Chasing Olympic Dreams: One Runner's Battle for Olympic Glory and Life Itself

CHASING CHILDHOOD DREAMS

Childhood dreams start with a flame of inspiration. Sometimes the flame is fanned and pushed into a fire that drives an entire life. For Brandon Hudgins, that childhood dream was to compete in track in the Olympic games. Back in high school, Brandon had sat in front of the TV and watched Alan Webb break the four-minute mile with his stunning time of 3:53. One day, he knew, that would be him. His dream led him to run track and cross country at Winthrop University. But during his sophomore year, at age 21, barely into a promising college running career, Brandon started suffering from debilitating “joint pain, breathing problems, hearing loss, extreme fatigue, sinus infections, bloody noses, night sweats, circulation problems, and kidney issues.” It took a team of doctors six months to diagnose the autoimmune disease known as Vasculitis, or more specifically Granulomatosis with Polyangiitis. In short, Brandon’s immune system attacks some of his own organs. The disease halted his running and threatened his life, but it didn’t stop him.

Brandon Hudgins

At the present, Vasculitis does not have a known cure. When he was first diagnosed, Brandon went through numerous rounds of chemotherapy and injections. “They’re basically trying to reset my immune system. They destroy all my B cells, where my problem is. But since it’s not perfect, [the medicine] kills a lot of other cells in the process… so then I’m on drugs cause I’m on drugs,” said Brandon.

LIFE’S HURDLES AND HELPERS

Brandon was forced to stop running the rest of his college career to treat the disease. He described his early twenties battle with Vasculitis as “an emotional roller coaster.” However, his body was eventually able to recover enough to allow him to complete his remaining two years of NCAA eligibility running for Appalachian State in Boone, N.C. while gaining his graduate degree. It was in Boone that Brandon first ran into, or technically against, the late Chattanooga pro-runner, Cameron Bean, who was running for Samford University at the time.

Cameron was known by his friends and family as having a good heart, pushing people to live healthy lives, follow their dreams, and “just go for a run.” But Brandon’s relationship with Cameron did not start out so smoothly.

“We hated Cameron because he was who he was,” said Brandon. “When that guy is on the other side of the fence, kind of like dogs, you're barking at the each other.”

But when Cameron eventually moved from Chattanooga to Boone to join the professional running team Zap Fitness, Brandon and Cameron realized they had a lot in common and became fast friends.

“I actually got some grief from the older guys [on my team] who said, ‘I can't believe you're hanging out with him!’ And I was like, ‘Sorry he's actually cool!’” Brandon said. “Of course, he eventually, always, won everyone over who he came into contact with.”

Cameron’s enthusiasm for life and perpetual encouragement to everyone to always be their best played an influential role in Brandon’s life as he was becoming a faster, stronger runner.

Before finishing grad school, Brandon ran a 3:45 in the 1500 meters, pushing him closer than ever before to his Olympic dreams. But soon after graduating and returning home to work, Vasculitis struck again. Brandon struggled through back to back relapses in 2012 and 2013. Hardly able to get out of bed on his own, his running dreams seemed to have finally come to an end. At one point, in total despair, he threw all his running gear in the trash can.

“It’s humbling,” Brandon says. “I didn't always handle it very well. I've gotten a lot of diseased induced anxiety and depression problems from it.”

After his third total relapse in April 2013, still weak but feeling better, Brandon decided to return to Boone. Life had been good there, maybe the disease’s relapses were environmentally induced. Cameron and friends helped him get a job at a resort where Brandon worked as a valet while figuring out what was next in life.

His body was returning to health, but beside short, recreational run, Brandon was no longer training, no longer chasing the dream. He was at a crossroads in life. Did he move on and coach high school track, or leave the running scene completely? Then, one morning, Cameron and an old teammate from Appalachian State invited Brandon on a run that would change his life’s course.

The three young men started out at a decent pace, but soon they had kicked it up a notch to a speed that Brandon had not tapped into in months.

“It was the first time in so long that I could remember not just enjoying the run, but feeling like a real runner again,” Brandon said. “I wasn't running with a shitty engine or feeling closed off. It was probably one of the most pure runs I have done my entire life.” They closed up in the last five miles, pushing the pace, stretching Brandon’s physical limits. But he was able to hang with them. His body had not forgotten was it was like to push hard and open up. And it was at the end of that run with Cameron that Brandon realized he missed it. He couldn’t desert his lifelong dream to break four minutes in the mile and chase the Olympics. So he decided to give it his all.

THE TRAGEDY AND THE COMEBACK

Brandon remained working at the resort so that he could train with a coach. His health stayed strong, with only a “minor hernia surgery” that took him out for a few weeks, nothing compared to the years of non-running from Vasculitis. He trained mostly by himself for the 1500 meters distance. He eventually became the 448th American to break the four-minute mile barrier. Always supportive, Cameron was there to cheer him on, one of the last times the two would see each other.

Brandon Hudgins running a sub-four minute mile.

Brandon Hudgins running a sub-four minute mile.

That October, while at work, Brandon got the text from Cameron’s girlfriend that he had been hit by a car while running on Moccasin Bend Road in Chattanooga. “We had no idea how serious it was,” said Brandon. Two days later, they learned that Cameron had passed away. Brandon called Cameron’s Zap Fitness coach and fellow runners to give them the news.

Devastated by the loss of his friend, Brandon knew that Cameron, maybe more than anyone else, would have wanted him to continue trying for the Olympics. He raced several months later at the Furman Elite Meet and brought his 1500 meter time down to run 3:38, finally qualifying him for the 2016 Olympic trials.

“Cameron helped me to live my life better, after his death. He always kept things light and away from the anxiety,” recalls Brandon. “I probably would have done better at the trials if he had been there to keep my mind from being anxious.”

For as he got closer and closer to the trials, the depression, anxiety caused by his health issues during the past almost ten years started hitting Brandon, hard.

“Instead of that being an asset, instead of using that as a tool, I felt the weight of everything I had been through on the starting line,” remembers Brandon.

At the Olympic trials in Oregon, Brandon ran a 3:43 in the 1500 to progress him to Friday’s rainy semifinals. Runners were tumbling down on the wet track, forcing Hudgins and the other competitors to hurdle over them. In the semifinals, Brandon finished ninth in the first of two heats, ending his 2016 Olympic trials.

“I handled the trials so poorly emotionally,” Brandon says. “I wasn't able to super enjoy being there. I knew I was in much better shape than how I performed, and that happens to a lot of people on that stage. But that was also my first time ever on a big stage like that. I wasn't really mentally equipped to handle that pressure, plus all the self-imposed pressure that I had put on myself.”

With much disappointment but with his eyes already set on the 2020 Olympics, Brandon left Oregon to join the Bean family weeks later in Chattanooga to celebrate the life of his friend in the inaugural Cam Run 5k and Magnum Mile. After finishing second in the 5k, he circled back around to high five every runner through the finish line. Then later that night, he swept the field in the mile, the event Cameron had won just one year before.

 
Brandon Hudgins competing at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Oregon.

Brandon Hudgins competing at the 2016 Olympic Trials in Oregon.

 

STILL CHASING THE DREAM

This past January, Brandon experienced his fourth relapse of Vasculitis. But this time he was more prepared to fight the emotional and mental battle.

“I've learned a lot because of all that,” Brandon says. “I have to ride it out a little more and stuff, like being involved with the Vasculitis Foundation and having all these people invested in the journey, has helped keep me on solid mental ground.”

Recently sponsored by Skechers, who has supported him through the ups and downs of his disease these last few months, Brandon plans to resume training for the 2020 Olympics once his strength and health returns.

Brandon published his first book last Tuesday that covers the mental and emotional struggles he has faced and pushed through over the past ten years and continues to push through to achieve his childhood dream of Olympic glory.

Brandon Hudgins talking at a camp through the Vasculitis Foundation.

Brandon Hudgins talking at a camp through the Vasculitis Foundation.

“I want people to find their passionate desires in life that can lead them to be really dedicated to something and achieve a goal,” Brandon said. “I think when you have those things it makes all the other obstacles you go through easier to tackle and manage. Really at the end of the day, I want to inspire people to chase their dreams and don't let their circumstances dictate them.”

Brandon plans to resume training once his health has fully returned after this last relapse. The hurdles this time come in the form of injections of the drug Rituxan every six months to fight his B-cells. He will be done with the treatments and free of drugs for one and a half years before the 2020 Olympic trials. There are still times and goals that he wants to achieve before he ends his running career.

“I basically don’t want to grow up,” said Brandon. “I still have that childhood dream.”

 

Join us at Warehouse Row on Friday, August 25 from 5;00-9:00 p.m. for the Cam Run 5k packet pick-up and the chance to meet and talk to Brandon about his book.