego Zoo and some of the local wildlife rehab centers and I'm trying to figure out how many died of what cause, like what infectious diseases there are in the areaI found out actually the biggest cause was trauma, window collisions. That was the main point of the project, but while reading, all of the resources say hummingbirds don't have a gallbladder, That's kind of a fun fact when you're looking at anatomy. When I was looking at slides under the microscope I’m seeing in all of them a structure that looks a lot like a gallbladder.
So I showed it around and everyone's like, "Huh, that does look like a gallbladder." So we tried to trace back the source of where the idea that hummingbirds didn't have a gallbladder was coming from, and it was from some super old, 1940s or something reference of some dude who has necropsying hummingbirds, dissecting them and just didn't see a gallbladder, probably because he didn't have a microscope and they're so small. So he's like, "Oh yeah, hummingbirds don't have a gallbladder," and everyone went with it. So we just reported it as our fun finding in the rest of that paper on the hummingbird mortality.
It's just a fun fact. But yeah, hummingbird have gallbladders. No one cares, but it's cool.