Melissa is the living embodiment of what it means to be a Spartan and an expression of Spartan Soul.
As a competitor, she’s competed in more than a dozen Spartan Races over the past year, placing in the top ten of her age group nearly every time.
In her community, Melissa spearheads an award-winning domestic violence outreach program that educates teens on what healthy behavior in a relationship looks like.
And in her work, she finds meaning, mentoring high school students from humble beginnings on everything from classwork, to getting into the right college, to handling life’s ups and downs.
She’s certainly had her own fair share.
Five Years Ago, Melissa Was a Different Person
When she graduated from college in 2004, Melissa moved in with her then-boyfriend and got a job as a teacher at a local high school. Life was looking bright for her at twenty-two.
Things took a turn for the worse, when her boyfriend began abusing her. It started as spying, which led to name-calling, which eventually gave way to physical abuse and death threats.
Melissa’s boyfriend would frequently throw beer bottles and wet napkins at her face and regularly pin her against walls, leaving bruises on her body.
“I was never good enough,” Melissa recalls. “Nothing I did was ever good enough.”
Sometimes, Melissa would come home from work to find her boyfriend polishing his collection of guns as he pointed them at her, menacingly.
“He would say things like ‘You can leave, but they are never gonna find you. And if they find you, they’ll find you in a TV box in the swamp.’ So it’s like … ‘Okay, I guess I am not going anywhere.’”
Melissa and her ex got married amid all this turmoil. But after eight months of marriage, Melissa couldn’t take it anymore and left.
Leaving her husband, however, did little to end Melissa’s suffering. A few months later, Melissa found herself in the same situation, now with a different man.
For two more years, Melissa endured more insults, more stalking, and more death threats before she called it quits for the second time.
“Drinking became my thing. Eating became my thing.”
Melissa’s health took a major hit. By the time she left her second boyfriend, she’d gone from being fit and active to weighing more than 200 pounds and drinking a pint of vodka, daily, to numb her depression.
As if things couldn’t get any worse—by some unfortunate twist of fate—Melissa’s two exes befriended one another shortly after Melissa left her second relationship. Together, they proceeded to make her life as miserable as possible.
It was now not one, but two men stalking her at work, calling her parents’ house in the middle of the night, and regularly threatening to kill her.
“I stopped eating. I stopped drinking water,” recalls Melissa, looking back on some of the darkest days of her life.
“I would be driving on the highway, and I would see medians, and I would see walls, and I would say to myself, ‘I could just crash into this now, and it would be over.’”
In the span of one month, Melissa lost 20 pounds, simply from self-starvation. “I had just refused. I didn’t want to eat anything. I had really made it a goal to just die.”
Melissa recalls that the worst part was the looks on the faces of her loved ones. Her aging parents helplessly tried to force feed her bits of lettuce, which she refused.
Concerned students of hers at school would ask her what was wrong, noting that she used to be “so happy” and now just sat at her desk all day staring at a computer screen.
Melissa Finally Opens Up
Things took a turn for the better when, a few months after her second breakup, Melissa met a new man online.
This time, she opened up about everything. He responded with warmth and grace, and it didn’t take long for them to develop a relationship. As it progressed, Melissa began eating and going to spin classes again, and her self-esteem slowly began to recover.
“He was great,” she says. “He made my life so much better—worth living for.”
For a time, it looked like Melissa was finally headed for peace. But a few later, she fell back into a depression and stopped eating and drinking. Melissa’s trauma had become unbearable.
It was the spring of 2011, and Melissa was wasting away in her parent’s house, dying a slow death. Without a doubt, she had hit rock bottom.
One night, Melissa’s father gave her a much-needed kick in the pants.
“You have to get out of here!” he told her. “If you don’t, you’re either gonna kill yourself or they are gonna kill you. You have to go. Tonight!”
At 3 a.m., he handed her some cash and a GPS and told her to leave, for her own safety.
Melissa did the only thing she could. She loaded up her pets and belongings and drove north. She hasn’t looked back since.
“To this day,” Melissa told me, “there are three reasons why I never went through with ending my life. It’s because of my dad, and it’s because of my husband, and it’s because my sister was pregnant with my first nephew, and I did not want to leave that legacy for him.”
Fear, PTSD & Flashbacks
Adjusting to a life free of torment was not easy for Melissa, at least not at first. She struggled with PTSD and frequent flashbacks. Sometimes, she thought she saw one of her old boyfriend’s cars patrolling her neighborhood, only to realize her mind was playing tricks.
Eventually, she went to see a psychiatrist, who prescribed her medications. They turned out to be a short-term fix, at best.
“You still always have all those fears. You still always remember being called a piece of garbage and ‘No one’s ever going to want you,’ and ‘You’re useless,’ and ‘You’re good for nothing.’ These were things I’d heard constantly from two different people for 10 years. And you start to believe it after a while.”
But with time, the frequency of the flashbacks diminished, and Melissa was able to begin a new life.
In 2012, she married the man she’d met online.
Life, for Melissa, was finally stable. She was running and eating well, and finally in a great relationship, this time for real.
But no matter how good her new life was, there was a void that hadn’t been filled. She still hadn’t found a way to deal with her past trauma.
It wasn’t until 2015 that Melissa finally found the antidote, when a friend introduced her to Spartan.
Melissa Discovers How Strong She Really Is
Despite being an avid runner for most of her life, Melissa initially objected: “I don’t trail race.”
But her friend persisted, and Melissa eventually gave in and signed up for the Barre Sprint.
As Melissa likes to say, “I fell in love.”
For three days after her first Spartan Race, Melissa was so excited that she could not sleep.
“Finally, for once, I felt like I could do something that was unique and that was different, and I was actually good at it.”
Melissa has raced 14 times since then, including Killington as her second race. For her past ten races, she has finished in the top ten of her age group.
“Before my dad died, he said to me, ‘You’re a strong person, just remember that: You’re strong.’ I never believed it mentally or physically, until I did Spartan.”
Looking Back at 12 Painful Years
In our interview, I asked Melissa how she makes sense of her difficult experiences in life, and what she would say to the Melissa of five years ago, when she had hit rock bottom.
“You’ve got to have hope—that there is a reason why things happen in life,” she said. “That there is an order in life. That things happen and sometimes you have to go through these, these terrible, terrible, deep, dark places in order to break out of that and come into the light. And have strength.”
After a pause, she continued: “The biggest obstacles in life are overcome by mental strength—not physical.”
These days, when she feels down, Melissa thinks about where she was then, and where she is now.
In her office, a plethora of Spartan Race medals hang proudly on her wall—one for every race she’s ever finished—as a daily reminder to herself of just how far she has come.
“You have to go through things in life to get where you are today. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I hadn’t met them. So, in a way it’s like, ‘Let me shake your hand and let me thank you for putting me through 10 years of hell, because look where I am today.’”
I asked Melissa what keeps her going. She replied with a favorite quote of hers, from The Shawshank Redemption.
“‘Get busy living or get busy dying.’ You can be one of the two. And for me, it’s get busy moving.”
Her voice growing more impassioned, she explained: “You have to move. You can’t just sit around all day and lie in bed and, you know, just lie in self-pity.
“Suck it up. You can go through it. There are people who have it worse than you.”
During races, especially when she feels like complaining, Melissa thinks about her father, who died from lung cancer in 2015.
“He couldn’t breathe the last couple months of his life. And here I am on a course where, you know, 2, 3, 4 hours, and I am having trouble breathing up on this mountain? Big deal. There are people who can’t breathe every day of their life.”
Melissa will be racing in the OCR World Championships in Canada this October. Her goal is to make it to the 2017 Spartan World Championship at Lake Tahoe.
“I’ll be 35 in April, and, you know, I still think I got it. So let’s see.”
“If I can save one teenager from having to waste their life and not do what they were meant to do—what they want to do—then that works for me.”