Eighty miles into the 2011 Gortex TransRockies Run -- a six-day, 120-mile trail race from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, Colo., in late August -- Rachel Cieslewicz was stopped in her tracks. She had come so far, pushing through four grueling days of scrambling over rocks, sloshing through riverbeds and running up to 27-percent inclines better left to mountain goats.
She'd trained to win this race. She had lined up the perfect racing partner and sponsors. It was all being written in her mind. But from the starting line, she knew something was off. Something wasn't right inside her finely tuned body. Bouts of nausea, diarrhea and bloating dogged her every step of the way. The last thing she wanted to do was walk away with a DNF. But ultimately, the 31-year-old single mom from Salt Lake City, Utah, had to do just that. She had no choice.
On-site doctors treated Cieslewicz with IV bags daily during the race for what they thought was altitude sickness. They even pulled her out at the end of Day 4 and told her that her condition was too risky to continue. She couldn't keep food down, and soon doctors worried her kidneys were failing. She needed to abandon the course and get to a lower altitude immediately to recover, doctors told her.
Uncertain what else to do and baffled by this mysterious illness, Cieslewicz left the course, got in her car and drove alone through the night (from 6 p.m. to 4 a.m.) until she reached her home in Salt Lake City. The next day, medical tests discovered the truth: Far more serious than altitude sickness, Cieslewicz was suffering from an E. coli infection, likely acquired from a salad she had eaten the day before the race.
Most people wouldn't be able to function under these circumstances, let alone race over mountains. But Cieslewicz's uncanny ability to tune into a race and tune out everything else, kept her from giving in.
Thick skin required
Her love affair with endurance sports began as a little girl growing up in St. George, Utah. "When I wasn't in school or dancing ballet and lyrical jazz, I would go outside, take off my shoes and chase after lizards in the desert for hours," Cieslewicz said. "My mother was certain running would ruin my body, so I would wait until she fell asleep at night to sneak outside and run for hours in the dark." Finally, her last year of high school, her mom allowed her to join the school's track and cross country teams. "I loved it," Cieslewicz said.
From distance running she developed an interest in cycling, and by the time she reached college, she was dabbling in the world of semi-pro racing (a pro friend noticed her raw talent and helped her train). Then in the spring of 2001, Cieslewicz -- a University of Utah student -- went in for a routine blood donation. When she stood up afterward she passed out, hitting her head hard on the concrete floor. She was hospitalized and received staples to close the gash. The long-term damage of the freak incident didn't reveal itself until several months later when she returned to school unable to read (and comprehend) more than phrases or write much more than her name.
Doctors later speculated a lack of oxygen after her fall may have caused some brain damage. But why did it take so long to notice?
"When you suffer a traumatic brain injury, you don't know the extent right away because it takes a while for normal cognitive functioning to return," Cieslewicz said. It wasn't until she returned to school that she began to fear the worst. "I couldn't make my brain work normally. I didn't understand why."
Without health insurance or money to pay for rehab, she spent several years recovering on her own. She suffered from post-traumatic stress syndrome, memory loss, anxiety and panic attacks. To this day, her brain does not work the same. "I probably wouldn't recognize three-quarters of the people I met at the TransRockies in August if I saw them again," Cieslewicz admitted.
By 2004, she was ready to return to racing -- first in cycling and then dabbling in triathlons. She was hooked. After just a handful of races, Cieslewicz was one of the top females in the state. By 2008, she was ready to give the pro tri circuit a try, when she picked up a parasite during an open-water swim.
"I was so consumed with racing that I ignored all the warning signs -- weight loss, trouble eating, exhaustion -- and chalked it up to overtraining," she said. Instead of seeking medical attention, she bartered with herself: "I'd tell myself, 'Give me six more weeks, body, and then I'll take a break before nationals and worlds.'"
Despite feeling fatigued, Cieslewicz signed up for a three-day, high-altitude, off-road race in Brian Head, Utah, called the American Mountain Classic. During the race, her body started going into spasms. "I kept trying to override it," she said. At the end of the first day, she was so delirious that her friend and teammate took her to the local hospital.
You cannot be afraid of injuries and illnesses. You need stare them in the face and do whatever you need to get back on your feet again.” -- Rachel Cieslewicz
Four full liters of fluid later, the 5-foot-6 Cieslewicz was stabilized. She'd dropped from 110 to 95 pounds. The question needed to be asked: Why didn't she stop sooner?
Cieslewicz can't answer that. "Never quit," for better or worse, it is in her blood.
Perils of pro racing
In 2010, Cieslewicz decided to change her focus from triathlons to purely running. She promptly found herself ranked second nationally in mountain running and fifth overall at worlds.
"I hit personal records in every road distance -- 10Ks, half-marathons and marathons -- that I did last year," she said.
In 2011, she's on track to give her competitors an even bigger run for the prize money. She scored the best overall female time in this year's Xterra West 21K (1:36:19), and Xterra Pacific Championship 20K (1:22). (The Xterra Race Series hosts highly technical trail races around the country of varying distances throughout the year.)
Cieslewicz hopes to defend her 2010 age-group title at this month's Xterra National Championships. Her goals may need to be modified after last month's E. coli scare, but Cieslewicz refuses to aim for anything less than the top. "If I've learned one thing from all of my injuries and illnesses, it's that you can't be afraid of them," she said. "You need stare them in the face and do whatever you need to get back on your feet again."