By Clara Santucci
Exercise Physiologist

The best things in life are worth taking a risk. I prepared, trained hard, and stepped on the line for the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials. It had been a long road, and I felt that I had a shot at the top three to qualify for the Olympic Team.

There were "red flag" conditions on Feb. 13 due to the high temperatures and strong sun for the 10:22 a.m. start of the race. I felt a calm over me during the warmup and a sense of pride to be racing to represent my country. I was good in tough conditions – I knew it.

The gun went off, and I found my place in a large pack at the front, feeling comfortable, well aware of my position, and making sure I made the right moves – grabbing fluid bottles, taking tangents, and working with other runners to keep the planned pace. The front of the pack made a move to go faster and separated, and I smartly kept my pace. I knew most people in front of me would pay the price for going too quickly in the heat. We would all be hurting eventually.

Around the 8-mile mark, I was still feeling well and conserving my energy in the heat. Near the halfway point, however, I began to feel a pain in my left hamstring. Unfortunately, this was a familiar hurt – one that had stopped a couple of my last big workouts. But I had done all the treatments and rested it to the point that I thought I could make it through the race. It was worth the risk to try, and since it seemed to hurt only when I ran more quickly, the slower pace fell to my favor.

I pushed on. My coach saw me as I rounded the Olympic Coliseum on the second loop of the four-loop course. Most likely noticing a limp in my stride, he yelled out, "Clara, are you OK?" I nodded, unconvincingly, and he added, "Don't damage it."

I thought maybe adrenaline from the crowd would dull the pain, distract me from my deteriorating stride and pace, but there was no relief. It was getting hotter, but that was second to my leg that seemed to be shutting down on me. I went on, running slower than I would a training run, until I had to walk – that was a first. I tried running again, walked again, and by 15 miles, I knew my chances were over.

I can fight back from far behind; even when it doesn't look like there's a chance, I can still fight. This time was different, though. I didn't have the power I normally have; I was physically limited. It frustrated me. How could I be here, in a race I had been dreaming of and working toward for years and be unable to perform? My choices were to push on, finish well behind my goal, and do further damage to my hamstring, or accept what I could not change, let go of the race, step off the course, and preserve my career by not damaging my hamstring.

I made the hard choice to step off the course. I hesitated before going under the yellow tape that separated course from sideline, but knew it was the right decision to stop. My husband saw me, came over, and hugged me while I sobbed, heartbroken. I could hardly believe what had just happened – the race was still happening, and I was on the sideline. Officially out. Nightmare come true.

I slowly walked back with him by my side. As he tried to cheer me up, he let me know it was a good decision. I saw some really kind people along the way. A woman I did not know offered me her water, and a few good friends offered their sympathy.

I didn't know if I was mad or sad – probably both. I watched the women and men continuing by, all looking worn and beat by the sun, but determination still on their faces. Runners are a tough bunch. I wanted to be out there still, fighting to get the best out of myself. Although I was distraught at my own condition, I was also incredibly inspired by the runners, who were my friends and fellow Americans. I thought of everyone at home and at the race – those who were cheering for me and supporting me, and I vowed at that moment that I'd be back again, better than ever.

It's been a few days now, and it still stings to think of the first marathon I've dropped out of, the first truly bad one I've had, but I I learned a lot in the build up and even during the race. Most importantly, I found out just how driven I feel toward this goal, so I am healing and planning my return. I'll run many more races before the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, but my vision will be 2020 for the next four years.

The journey continues! Thank you for following me, and thank you to all those who have sent me their love, support, and healing wishes.

WVU Medicine is proud to partner with Clara Santucci.