I knew something was off. It was not evident in my everyday life, but definitely in my training and racing. As athletes we are very in-tune to our bodies. We notice when our bodies feel off in training. We are also hypersensitive to any physical changes in our body. Hence, I knew something was off.
This feeling is what ultimately made me drag myself to the doctor’s office for blood work. The doctor’s office, the place I would rather avoid at all costs. The same doctor’s office that would later reveal the real cause for my less-than-par races that concluded my season.
Let me start at the beginning. The primary focus of my training this year was earning a spot in the 1500m to represent Team USA at the Beijing World Championships. American middle distance running has excelled by leaps and bounds in recent years. The task would not be an easy one, but it was definitely one that Darren and I knew was well within my capabilities. We just had to be smart.
The first step in being smart was staying healthy. Therefore, we sacrificed a full indoor season, only racing once at the New Balance Indoor Grand Prix, because we knew that my long stride wasn’t conducive to small indoor tracks. We did not want to risk another injury going into the outdoor season, like happened last year when I ended up with a metatarsal stress fracture the week after indoor ended.
The second step in being smart was an altitude trip. It was only my second trip to altitude in my career, but it was something I responded really well to in 2013. So, Darren planned the trip and I spent the month of March up in Big Bear, CA driving down to sea level for two workouts per week. You can read more about that trip and see my training in the post: 2015 Altitude Trip: Lions & Tigers & BIG BEAR (Oh My!)
When my races started in April, things went well. I opened the season with a top American finish at the Carlsbad 5000m, my debut 5k. I followed up that performance with 1500m wins at both Mt. Sac and the Hoka One One Distance Classic. While our hope was to run “fast” at the Hoka meet, the race didn’t pan out to be the World Championship qualifier we’d hoped for. We took away the positive of another competitive “win”, but still sought that elusive 4:05.5 World standard, which was an important process goal in achieving our season objective.
At the end of May, I was fortunate enough to get into The Prefontaine Classic (PRE) at the last minute. I got the call Thursday morning, flew up on Friday and on Saturday, ran a 1500m PR of 4:03.2, therein achieving not only the World Standard, but the 2016 Olympic Standard as well. From there, I traveled to Canada for two races and ended up coming home with another new PR; this time in the 800m (2:01.5). I remember talking to Darren after that 800m and saying how I have NEVER felt so great coming down the homestretch of an 800m. The first ¾ of the race I had been stuck in last, but once I found my way around, I felt like I was flying past people on the homestretch. It was the perfect race for me heading into the USATF National Championship meet. Little did I know that the Victoria 800m would be my last “good” race of 2015 …
Exactly one week before the USATF 1500m prelims, I came down with a nasty sinus infection. I spent the week leading into USA’s trying every natural/homeopathic cold remedy I could find. I tried to keep a positive attitude and play the “I’m not sick because I won’t claim in” card. Fortunately, I made the finals, which played out as a typical championship-style ‘sit and kick’ race. I had been pretty confident in my kick this year. I was always able to find the extra gear when I needed it; however, this race, my legs just seemed to give up with 100m to go. I ended up 9th, my lowest finish at the USATF Championships since 2009. Saying I was “disappointed” would be an understatement.
Still, I tried to justify it and move on. I attributed the bad final to being sick. The stress of USA’s is difficult on anyone and adding a sinus infection to the mix just meant that my body was tired. It’s not an excuse, but, to me, a reasonable justification to help me move past it, re-focus and get back on track. Sometimes races are about having a little bit of luck and luck was just not on my side that day.
Darren gave me a few easy days after the Sunday final. My next workout was going to be Friday. I was excited to get back on the track. Even though USA’s didn’t turn out like I wanted, I knew there were still some great opportunities to run fast this year. I had worked hard and I knew it was bound to pay off with another PR. We just had to adjust the focus. Now it was about running fast and racing well again.
Friday came. My workout was 3 by 1000m in 2:50 and then 500m, 300m, 100m at 800m race-pace. The basic goal of the session was to make my system tired and then try to run fast. Simple as that. First interval, Darren led … 2:47. Second interval, I led and my legs started getting extremely heavy. I felt like I was running through sand. Darren, who was following behind me, told me to pick it up and finish strong after starting to fall off pace in the middle. I tried to respond and in my mind I was responding, but my body wasn’t reacting whatsoever. I staggered across the finish line with a feeling that would become all too familiar in the coming weeks.
I couldn’t understand why the workout was so hard? Sure, I’ve had really tough, grinding workouts before, but one of my strengths has always been the ability to push through and finish strong. Darren attributed it to “mental stress”. He thought that I was still upset about USA’s and letting it get to me. Still, he cut the workout after that 2nd interval. Usually I would have tried to argue my way back into the workout. I don’t like stopping; I don’t like quitting. However this time, I didn’t argue. I just changed my shoes and headed off to cool down alone. It was the first cool down I ever did without Darren. I knew that I had disappointed him and I believed that it must be “mental”. I got mad at myself for being a professional athlete and acting like such a baby.
The next few workouts were a mix of positive and negative moments. I was able to accomplish the workouts, but still didn’t feel like normal Sarah. Typically my strength is in being able to finish strong, even in the most exhausted of states. Instead, I was struggling to fight the “sand legs” feeling on every homestretch.
The stubborn athlete in me refused to accept that something could be wrong. In my heart, I knew I could run close to 4:00 minutes this year. I just needed the right race and I was fortunate to have three great opportunities to run fast coming up. My summer schedule consisted of an 800m in Edmonton, a 1500m in Monaco and another 1500m in London.
The 800m in Edmonton was a DISASTER. Once again, when I normally started to feel strong in a race, I felt flat and heavy legged. That said, no one ran particularly fast that day, so I chalked it up to a ‘bad’ day at the office. Darren explained it as me having been too far back, resulting in too hard of a move between 500m and 600m. He would later reveal that he didn’t really believe that to be the issue and, in fact, was starting to worry something might be wrong. He just didn’t want me to stray down that rabbit hole with big on the horizon. That was for him to worry about and figure out. For me, I just kept finding a reason to maintain hope that things would turn around.
Call it intuition, but later that evening Darren and I had a text conversation where I brought up the possibility of being pregnant. Neither one of us thought it was really probable, but since I was flying overseas to Monaco the next day, Darren told me to go take a pregnancy test just to put my mind at ease. I sought out the help of my college roommate and one of my best friends, Kimarra McDonald (an 800m runner for Jamaica). At 11:00 PM we walked the half-mile to a Canadian version of Wal-mart. I had never taken a pregnancy test before but Kimarra and I read the back of a few boxes before settling on one. We returned to the hotel, where I took not one, but two tests. Both tests came back negative and I laughed at myself for even considering the possibility of being pregnant.
The next race on deck was a 1500m in Monaco. The race was set up to be the race of a lifetime. Dibaba would be going after the world record, which meant that every athlete in that field was gunning for her fastest race ever. Darren and I wanted to make sure I’d be rested and ready, so we opted for the “less-is-more” route. I would be on a steady routine of easy runs and strides for the remaining days until the race. The Monaco atmosphere was electric. It was a full stadium of anxious fans. I remember trying to fight off a dizzy feeling as a stepped to the line. I kept blinking my eyes, trying to get them to focus correctly. I attributed the feeling to nerves.
The one positive from the race was that I got to be part of the fastest women’s 1500m in history; but that was the ONLY positive from the race. I have never fought such a loosing battle with fatigue. Mentally I kept trying to make my move but my body did not want to cooperate. I remember getting to the homestretch and having a girl try and battle me to the finish line. I felt so terrible that the situation was almost comical. This girl was battling me so as not to be the last finisher and the only thing I cared about was crossing the line so I could have the luxury of stopping. I’ve never wanted to walk so badly. I finished in 4:09…my last lap was 70.
After the race, Darren and I decided to continue our “recovery” plan leading into London, with just one short, quick workout to get my legs turning over again. Three days before the race, I had my first successful track session in quite a while. The workout consisted of 2 sets of 4×200 in 30 seconds with 30 seconds rest. I felt like I was starting to come around. I was ready for my last shot. On top of that, the race plan would be simple: don’t focus on time, just focus on winning.
Well, as you can probably imagine, this race was no different than the others of late. When I tried to ‘make a move’, my body just would not respond. Again, it took every ounce of pride in me to finish the race when my legs kept failing me. I finished in 4:11. I wasn’t last this time, but it stung just the same.
By this time, racing was no longer fun. I used to crave the thrill of putting all my work to the test and challenging myself. Now, I just felt like the challenge had become too much. I could no longer control the races. Instead, the races were controlling me.
It was that feeling, the feeling of hating something I once loved, that pushed me to go get the blood work done. What had started out as my best season ever had quickly dissolved into a season of what felt like defeat. Darren and I questioned everything we had done. What once seemed to be working so well had completely crumbled. Looking back now, it’s almost comical to think about the “symptoms” I told Darren I was feeling during my races. I was regularly getting dizzy/lightheaded, was having stomach cramps during EVERY race (something that never happens) and, the kicker, I told him I felt like there was not an ounce of blood/oxygen making it down to my legs. It felt like I was running at altitude … you know … after you’ve passed “that point”. Darren poured through my training logs; questioning every day at altitude, new drill and sequence of workouts … the whole process was suspect now. The problem was, it didn’t make sense. There was no blatant reason for why things went south when they did aside from that pre-USA’s sinus infection. Darren and I knew something was physically “wrong” at this point; we just couldn’t place our finger on it.
It wouldn’t be long until we found out the real reason behind the sudden change in course. I was pregnant. PHEW! After a few weeks of questioning ourselves as athlete and coach, we got the answer. It wasn’t us (well, it kind of was) and it ALL made sense; every failed workout, bad race and “symptom” became completely understood. I wanted to call every meet director, athlete, agent and fan from my past three races and scream, “I don’t suck!” but it wasn’t that simple. We had relief … for a moment. Then, suddenly, all the failed races felt insignificant. Yes, we had discovered the answer to our questions but ultimately even bigger questions took over.
There were complications with my pregnancy as I stated in our announcement blog. For the first few weeks, neither Darren nor I would let ourselves get excited. It was too “high risk”, the category our pregnancy fell in due to the IUD conception. Every two days we were facing a new uncertainty. Was the pregnancy ectopic? Was the IUD still there? IUD’s can fall out? Ok, it’s still there. Should I have the IUD removed or leave it in? Could I have the IUD removed? Now that it’s removed, how would the baby respond over the next two days? Eventually, we made it out of the high-risk category and through the first trimester. Relief. Excitement. A whole new line of questions … What will it be like to have a baby? Will I be a good parent?
Although I’ll have to wait to find out the answers to these questions, I do know one thing for sure. I have the best partner in Darren and couldn’t feel more blessed to be going through this adventure with him.