Three years after being struck by an 18-wheeler, Nargus Harounzadeh is ready to race again.
Written by: Duncan Larkin
Nargus Harounzadeh of Hershey, Pennsylvania likes to say she’s a product of the sweetest place on earth, and up until 2007 that saccharine metaphor couldn’t have been any more true.
A child of hard-working Persian immigrants, Harounzadeh attended Cedar Crest High School in Lebanon, Pennsylvania, where she was an All-American swimmer and state cross-country qualifier. She also excelled in academics and ultimately gained admittance to the University of Pennsylvania where she graduated magna cum laude in 2006 with a B.A. in Philosophy, Politics, Economics, and English. Up to that point, her life was a steep trajectory upwards. The sky was the limit; life was good. Ivy League degree in hand, Harounzadeh sought a high-paying job in New York City as an economic development consultant.
And then everything changed.
While volunteering as a Running Buddy with the New York Road Runners at Grete’s Great Gallop Half Marathon in October, 2007, the unthinkable happened. Just after the race had ended, Harounzadeh was struck from behind by an 18-wheeler that had veered onto the sidewalk where she was running. While she lay there unconscious, the truck took off. A construction crew working nearby saw the accident and rushed to her side. They called 911 and administered first aid. “I basically owe them my life,” she says.
When Harounzadeh arrived at the hospital, she had two crushed vertebrae and major nerve damage. Doctors put her in a brace that she’d have to wear for six months. Physical therapists told her she’d never walk the same again. Running? Doubtful. Competing in local 5Ks and 10Ks? Racing a half marathon? Out of the question.
The news only got worse. Mounting medical costs had eaten away all her savings. Since the accident was a hit and run, Harounzadeh had no one to sue. In a matter of weeks, she had become crippled and practically broke. She struggled with depression and despair. She asked herself, “Why me?” Her life looked as if it had been forever ruined. “I was devastated to say the least, because my whole life was based around athletics and competing,” she recalls.
“It was then that I reached what I call my turning point,” Harounzadeh says. Instead of focusing on what she calls “toxic negativity,” she put her mind to work in a positive direction. Harounzadeh ignored the pessimistic outlooks and guarded caution her four physical therapists and two chiropractors had doled out. Instead, she committed herself to someday donning running shoes again.
It all started in the pool.
“Knowing that the only thing I could do safely was swimming, I emailed every swim coach in New York City, telling them my situation,” Harounzadeh recalled. “The only person who emailed me back was Patrick Cantrell at Asphalt Green. Patrick’s kindness allowed me to start my recovery. I really owe the whole recovery process to him.”
After months of swim therapy with Cantrell, Harounzadeh’ range of motion improved and she became more limber. In addition to swimming, Nargus turned to Eastern medicine in the form of meditation and yoga to assist her recovery. She also focused on eating healthier, learning as much as possible about “superfoods” like cacao and spirulina. “I wanted to completely eliminate all negative thoughts,” she says.
Less than two years after her turning point, Harounzadeh did what she was previously told she’d never be able to do again–she began running, starting out with 2-mile stretches twice a week. Six months later, she had worked up to three times a week with one long run over 12 miles. A natural competitor, she hopes to eventually increase the pace of her runs and return to clocking 18-minute 5Ks again.
On Sunday, Harounzadeh will be standing on the starting line of her first half marathon at the ING Rock ‘n’ Roll Philadelphia event, wearing bib number 1417. Three years ago, she couldn’t even stand up–nevermind run.
“I am so excited to be back in Philly, my beloved college town, and even more excited to be racing again,” she says, smiling.
Nargus no longer considers her accident a supreme travesty. Instead, she looks back on it as a needed catalyst in her life. Before she was hit, she wanted to pursue a career in finance and wealth management—a field she now considers far from her true calling. She now aspires to open her own yoga practice and next year, she’ll be entering into a PhD program in New York City. Ultimately, Nargus hopes to share the lessons her accident taught her with others.
“It’s really all about your thoughts,” she says. “Your mind controls everything. If you can eliminate the negativity and focus on the positive, there’s practically no obstacle you can’t overcome. At the end of the day, the accident was terrible, but it made me a better person. There’s no doubt about that.”
Duncan Larkin is a freelance journalist who’s been covering the sport of running for over five years. He’s run 2:32 in the marathon and won the Himalayan 100-Mile Stage Race in 2007. His first book, Oxygen Debt, was recently released.