Nancy Van Hemert has never been one to back down from a challenge.
For years, her trials have revolved around running, and she's taking on a new test Saturday when the Isle Casino Beat the Elite runner tries to cross the finish line ahead of the elite field of the 42nd annual Quad-City Times Bix 7 road race.
But three years ago, she confronted something much more serious.
Starting in 2012, Van Hemert began experiencing bouts of double vision and dizziness. For six months the spells persisted and worsened until, in May of 2013, the Muscatine schoolteacher was unable to get out of bed.
"It was like I was on an amusement park ride," she said. "I was sick to my stomach, in bed all weekend and couldn't see anything."
She was taken to Mercy Hospital in Iowa City and underwent an MRI, the results of which were life-changing.
Van Hemert was found to have a tumor the size of a baseball growing on the right side of her brain. She was rushed to the University of Iowa Hospitals, where doctors put her on steroids to relieve the swelling, then followed up with surgery two days later on May 9.
"Had I waited another day, they said I wouldn't have made it because the swelling was so bad in my brain," Van Hemert said.
Lying in the intensive care unit following the surgery — which removed most of the tumor — Van Hemert told her nurse she had big plans in July.
"I remember looking up at the nurse and waking up at her looking down at me with her blue glasses, and I said to her, 'I will run the Bix this year.'"
Eleven weeks later, Van Hemert crossed the finish line on 3rd Street, finishing the race in 54 minutes, 16 seconds for her fastest-ever time.
"I cried when I crossed the finish line. Right then, I felt like when you set your mind to something, you can do it," she said. "I thought nothing is going to stop me. Even if I had walked it, I knew I was going to do it."
It wasn't easy to get to that point. At first, Van Hemert had to focus on walking.
Because of the surgery, she struggled regaining proper function of her left leg and extremities. But within a week she was walking, though without full use of her left side. Little by little, Van Hemert kept improving until she was healthy enough to run two miles at the first Iowa American Water Bix at Six training run of the year.
Many people in her situation might have decided it wasn't worth it, that running would no longer be an option. Van Hemert refused to let that be the case.
"Running and exercise is what keeps me, it's what keeps everybody healthy," she said. "I'm determined to beat all of this by continuing to run and exercise."
Though she's run the Bix all three years since the surgery, this year has come with a new setback. As a result of the scar tissue from the procedure, Van Hemert now suffers from seizures, often brought on by extreme heat, fatigue and dehydration.
The episodes started out localized to her left side, but have deteriorated in the last six months into grand mal seizures, which brings a loss of consciousness and affects the entire body.
Because of this, Van Hemert essentially stopped running, deciding it wasn't worth the risk and worry it caused both her and her family. Even though she had already signed up for this year's Bix, she didn't think it would be possible to participate this year.
But when she got the call from race director Ed Froehlich in June asking if she'd like to be the Beat the Elite runner, she decided to accept.
"Those kinds of things, to me that's a challenge and I guess I felt like it was supposed to happen," Van Hemert said. "He called me and that was my sign of looking for ways that I could run. ... It's because of this call that really got me going."
She consulted with her doctor and a pharmacist, who increased her anti-seizure medication as well as giving her electrolyte tablets and vitamins. She hasn't had a seizure in two months, and has been taking several precautions while training. She always makes sure someone knows where she's running and has routinely run with her father, Carl Egger. Only when doing speed work has she felt any complications, limited to the occasional loss of feeling or weakness in her left leg.
Because her Bix times have been so strong in the past, including 58:19 last year, Van Hemert will get a three-mile head start on the course. Due to her health issues, however, she hasn't been able to train as much as she has in past years, and doesn't think she'll win. She's still going to try, and she won't be alone.
Along with all the fans watching from the sidelines, Van Hemert will also have a pacesetter in front of her, as the event's first corporate runner, Mark Rogers, will get a 3.3-mile head start on the same course.
"That will definitely help," she said. "I'm probably one of the most competitive people you'll ever meet, and that will be my first goal, to pass him."
If Van Hemert does win, she plans on donating the $2,500 prize, likely to a couple of different places. She knows for sure that she will donate a portion of the money to the Muscatine Community YMCA in the memory of Lisa Kuhn, who was struck and killed by a car while riding in a bicycle fundraiser in West Liberty, Iowa, on June 25.
Van Hemert's story has inspired those around her, and since she was named the Beat the Elite runner last month, she's received more and more words of encouragement from all around the Quad-City area.
"I'm trying to show that anything can be done and I hope people see that," she said. "With the right people supporting you and knowing where to go to look for guidance and advice, (it) can get a person to be able to do just about anything they set their mind to."