By Bob Thomas, Associate Sports Information Director
Stubborn. Fearless. Relentless. Compassionate. Gifted. Resilient.
You’re more likely to run out of words that describe Florida State junior distance runner Jodie Judd than you are to keep up with her, either on foot or in the classroom. Yet there is another word, which few would suspect, which is equally descriptive.
Judd has been living with the neurological disorder, which affects approximately 65 million people worldwide, since spring of her freshman year in Tallahassee. Her three-year journey to this point has been filled, literally and figuratively, with a series of climbs and falls.
Imagine knowing that that virtually every race run will either include, or end, with a seizure. Or worse, having no idea when the next seizure might occur, sparked by a thunderstorm, bright lights, large crowds or fatigue. That has been Judd’s reality since suffering her first seizure in March of 2018.
Through it all she has persevered, leaning on her keen wit, a strong support group of teammates and staff, and an unflappable drive to pursue her passion for running.
She has refused to allow epilepsy to define her, and there are a multitude of reasons it hasn’t.
Judd has been a cornerstone to the foundation of FSU’s revitalized women’s distance program under coach Kelly Phillips, returning the Noles to a place of prominence on the national scene. A three-time All-Region cross country performer – the first Nole to do that since 2014 – Judd has helped FSU to consecutive NCAA South Region titles and NCAA Championship appearances.
This past fall she led the Noles to a 12th-place team finish at the NCAA Championships, the best by the program since 2014.
An All-ACC performer on the track for the Noles, Judd owns the fourth-fastest 5000-meter time in program history (15:51.67), set in a sixth-place finish at the 2019 European U23 Championships in Sweden.
With a cumulative grade-point average of 3.71, the editing, writing & media major is on track to graduate in the spring of 2021, despite being forced to withdraw from classes in the spring of 2018. Still, she is a six-time All-ACC Academic honoree between cross country and track & field despite missing two outdoor seasons and one indoor season.
And above the accolades and accomplishments, Judd has endured a broken kneecap, broken hip and hernia surgery earlier this week, all in the last seven months.
“She’s the most strong-willed and determined person I’ve ever met,” said junior teammate and three-year roommate Addi Coggins. “When she puts her mind to it, it’s going to happen, no matter what…
“With everything she’s been through, she is one of the strongest people I’ve ever met in my life and she’s also one of the most talented people. When you put those two things together it leads to great outcomes. I think the best is yet to come. There’s nothing she could do that would completely blow my mind, because I know she’s capable of it, but she still amazes me.”
Stepping forward to share her story
Not long ago, Judd was moved when Great Britain sprinter Beth Dobbin, a member of the senior national team, chose to publicly share her story about dealing with epilepsy.
“She had it way worse than I did,” Judd said of Dobbin, who is a friend and national teammate of Judd’s sister, Jess. “She came out with her story and how she had a really bad seizure when she was 12. When she woke up, her dad was talking to her, and she didn’t know who he was.”
That struck a chord with Judd, who has since exchanged messages with Dobbin.
“When I wake up from a seizure, I have no idea what’s going on,” Judd said. “For some reason I know I can trust certain people, but I couldn’t tell you who they were. Coach Kelly would talk to me and I don’t have a clue who she is, but I just know I just trust her voice.”
Dobbin’s story helped put another face on what Judd was going through.
“It made me think, ‘It [epilepsy] is not normal, but there are other people,’” Judd said. “It’s real easy to think you’re a freak, kind of, because you’re on a team of 40 young women who can do everything and they seem fine, but if you stay up past 9 o’clock you may have a seizure the next day and you’re the only one that it’s hitting. That’s really hard to come to terms with, but I had seen she had been through it and had been worse and has succeeded.
“I was like, ‘That’s doable.’”
Judd, in turn, hopes that by sharing her own story she might also impact others.
“You can get through it,” she said. “There’s so much you can’t control, but you have to focus on the things you can. And you’re not alone. There was a long time, for a couple months, when I thought it was just me against the world…
“Just reach out if you need help…I know Kelly says it doesn’t make you any less of a bad-ass if you ask for help. I think, Brits in particular, always think you can deal with it on your own. Sometimes you just can’t. Don’t be afraid to ask for help. Also, it gets better.”
This is her story.
Coming to America as a proven talent
Judd arrived at FSU in the summer of 2017 as part of a class that would form the backbone for Phillips’ rebuild.
It was a difficult decision to leave Great Britain, where she was coached by her father Mick Judd, who had also directed the development of her older sister; a rising star on the national level. Despite the younger Judd’s obvious talent, which included personal bests of 2:10 (800), 4:24 (1500) and 16:59 (5000), she was reluctant to leave her family. In addition to her mother, Cheryl Collins, she was especially close with her paternal grandfather Bob Judd, who was approaching 90.
“He was the one,” Judd said of the man she lovingly called Bob. “I nearly didn’t come because of him, but he was like, ‘You have to go.’”
It didn’t take long for Judd to acclimate to her new environment. She became fast friends with Coggins and Kayla Easterly, her freshmen roommates in the dorm, and was equally quick to climb the competitive pecking order. Judd finished second overall to teammate and future All-American Militsa Mircheva in two of her first three races. She was a respectable 26th at her first ACC Championship meet and followed with a team-leading 10th-place finish at the South Region Championships, narrowly missing an automatic berth to the NCAA Championships.
After a quick trip home for the Christmas holiday, Judd returned to Tallahassee and embarked on a promising inaugural indoor season, capped by scoring performances in the distance medley relay and the mile, while helping the Noles women to their first ACC Indoor team title since 2014.
Little did she know life was about to change.
“I nearly didn’t come because of him, but he was like, ‘You have to go.’”Jodie Judd on her grandfather's influence
The fall that started it all
Anxious to get ready for the outdoor season, Judd joined her teammates for a March 1 distance run on the trails at Tom Brown Park. Along the path she hit a root and took a vicious fall, requiring medical attention.
“I spent a couple days in the hospital because I had broken my face and they were fixing that,” said Judd, who fractured a bone below her eye. “I had a concussion, so everyone tells you that when you have a concussion you get tired and drowsy. I was waking up in the dorm, having missed class and missed hours at a time.
“I missed a lot of class that week, then I went to meet with Coach Kelly in her office, trying to convince her to let me race that weekend at Georgia Tech. That’s when people first realized I had a seizure, because I had one there. I woke up from a nap there.
“I was like, ‘OK, something’s wrong. You don’t just fall asleep in your coaches’ office.’”
That episode set into motion a series of doctor visits over the next few weeks. The seizures continued and became more frequent. Several weeks passed before Judd was diagnosed with epilepsy.
“I don’t think they’re 100-percent sure it was triggered by the fall, or if I was always susceptible to having it,” Judd said. “I fell and broke my face and it was like, ‘OK, you have [epilepsy] now.’”
There were many difficult days ahead, both for Judd and those around her.
“It was a bit startling to all of us,” said Coggins. “I’d never been around someone who had epilepsy, so I didn’t know what it all entailed. I wasn’t freaking out and terrified. It was more of thing where she’s your friend and whatever she goes through, you’re going to try and help her through it.”
For Judd’s part, there are large blank spaces filling those episodes.
“Half the time I don’t know that I have had one,” Judd said. “I don’t know what’s going on. I come to and everyone explains what happened, and you believe them, but you still don’t want to believe you’ve had a seizure…
“It made it really hard, especially with Addi, Kayla and I, because we were really good friends. I came to the point that I really didn’t want to hang out with them because I didn’t want them to see me be ill. They were so good, they became more like parents in a way, because they were having to look after me and I just felt so guilty.”
Judd’s guilt hit home during spring break of 2018, when her roommates were planning a trip to the beach but said they would stay home to look after her.
“I thought, ‘Oh, no, that’s not good,’” Judd said. “It made it really awkward for a bit, but they’re such good people they acted like it was no big deal, whatsoever. I felt like it was.”
Difficult days ahead
With the frequency of seizures increasing and the likelihood of returning to the track for the outdoor season over, Judd withdrew from classes in late April. In the meantime, her doctors began the difficult task of trying to find the right medicine and dosage to improve her functional living.
“There’s no one medicine that they can give you, but it takes a lot to figure out who needs what,” Judd said. “To begin with, they gave me one and it made me like a zombie. I was waking up and not feeling a part of anything. It was the weirdest thing, I was like I was in a bubble.”
Though then-athletic trainer Gwen Davis and Phillips recognized Judd’s seizures were becoming less frequent, they knew she was unable to function. And getting back to class and returning to running were high priorities for the Judd.
By mid-May Judd was back in summer school.
“They were changing my meds every two weeks and every time [the dosage] went up. With the side-effects, I was so tired and moody and really struggled in class to keep up with what was being said,” Judd said. “If someone made a joke there was kind of a delay. I’m kind of a sarcastic person and if I had a sarcastic comment, I couldn’t get it out in time to say it and the conversation would move on. For someone like me, that was really hard.”
For several months, Judd said she tried to follow the medical advice to a tee. She stopped staying up late, declined invitations to large team gatherings, stayed inside during thunderstorms and isolated herself from potential seizure triggers.
“But it wasn’t getting any better,” she said. “I wanted to be normal, like then. So I really struggled to understand the big picture. I wanted to run so much because I had three months off.”
And Judd confirmed the obvious.
“I was the worst patient ever,” she said. “I’m terrible. I think they wanted to kill me a couple of times.”
“There was such a long process of trying to get the medication right,” Phillips said. “It’s a very, very frustrating process for somebody who’s not trying to run, let alone somebody who is trying to not be flat and dead-legged, which is one of the side-effects of the medicine. It makes you very tired. So all of the side-effects you don’t want for running is all the stuff that comes with it.
“There just aren’t a lot of people you can compare it with.”
Judd wasn’t afraid to run. She just didn’t want to follow her medical team’s advice – which was to not run every day.
So she ran when she felt like it – which was every day – much to the chagrin of all parties involved.
“If you have a stress fracture, or something like that, at four weeks you can do this, and then you can do that,” she said. “With epilepsy, it was, ‘let’s see how it goes.’ And it was so up-and-down it was tearing me apart. … It was always one step forward and two steps back. I did not help that at all. I just wasn’t thinking long-term
“I was thinking I wanted to be good that cross country season and I wanted to make it worth all their time. It felt like everyone was putting in so much effort to try and get me healthy. I was like, ‘I just want to run well, so it makes it reasonable that all they had done was worth it. I was such an idiot.’”
After passing six hours of summer school, Judd had her eligibility reinstated and returned to class full-time for the 2018 fall semester and the start of the cross-country season.
A year of challenges and change, mostly for the good
Phillips brought Judd along slowly in the fall. The Noles were going to be good and could be even better with a healthy Judd in the mix. After three up-and-down early-season performances, she finished 31st at the ACC Championships as the FSU women finished fourth overall; a five-spot improvement from the previous two seasons.
Next up was the South Region meet on the Noles’ home course, where the goal was to qualify the team for the NCAA Championships for the first time since 2014. Unfortunately, the scheduling of the meet also coincided with a medication change for Judd.
At the team meeting on the eve of the meet, Phillips delivered an impassioned plea.
“I told the team they better step up their game because Jodie is not going to run because she’s had a week of ongoing seizures,” Phillips recalled.
“Five minutes before the race, [Judd] said, ‘I’ve got this.’ She was a rock star.”
Judd placed 24th as the Noles rallied from third to first over the final half-mile of the race, claiming their first South Region title since 2013. But as her teammates celebrated wildly, Judd was nowhere to be found. She had collapsed at the finish.
“That’s crazy, but I didn’t remember celebrating at the end,” she said. “And then you look back at videos, interviews and photos and you’re like, ‘Ahh, I’m not there.’ You put in all this effort, but you’re not part of it. Things like that, you know you can’t be part of it.
“Something simple like a team photo, or whatever, and you look and it. ‘Dang it, I was on the floor.’ …
That’s something that I’ve slowly got over because that’s not the important part. The important part is the journey, and you still get to celebrate when you get back. The 10 minutes after the race really ain’t that big of a deal, but when you’re 19 or 20 it feels like a huge deal.”
There would be another seizure at the NCAA Championships, but this one came mid-race in the snow at Wisconsin.
“I remember the first bit before the fall,” Judd said. “I felt great and amazing…I never really get to halfway feeling good. I was like, ‘This is new.’ Then I guess something went and I had one and I don’t really remember.
“I just remember feeling really tired and thinking, ‘I’ve got to finish, this is nationals and so many people would have killed to be in my position.’ Ellie [Wallace] was the alternate and I’ve got to finish because it’s just not fair to her because she should be racing if I can’t.”
Judd did, finishing fourth among her teammates.
"I’ve got to finish, this is nationals and so many people would have killed to be in my position."Jodie Judd
The indoor season was once again productive with Judd posting new personal bests over two events and earning All-ACC honors in the mile. Success continued outdoors, though there were challenges along the way, but it also marked a time when she realized how much support she had from Phillips and Davis.
“My grandad got ill, so there were a lot of different emotions and stress,” Judd said. “When I get really stressed I tend to have more seizures. My grandad got really ill and instead of [them saying], ‘You need to race,’ they were like, ‘You can go home if you want.’ That’s when I realized it had less to do with the running and more to do with me as a person.
“Up until that point I felt like I was alone, but then I realized they were all looking out for me.”
Judd’s grandfather passed away at age 92. Despite the loss, she charged on, recording new personal bests in the 1500 (4:21.50) and the 5000 (16:26.93) in a rare double at the ACC Championships.
“The 5k is a big race at ACC because there are so many people in it,” Judd said. “That’s something I could never have done a year before because I would have been on the floor.”
The successful close of the college season set Judd up for a breakthrough summer, running confidently without the burden of a looming seizure. She returned home to England, where in a span of three meets over a month she lowered her 5000-meter personal best by more than 30 seconds.
At the BMC Grand Prix in Loughborough, Judd finished fourth in the 5000 in a dazzling 16:04.56, behind her sister Jess who won in 15:31.64.
“I think that was the best night of my dad’s life,” Judd said. “Jess is really good. It was the first time I ran a 5k with my sister and had not been lapped.”
A week later she won the England Athletics U23 5000 title, which qualified her for the European U23 Championships in Sweden, where on July 14 Judd ran 15:51.67 to place sixth.
Judd was surprised by the reception she got when returning to FSU in July.
“Instead of focusing on the running, they were, ‘You’re how long seizure-free?’” Judd said. “They were not actually celebrating what you would expect to be celebrated.”
That further drove home the notion that she had a support group at FSU that cared more about her health than her results.
Good days ahead
The 2019 cross country season produced even more highlights as the Noles finished second at the ACC Championships and followed up with their second consecutive NCAA South Region title. Along the way they earned their first top-10 national ranking in six seasons.
Judd and Phillips worked out a training and racing plan, which included a few new wrinkles. Judd would not do all of the workouts with her teammates to avoid the crowded conditions and anxieties which came in that setting. She would also wear sunglasses on bright days – something she did during outdoor season – and ear plugs when necessary.
“This season I was kind of like, ‘OK, you’re not normal’ and that’s fine, you can still be part of the team and turn up and time practice and stuff for them,” said Judd, acknowledging that not training with the group was the most difficult adjustment. “Although it’s not a big deal having a seizure right now, it can lead to two weeks of just being tired and then the race is terrible because I’m still trying to get over it. It’s not worth the risk.”
Instead of traveling with the top group to Pre-Nationals in Terre Haute, Ind., Judd rode the bus to the UAB Invitational.
“It was really nice because it was just a bus ride and all the girls were really sweet,” said Judd, who posted her first career collegiate cross country win. “They were so understanding with what I’m going through.”
She followed up by placing 23rd at the ACC Championships and 12th at the South Region meet as the Noles romped to securing their second consecutive NCAA berth. On the eve of the meet, Judd found out that the season-long pain in her knee – the result of an early-season fall on a trail run – was a fractured kneecap.
“I’ve got a terrible ability to run through stuff,” Judd joked. “It’s not good. It just never ends well.”
This time she was on the flight to Terre Haute, where in the freezing, damp conditions she delivered a team-leading 62nd-place NCAA Championship finish as the team placed 12th.
What made her NCAA performance even more amazing was what transpired moments before the race.
“Right before the start they set off fireworks. And I couldn’t believe it, because it sent her into a tailspin and they’re right on the starting line,” Phillips said. “I was like, ‘OK, well, she’s done,’ because there are too many people out here. And for whatever reason, she snapped back out of it right away – who knows why – and she was like, ‘I remember the whole race. It was fantastic.’
“She looked so good in the race. ‘Why does she look so good?’ She looked good because she knew what was going on for the first time, start to finish.’”
While Judd managed to make it into most of the celebration photos at the South Region meet, she did collapse at the finish of the NCAA Championships.
“She had an episode at the finish line and we picked her up and took her back to the medical tent,” said FSU trainer Anthony Alaniz. “We were sitting there with the team physicians who were evaluating her and they said, ‘How does she look? Is this normal for her?’ And she stood up and said, ‘Man, this epilepsy is turning me into a weakling.’
“We all laughed, and I told the doctor, ‘That’s 100-percent Jodie. That’s her. She’s back to normal.’”
Judd’s sense of humor has been a constant companion throughout her journey; a useful coping tool.
“It makes it a bit easier,” she said. “There are some things you just have to laugh at, or otherwise it’s just depressing…I’ve had a couple [seizures] in class and if you can’t laugh about that you’re just going to be crying.”
As it turned out, the NCAA Championship meet would be Judd’s final race of the year. Shortly after returning from home for Christmas vacation, she was diagnosed with a fractured hip.
“It was my left hip, and when I have a seizure my left side stops working, so that’s the way I normally fall,” said Judd, unsure of the exact cause.
Judd recovered and had returned to running, though she missed the 2020 indoor season, before athletics came to a screeching halt due to COVID-19.
And while she is now approaching six months of life seizure-free – the longest stretch in three years – she isn’t completely healthy. Judd underwent surgery to repair a hernia on Tuesday, but expects to be back running in short order.
Strong relationships behind the story
There are so many people who have been instrumental in Judd’s relentless journey, including the team.
“Of all the things, that’s the best part, because you’re so relying on people in certain ways, you just get to know people really well,” she said. “I was away from family and away from home, but I’ve kind of built my own weird, misfit family.”
Her sister, Jess, has been a regular sounding board as well.
“She’s been at the end of some terrible phone calls,” Judd said. “I didn’t want to worry my parents with a lot of this, so the main people I told was Jess and Bob. When Bob passed, poor Jess has been getting the whole thing. It has made us a lot closer.”
And after years of hiding injuries and resisting trips into the training room, Alaniz said Judd has not only be a regular visitor, but has been equally diligent in her rehabilitation assignments.
That may have come as the biggest surprise to Phillips.
“She’s matured a ton,” Phillips said, pointing to her recent hernia surgery as evidence. “If this was three years ago, she would have never said anything. I would say, ‘Why are you limping?’ She would look me right in my face and say, ‘I’m not.’
“Now she’s like, ‘I need to see a doctor.’ I’m like, ‘Who are you?’”
Along the way, the athlete-coach relationship has grown exponentially as well.
“Most people would have sent me packing because I was such a big medical problem; it’s a lot to deal with,” Judd said when asked about Phillips. “Most coaches would have said you’ve got to quit. She never did, but she always left it up to me. …
“That was huge, because there’s not a lot you can control with [epilepsy], but she made me feel like I could control something in my life.”
“My thought to her was, ‘I don’t know what it’s like to go through what you’re going through,’” Phillips said. “It wouldn’t be fair for me say, ‘You should suck it up, or you should be done.’
“There were times when I would say, ‘This girl can’t go any longer.’ There were other times when I thought [running] is the only thing that’s getting her out of bed in the morning and keeping her positive. I’ve always told her that no matter what you decide, I’ve got your back. Whether I agree or disagree with the decision, I’ve got you.”
Phillips acknowledges that her relationship with Judd is not unlike the one she has with her own two sons.
“I would definitely say she is like a daughter to me,” Phillips said. “I get as angry with her as I do my own kids. I get as joyful as I do with my own kids. When she graduates it’s not going to be easy for me. As frustrating as that child has been to me with her hard-headedness, we are similar in a lot of ways, which is why we bang our heads together a lot of time. For highs and lows, we’ve been through a lot together…Even though it’s only been a few years, it’s been what some people go through in 10, 15 years.”
And if there’s any doubt what Phillips has meant to Judd, the Brit’s career plans beyond competition should put those to rest.
“I want to be a coach,” Judd said. “This whole thing has taught me that. I want to help someone else have the opportunities I’ve had.
“Until I came here, I had never been to America. I came here for school, and that’s huge. I probably wouldn’t have gone to university if I hadn’t had this opportunity…I would like to give another weird, quirky Brit a chance.”