Class of ’06 | Nargus Harounzadeh C’06 has always lived life at a fast pace.
Shortly after landing a job as marketing associate at New York’s Constellation Wealth Advisors, and with minimal training, she placed fourth in her age group at the Big Sur Marathon in California. Having joined the New York Road Runners, the running club that organizes road races and fitness programs throughout New York, Harounzadeh was in a training group on target to break three hours in the New York City Marathon. (To put a sub-3:00 finish into perspective, that was Lance Armstrong’s goal in his first marathon.)
As a state cross-country qualifier and All-American swimmer in high school and a member of Penn’s swim team, exercise had been central to Harounzadeh since age five. Which is why she made time to volunteer as a “Running Buddy,” accompanying local children in races.
Then, on a Saturday morning in October 2007, Harounzadeh had just finished running with three girls in Central Park’s Grete’s Great Gallop when her life was suddenly, brutally knocked off its tracks. Running home near 57th Street and the West Side Highway, Harounzadeh was hit by an 18-wheeler that had veered onto the sidewalk behind her. The only thing Harounzadeh remembers before losing consciousness is the driver looking down at her and saying, “Do I have to fucking call an ambulance?”
The driver then bolted. Some nearby construction workers couldn’t catch him, but they called 911 and tended to the injured runner. “They saved my life,” Harounzadeh says.
When she woke up in the hospital, Harounzadeh couldn’t tell if she could move her legs. She had two crushed vertebrae and major nerve damage. and would be in a full back brace for six months. Doctors were not optimistic.
“I was labeled as a ‘crushed vertebrae’ and I was told that I would have depression,” she says, remarking that trauma victims often feel defined by their injuries.
Because the accident was a hit-and-run and the driver was never identified, Harounzadeh had little recourse. Her insurance only covered so much. Her savings went fast.
“For the longest time, I was extremely angry,” she says. Her anger, in combination with intense physical therapy, became draining. She was told she would be lucky to walk again, let alone run.
Refusing to accept a life without athletics, which she calls her “mode of being,” Harounzadeh called every swim coach in New York. She heard back from just one, Patrick Cantrell at Asphalt Green, the city’s premier swimming facility. In January 2008, Cantrell agreed to take her on pro bono as long as she was willing to commit to being at 5:45 a.m. practice twice a week with occasional evening sessions. Harounzadeh left home at 4:30 to make the cross-town commute. She remained in her back brace for the first month of swimming.
Slowly, she improved. Throughout her recovery, she found herself remembering a favorite class at Penn—the Emergence of the Individual, taught by Liliane Weissberg, professor of German and comparative literature—in which she discovered existentialist philosophy. She began reading more, immersing herself in Eastern thought. She worked yoga and meditation into her regimen. Her primary goal became to eliminate negativity.
“Only you are in the present and only you can decide what’s going to happen,” she told herself.
By last January Harounzadeh had become healthy enough to run. She built up her endurance, careful not to let her positive mindset fool her into doing too much too soon. Over time, one run a week became two, then three. Throughout the summer, with her eye on a fall half-marathon, Harounzadeh lengthened her second weekly run from eight to 16 miles.
This past September, Harouzadeh returned to Philadelphia for her first race since the accident, the ING Rock n’ Roll Philadelphia Half-Marathon. Her story was featured on Runners World’s website, as well as on the running website Competitor.com. On a humid morning, Harounzadeh completed the 13.1-mile race in 1:30:05—a 6:52 per-mile pace. She finished 22nd out of 1,921 women aged 25 to 29, and 91st out of 8,664 women overall.
Though she had hoped to run the course in one hour 25 minutes, she was happy to be back racing, in her college town, no less.
Following her return to Philly and to racing, Harounzadeh had a handful of other half-marathons in mind for the winter and spring of this year. She now plans to run the Pittsburgh Marathon in May—her goal is a sub-3:00 finish, the same as her pre-accident ideal—and the New York Marathon in November. In addition, she is completing instructor-training in Yoga Sutra in New York and is taking post-baccalaureate classes in psychology at Hunter College while preparing to apply for PhD programs in psychology and spirituality. Eventually, Harounzadeh hopes to have her own practice where she treats psychological disorders with an integration of Western psychotherapy, Eastern philosophy, and yoga techniques, mirroring her own recovery process.
Given her new trajectory, it is safe to say that Harounzadeh’s life in marketing and finance is over. She recognizes that without the accident, she likely would not have made the shift.
“I would have been too caught up in that mode of existing,” she says. Knowing that few people face turning points as dramatic as hers, Harounzadeh hopes to use her story as a catalyst for others. Most of all, she wants to encourage people to break away from the automatic thoughts and outside influences that hold them back.
In reflecting on the accident and her return to health, Harounzadeh speaks with gratitude. “I’m kind of glad it happened,” she says. “I’m happier now than I ever was.”
—Jamie-Lee Josselyn C’05