How Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathoner Sagirah Ahmed Norris Reconciled Multiple Sclerosis and Running

“Redemption is always nice,” said marathoner Sagirah Ahmed Norris. Today, this Degree’s Not Done Yet runner shares how she reconciled multiple sclerosis and running.

Written & edited by Pavlína Marek

Sagirah Ahmed Norris is no stranger to running marathons. She’s done the Disney Marathon, the Chicago Marathon, and even the Boston Marathon.  Even though she said that she couldn’t really count Disney because of the nature of the event, it was there when she first conquered the 26.2 distance and started calling herself a marathoner. Norris is also no stranger to overcoming obstacles: in this case, not only the marathon distance but multiple sclerosis, her forever companion.

Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon Program

Norris will be taking on the San Francisco Marathon as a part of the Degree’s Not Done Yet Marathon program because Degree is committed to championing movement by challenging conventions to break the societal barriers of who an acceptable mover is and also empowering everyone with the confidence to move more. So just when you feel like you can’t go any further or you feel the world is saying you’re done, you push through and smash your own limits, proving you are Not Done Yet.

This year, several athletes are taking on the San Francisco Marathon as a part of the Not Done Yet Marathon Team and Norris is one of them. She hopes she can stay consistent as she conquers the hills of the City by the Bay. The San Francisco Marathon will also hopefully break her streak of not-quite-perfect major marathon races.

Norris’s Past Races

“So far, I have really, really bad luck with the world majors,” Norris said.

When she got to Boston, she was trained and ready to have a great day out there. Her qualifier, the Heartland Marathon in Omaha, “was perfect.” It was a flat, runnable, and enjoyable course. No problems arose during this “great run.”

Norris needed a six-hour marathon to qualify for Boston and finished in 5:38 together with her guide. She got into Boston and ran as best as she could. However, there was a surprise waiting in the second half of the race.

“They have a hill right at the end!” Norris exclaimed when she recounted the experience. “At mile 20! And everyone walks it.”

For Norris, the hills of San Francisco are one of the bigger challenges of the race.

“I’ve only met one hill; that tried to kill me,” she said. “There are pictures of a trolley going up and disappearing behind a hill! And I’m [thinking], do I hop on the back of the trolley?!”

Sagirah Ahmed Norris on Multiple Sclerosis and Running

Hills won’t be the only challenging thing for Norris. What’s her story in the world of marathon running, what’s the story in the universe of her own body?

Degree's Not Done Yet - S. Norris running towards the camera, having reconciled multiple sclerosis and running

Degree® Not Done Yet Marathon Team member, Sagirah Ahmed Norris.

SFM: How did you get into running?

SAN: I actually took it up about five or six years ago. My father passed away, so I thought it would be an interesting thing to do while I quit smoking myself because that’s what caused his death. I also wanted to run Disney. I thought it was a good way to get back to Disney World with a good reason.

SFM: So Disney was your first marathon?

SAN: It ended up being my first, yes. But I can’t even consider it to really be my first marathon. Disney is different. At Disney, you’re pretty much walking, or running, from character to character. There’s a lot of pause. You’re not really in motion. Now, when you get into something like Chicago, a world-major marathon, and the key is to run the major portion of it, there’s much more pressure.

The Chicago Marathon

The Chicago Marathon is Norris’s ‘not done yet’ challenge. As she’s originally from Chicago, she wanted to run the Chicago Marathon, have her friends and family cheer her on, and enjoy the day.

“And it all went downhill around mile 13,” Norris said. “But it worked out because thanks to that marathon, I found out that I had multiple sclerosis. So it was kind of a good, kind of a bad end all be all to that marathon.”

Norris’s Nemesis: Multiple Sclerosis

SFM: If you’re comfortable with that, would you like to tell me more about your condition, how it influences your running, and how you work with or around it?

SAN: Absolutely. I have primary progressive multiple sclerosis. I got diagnosed in 2018 and had a chemotherapy-based stem cell transplant, HSCT. (Editor’s note: “HSCT [haematopoietic stem cell transplantation] is an intense chemotherapy treatment for MS. It aims to stop the damage MS causes by wiping out and then regrowing your immune system, using your stem cells.” MS Society UK)

When I first got diagnosed, I went progressively downhill. I ended up having to use a cane and an e-brace just to do everyday walking. Running was nearly impossible. It comes with a condition, at least for myself, of foot drop, where I don’t have the ability to initiate the movement in my foot. Obviously, you can’t run if you can’t pick up your foot.

Once I got the treatment in January 2020, I no longer needed the cane. I no longer had anything to hold me back from running; so I went ahead, got some physical therapy, and learned how to walk properly again. Then I decided that since I was doing well, I could go back to running and get back to my friends and family that I made through the sport. So I took on the challenge and started running again.

I got a spot in the Boston Marathon in their adaptive category. I do need a guide and I’m blessed to have a lot of really great friends who are always ready to do something a little silly, like run a marathon. My friend Kelly is my pacer, support, and guide. She makes sure that we stay on track and on time. She also carries medication with her just in case we have any issues,… she can get me to any finish line. 

Coming to the San Francisco Marathon

Norris is coming to San Francisco to find redemption for the Chicago Marathon. There, she had her whole family tracking and watching her as she ticked off the miles until the gears fell off at the half-marathon distance.

“To spend so much time training away from them only to fail at this mile marker was devastating. But I kept going. I walked when I couldn’t, and it wasn’t how I ever expected it to have gone.”

She’s ready and excited to finish what she’d started in Chicago and there’s no doubt the San Francisco Marathon will, therefore, be a race to remember.

As Norris said, “redemption is always nice.”

Norris’s Redemption

SFM: Why did you choose to run the San Francisco Marathon?

SAN: Degree’s messaging of being ‘not done yet’ is something that has resonated with me, especially after I had my treatment. My first goal was to keep moving forward, help other people who have multiple sclerosis understand their options, and just be boisterous about the HSCT treatment as an option for people.

When it came to light that the Degree Not Done Yet Marathon program was going to take place in San Francisco, the decision was made. Besides the race, Norris and her husband have one more reason to visit the city this year.

Two Reasons to Celebrate after the San Francisco Marathon

“I met my husband in San Francisco!” Norris said. “He was from Houston and I lived in Chicago so we agreed to meet in San Francisco. We went to Napa and I didn’t want to tell him I knew nothing about wine, it seemed rude at that time.”

After she finishes the marathon, Norris plans to “hobble to all of the wineries we can.”

The house Mr. and Mrs. Norris live in is filled with pictures of the Golden Gate Bridge, the place where it all started for them exactly ten years ago.

“He says he knew he was in love with me when we passed the Golden Gate Bridge and I’m, like, ‘you’ve known me for two days!’” Norris said.

Her husband is looking forward to coming to San Francisco with Norris. If not for the race, then to celebrate their anniversary and enjoy the city and its great food.

“He’s my biggest cheerleader ever but he doesn’t get a lot of enjoyment out of watching me sweat to death for 26 miles,” Norris said. “But if you factor in that he gets to eat clam chowder out of a soup or bread bowl, he’ll be happy. And he’ll be even more excited to go see me across the bridge that he fell in love with me at.”

The San Francisco Marathon Game Plan

Motivation is an integral part of starting any run. However, mindset comes into play when it comes to finishing. Norris is a strategic person; she knows that if she can stay consistent, she will finish the race.

SFM: What is your mindset going into the race?

SAN: I want to be as consistent as I can be. This is a stepping stone towards some of my other marathon goals. I don’t have hills in Houston to train on, and I know all about the San Francisco terrain. What I don’t know is if I should jog up the hills, run down, or if I just keep with these intervals, or how I’m going to do it, yet, but I know that I want to be consistent and have a really strong finish so that Degree gets all their pictures.

But really, I just want to enjoy it. This is an opportunity to see San Francisco like very few people ever get to see it. I’ve been there a few times. I met my husband there. We came back and got married in Napa; I’ve been to San Francisco, but I’ve certainly never run in San Francisco. I’ve never even attempted to try. It will be a fun challenge and a really great way to see the city.

To Run a Marathon, to Find a Family

Norris is excited to come to San Francisco and finish the marathon alongside her guide and all other runners. The running community was one of the things she fought to get back to and now, she’s ready to be there for and with them no matter what the future, near or far, might bring. HSCT helped her get back to running—and she hopes that through raising awareness about this treatment, she can help others living with multiple sclerosis get back to doing what they love, too.

SFM: What is one thing you’d say to your fellow runners?

SAN: Well, I even have it tattooed on my wrist: to keep moving forward!

SFM: Is there anything else you’d like to say? Anything you want the world to know?

SAN: I’m excited for the San Francisco Marathon so I can showcase what HSCT can do for people who have multiple sclerosis. 

Norris runs her own Facebook page, MS Sagirah, where she documents her journey and helps other MS patients to keep moving forward. We’re excited to see Norris take on and finish the San Francisco Marathon. You can come to help us cheer her and thousands of others in on July 24! See the SF Marathon course map

Editor’s note: some of the interview answers have been slightly edited or shortened for clarity.

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