Running helped Lindsay Walter embrace life with alopecia

Lindsay Walter was justifiably beaming in April after winning her first 48-hour ultramarathon: the Upstate Ultra Country Mile, where she spent two solid days repeating a parkrun-sized trail loop in South Carolina, and on Ende ran just over 160 miles – nine more than the man who placed first. However, it didn’t take long for the 31-year-old health coach’s bladder to burst when, moments later, she was yelled at by a woman for going to the wrong public toilet because “you’re a man.”

It’s one of many misconceptions Walter faces as a woman with alopecia universalis, an autoimmune condition that has left her without any body hair since she was two years old. In all other respects she is perfectly healthy, as her 48 marathon medals would suggest, but a lack of awareness of the disease also leads some who meet her to mistakenly assume that she has a life-threatening illness. “Most people try to be nice, but if you think I have cancer, you can keep it to yourself,” she says with a smile. “You don’t have to tell me how ‘healthy’ I look today.”

Of course, the world had a chance to learn more about alopecia back in March, when actor Will Smith met comedian Chris Rock onstage at the Academy Awards. Rock had made an insensitive joke about Smith’s wife Jada Pinkett Smith’s head, which she shaved after being diagnosed with alopecia in 2018. Subsequently, the world’s media focused solely on the violence – a great waste of a teachable moment, according to Walter.

“It seemed like nobody in this situation was talking about the real victim that Jada was. She must have felt that pain – I felt it to the core,” she says. “I know what it’s like to be in an environment where you’re humiliated and embarrassed and don’t know how to react. But there was also a big missed opportunity to educate about alopecia.’

Walter’s earliest memory is of attending preschool in a wig, a disguise that stayed on throughout her education, including a successful stint as a college basketball star at the University of Minnesota Duluth. It wasn’t so realistic that people didn’t know, and she was also missing her eyelashes and eyebrows, so bullying was the order of the day. “Back then there was no social media and there was no one in my family, school or community with alopecia. Not having anyone to talk to was super hard and isolating.’

As a child, she naturally tried to hold back. It’s only more recently, and thanks in part to running, that she’s found that she’s not really an introvert. “When kids were mean to me, I never said anything back to them because I didn’t have confidence. I would say I’m definitely a lot more extroverted now, and that feels like my true personality. When I run I feel so confident and strong and it has carried over into my personal life. Now I accept and embrace my alopecia.”

While in college, she and her friends attended Duluth’s annual marathon known as Grandma’s Marathon. In her senior year, 2012, she signed on just weeks before the end, just feeling like a marathon was something for a competitive basketball player to tick off her bucket list. “I never thought, ‘I’m going to be a runner’, but that feeling of crossing the finish line was so exciting. you are so celebrated Everyone was so encouraging and I didn’t feel like anyone was looking at me because of my alopecia.”

Many marathons later, her favorite is the 2014 San Diego Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon. That was the first she walked without a wig. During her training for the race, she had discarded it mid-run because she no longer felt it represented feminine beauty. “I didn’t even pack the wig when I flew to San Diego. That felt like a big deal,” she says. “The running community has always been so welcoming and so supportive. It feels like genuine kindness. We all look different, we all have different goals and we all encourage each other.”

Now she finds that her decision to become more visible inspires others as well. Three years ago she started Lindsay’s Little Pals, through which she writes encouraging letters to younger people with alopecia. “Some people would say they understood what I went through as a kid, but you don’t understand until you lose your hair and experience all the emotions that come with it. Now I can be the person I needed when I was younger and that’s the coolest thing.”

The next challenge on the calendar is the Berlin Marathon, with the goal of breaking the three-hour mark. Today, their identity comes first, everything else second. “I live with my alopecia day to day, so I love it when people respect me as a runner and ask me about my training and races. Alopecia is what I have, but it’s not who I am.’

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