When Victoria Jones answered a thought-provoking hypothetical — If you could marry a celebrity, who would it be? — in a high school AP essay, she hadn’t a clue that her choice would ultimately change her life as well as that of the man she so earnestly described.
She did know, however, that her cross country teammates at Madison High School, located in quaint Marshall, N.C., where strangers (if one could even call them that) wave to one another, would mock her endlessly for her celebrity crush on a college runner.
A state away, elite runner Josh McDougal was immersed in a career at Liberty College that promised sponsorships, recognition and fans within and without the running community. But the body that earned him a national championship was slowly deteriorating, a threat to the success it brought upon itself.
A pillar of strength
McDougal will compete in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution Peachtree Road Race on Friday, his first 10-kilometer race in seven years.
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“When we started looking at races, it jumped off the page,” McDougal said. “It’s the Fourth of July. It’s Atlanta. It’s just so many things to love. This, from day one, was like, ‘I want to do this.’”
McDougal favors “we” or “us” to “I” when referring to an otherwise individual sport. That’s because McDougal would not be running at all if not for a handful of supportive people in his life.
After leaving Liberty in 2008, the support system — his team and coaches — vanished nearly overnight. But the numerous injuries he sustained while running in college weren’t going anywhere.
“I was injured and I graduated and I had a sponsorship (Nike) and now I’m expected to perform. But I don’t have any of that group of people around me anymore,” McDougal said.
That changed about three years later, when he received a Facebook message from a Victoria Jones. She had read a story on McDougal in 2011 about how injury had halted his professional career and felt as if he was talking directly to her. Jones, then a student at East Tennessee University, felt compelled to write.
“I feel like I’m supposed to write him,” Jones told her father. She looked to her friends for further direction.
“What am I supposed to say? ‘You’re a great runner’? He knows that. ‘I admire you?’ He probably hears that all the time. I don’t know what I’m supposed to say.”
After scrapping several drafts, Jones sent 325 words detailing her encounters with McDougal at track meets, her fondness for the once-stellar athlete and how he left her “starstruck.”
“Whether you are able to run or not your genuine kindness is one gift that can never be taken away,” Jones concluded her message, “and that is what people truly know and respect you for.”
Exactly one month after Jones sent the message, McDougal met her for the first time — and proposed. The two will celebrate their son Declan’s first birthday while in Atlanta for the Peachtree.
But first, there was the matter of getting him back to the starting line. Victoria insipred him to compete again, but McDougal needed the right running expertise to complete his network of support.
Busting through the rust
“Dating back to my initial injury in 2008, I was initially through about a dozen specialists in a year during my time with Nike,” McDougal said. “I even went to Munich and saw the head trainer over there for the German National Soccer Team.”
Still seeking a cure, McDougal finally teamed up six month ago with fellow Liberty alumni Don Reagan of Mountain River Physical Therapy in Chatham, Va. Reagan, along with University of Houston cross country head coach Steve Magness, developed new rehabilitation and training methods to better serve McDougal’s body for the long haul.
Reagan, who could only vaguely diagnose McDougal’s plethora of injuries as a “lower quarter motor control dysfunction,” helped him manage training. The 120-140 miles a week that McDougal put his body through in college were curtailed.
“When you consider that kind of volume, that kind of intensity, you put your car through those kinds of miles a week,” Reagan said. “You don’t put that on your body.”
Reagan now subjects McDougal to movement assessments and treatments such as dry needling. The former monitors movement patterns pre- and post-treatment to determine the success of therapy and the latter includes Reagan inserting a monofilament needle into muscles to reallocate muscle tone.
“When he needles my quads, sometimes he’ll touch my femur with the needle,” McDougal said. “It’s going all the way in there.”
The procedure is not nearly as painful as it sounds and has helped transform the mobility in McDougal’s right leg from “like I had a peg leg,” to a 17-18 rating on the functional movement screen’s 21-point scale, according to Reagan.
“He’s progressed remarkably well,” Magness said. “To have that much time off because of injury and to come back after six months of training to the level where he’s at is phenomenal.”
Focused more on therapy-oriented goals than besting his 28:27.65 time from 2007, McDougal is eager to hit the starting line come Friday. Any pre-race predictions?
“It’s impossible to say where I’ll end up,” McDougal said.
Just running another race is a victory on its own.