Julie Henry developed life-threatening infection after birth of daughter, but she rebounded to find wellness through running.

SARASOTA — Julie Henry sports a collection of road race bling hanging from a “Celebrate Every Mile” medal holder in her home office.

Her favorite is the simple medal on a plain baby blue ribbon that she earned in her first race: the 2011 First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon. She walked the course, but the race symbolizes the first steps on her journey to wellness after a serious health crisis.

Henry, 43, developed a life-threatening bacterial infection shortly after giving birth to her daughter in 2009. Severe abdominal pain and a 103.5-degree fever after a Cesarean-section delivery sent her back to the hospital, where she begged medical professionals to cut her open to find out what was wrong.

She was placed in quarantine and was unable to see her young son and 7-day-old daughter. Henry’s abdominal stitches popped open, and she endured a two-hour surgery to remove the infection. Doctors told her husband she was 12 hours away from going into septic shock.

“The infection had eaten through my abdominal wall and was on my small intestine. It was just nasty,” Henry said. “I came out of that and a nurse saved my life. She said, ‘You need to have a wound VAC, which will basically let you heal from the inside out.’ ”

She eventually healed, but her abdominal wall was shattered during the surgery. Lack of core strength also weakened her hip, and she had trouble walking.

One night, an email came across from New Balance, offering a walking training program through running coach Holly Johnson for the First Watch Sarasota Half Marathon. Henry told her husband that she didn’t know why, but she needed to enroll in the program and sign up for the race.

“I was literally drinking a glass of wine and eating a brownie,” Henry said. “It was 10 o’clock at night.”

She signed up for the training program, walked the half marathon a few months later and began a fitness quest that continues today.

“I didn’t really set out to run half marathons, I just set out to get healthy. I set out to show my kids I could do it,” Henry said of that first race. “It was literally one foot in front of the other. It took me three hours and 45 minutes.”

She kept running and now has completed 17 half marathons and four marathons. Her running coach complimented Henry’s perseverance.

“Julie’s progress as a runner and athlete was predominantly fueled by her desire to overcome the physical and mental challenges she was experiencing,” said Johnson, coach at SRQRunning.com. “Her willingness to take several steps back from her previous ‘runner’ mindset allowed her to shift gears and progress from 5K to half marathon to marathon distances.

“She became much more accepting of herself and her exceptions to the point that she really enjoyed the training and victories that come from making it to the finish line for all her races.”

‘Today is not that day’

Henry runs a motivational leadership company called “Finish Line Leadership.” She incorporates many lessons she learned during her running journey in her motivational talks.

The course for the Chicago Marathon in October took runners past a nursing home. Women who lived there stood outside waving and cheering when runners passed by. One held a sign that resonated with Henry, whose husband was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2013. Michael Henry is a scientist who has worked at Mote Marine for more than 30 years.

“Someday will come a day that you can’t run. But today’s not that day.”

“That’s what I think about with him, because now he’s on oxygen, and it’s hard for him. But he still wants me to be out there staying healthy,” Henry said.

Henry just got word that she will get to run in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 4 to raise money for the Bonnie J. Addario Lung Cancer Foundation, which has been a tremendous source of support for her family during her husband’s illness.

Sunday’s race

Henry also wants to encourage others, particularly women and young mothers, to run. It is an inexpensive form of exercise that is accessible to all. She said the fitness quest will get them outside enjoying Southwest Florida’s beautiful weather and scenery, and they’ll find an accepting and supportive running community eager to rally around them and encourage them.

Henry said it’s not about running fast or even running far. It’s about taking that first step toward health and fitness.

“A mile is a mile. It doesn’t matter if it’s a six-minute mile or a 16-minute mile. It’s still the same amount of distance that you’re covering,” Henry said. “Whether you go for 20 minutes or two hours, you move. You’ve soaked up your surroundings. You’ve gotten outside.”

Henry will be out on the First Watch Half Marathon course Sunday with about 3,000 other runners. Her husband and children, now 8 and 10, will be there to cheer her across the finish line.

She has endured some setbacks in training this year, but this race is more about celebrating the life-changing run in Sarasota, where she has lived for the past 20 years.

“It’s the race that brought me back to health and brought me back to myself,” Henry said. “It started a running journey I would never have expected.”

Vicki Dean is a freelance writer based in Venice. She can be reached at vdeanfla@gmail.com.