Story provided by Jerek Wolcott, Carroll Athletics
HELENA, Mont. - Pain is Leah Esposito’s constant companion. The Carroll College cross country runner can push past her physical limits – that ability is part of what drove her to All-American honors.
Esposito opened her senior year this past August, winning the Carroll Early Bird Open by over 30 seconds. In her second race, the Montana State Open, she appeared sluggish, finishing behind teammate Janie Reid by over a minute.
She said she just didn’t have it that day. It is not unusual for a distance runner to be “off.” Runners often point to training, diet, stress, school and relationships as the culprits of a bad race, but this proved to be a much different scenario.
“I had back pain for a few days. It wasn’t bad, I thought I just tweaked something lifting,” Esposito said. “I ignored it for three days but it got really bad Friday night and Saturday morning and I couldn’t sleep or sit up straight, I couldn’t do anything to make it stop.”
The pain was excruciating and, finally, Esposito couldn’t ignore it any longer. Saturday, she went into an urgent care clinic, still thinking she had a tweaked muscle. The clinic quickly found that she had more extensive issues.
“They were telling me that it could be pleurisy, because they ran a blood test and the only thing that was wrong was my D-Dimer levels (a protein fragment in the blood) which could have indicated a lot of things,” Esposito said. “There are things like inflammation, blood clot, bleeding, trauma, internal injuries, so they said that it could be a lot of things. It could be the pleurisy causing inflammation which causes your D-Dimers to elevate, but it could also be a blood clot in your lungs, my doctor said, ‘I don’t think you have a blood clot but I just want to rule it out so I’m going to get you a CAT scan.’”
She went to the hospital to get the CAT scan. The results: a pulmonary embolism.
At that point, everything about her cross country season went out the window.
- Overwhelmed -
She turned heads her freshman year at Carroll when she finished in the top-10 at NAIA nationals to lead the budding program. Three years later, she is a three-time All-American, and a two-time defending Frontier Champion. The pre-med major has a 4.0 GPA and earned the prestigious NAIA A.O.Duer Award and the 2015-16 CoSIDA College Division Academic All-America of the Year for all sports.
Now, midway through her senior year, she was sitting in a hospital as doctors ran a slew tests.
“I was pretty overwhelmed because I knew how serious it was and I was pretty scared actually, and I didn’t know the severity of it,” Esposito said. “I was scared and overwhelmed. The doctor came in and told me it is a blood clot, and honestly, at that point I stopped listening.”
A pulmonary embolism is a blockage in one of the pulmonary arteries in the lung. The clot blocks blood flow to the lungs and can be life threatening. They are most-often cause by clots traveling from the legs. The people that are most at risk for pulmonary embolism are people over the age of 70, overweight or have had recent surgeries or injuries.
Esposito with her 2015 All-American Plaque and Medal.Her doctor at the hospital, Dr. Ashley Basten, was concerned because Esposito didn’t fit into the mold of a person that gets a pulmonary embolism.
“She is definitely in a category that is not my typical patient,” Basten said. “Normally after long air travel, really long car trips, after surgery, long periods of immobility. Older people, pregnant women, new mothers and obese people definitely are at greater risk. She didn't meet any of those categories.”
They ran genetic tests to determine if she has a predisposition to clotting but the test came back clear. Basten determined that the clot was a side-effect of medication. She would make a full recovery and would run again but it would be months.
“When Dr. Basten talked to me, she emphasized the seriousness of the problem,” Esposito said. “She used to run too, and she said, ‘I know you’re going to want to run and get right back out there, but I want you to listen to your body and not push yourself because your lungs aren’t going to be working right.’”
“I am a runner and I know what her mentality is like in that aspect,” Basten said. “I told her, to do what feels right. ‘You know your body, listen to what it is telling you. Run with a partner and go on short jogs to start out. Try to be realistic.’ I didn’t want her to push herself. As the clots dissolve the chance of her hurting herself diminishes but there is risk, especially early. I did tell her to focus on track and field and not to expect to have much of a cross country season."
For head cross country coach David Morris, the call from Esposito was heart-stopping.
“It was pretty scary, she was in the hospital, she said she was fine but it is always tough to have an athlete go through something like that,” Morris said. “You start to question yourself as a coach. Why did that happen? I was worried about whether it was related to our training. You never want to cause one of your kids to get injured or go through something like this because of their workload or training.”
Everything that she worked for, everything that had built up over four years and the work that she had put in to meet the goals of her senior year were gone.
“I had that goal all summer to get in the top-five and to see that gone was heartbreaking. It was a lot to process at that time,” Esposito said.
Another thing that frustrated her was her race at the MSU Open. She wasn’t thrilled about going out with such an abysmal performance.
“What really got me, honestly, was I told myself, 'I can’t let that be my last cross country race, I can’t,'” she said. “I at least needed to run one more because I just couldn’t live with myself if that is how I closed out my career.”
There wasn’t anything that she could do.
It was over.
And then, it wasn’t.
She did her best to follow her doctor’s instructions to the letter, but she figured out that her body was more resilient than anyone expected.
“She said don’t run for at least a week, so I took the time off,” Esposito said. “Then she said to start slow and so I did that, I ran like a mile on Thursday, two miles on Friday, three miles on Saturday and just kept going up each day and I did what I was told. I listened to my body, if I felt overexerted I stopped. I listened, but I definitely pushed the limits a little bit, I pushed past what was comfortable a little bit but I didn’t ever feel like I was hurting myself.”
She was motivated by her goals, by her last subpar performance and her team. Almost every single member of the Carroll women’s squad missed races and the Saints dropped from a top-10 ranking to clinging on to the top-25.
“So many girls had been injured on the team and so I felt like our team was falling apart and I just really wanted to get back and help out because we’re missing a lot of people so that helped motivated me a little too,” she said. Esposito is awarded the Champion of Character Award by FC Commissioner Kent Paulson.
Running is also her favorite form of therapy. Whatever happens, she looks forward to her daily runs as an opportunity to relieve stress. After one of the most emotional weeks of her life, she needed running.
“I don’t know how to explain it but it’s like one of those parts of my day,” Esposito said. “When I’m having an extremely stressful day, I can go run and just forget about it and just be with myself or my teammates and just physically exert myself for a while, it’s a big part of how I relieve stress. I was very depressed so that drove me to get back out there.”
Still, every doctor, every family member, her coaches and teammates were concerned about her. Running cross country is nothing in the grand scheme of things. Her health was far more important.
“Everyone was very hesitant, everyone told me every day, ‘don’t overexert yourself, don’t overdo it, your health is first, over your running.’ That was pretty much every single person, but it was great because they cared,” Esposito said.
“My concern was how much is she pushing herself,” Morris said. “She is so important to the team but I didn’t want her to be pushing too hard. It was more important for her to be ok than to help the team. I wanted her to get back to running in a timeline that was appropriate.”
“I am really shocked that she jumped right back in where she left off,” Morris said. “It really didn’t take her time to get back where she was before the issues. She has had a great season, she has done everything to make sure her senior year is her best year and I think she is right on where she needs to be. Throughout the whole process, she did everything right and her attitude was amazing. She could have really gotten down but she stayed up beat and focused on getting better.”
“It’s awesome, my parents and my high school coaches got to come watch,” Esposito said. “It’s just really great to kind of finish out where it started. It was just a really cool experience.”
She took advantage of the opportunity and ran a 5k course-record time of 17:58.03 for her third-consecutive Frontier title. She also led the Saints to their second-consecutive Frontier Championship, edging out Lewis-Clark State. The victory didn’t seem likely when Esposito was sitting in a hospital bed, only a few weeks prior, not to mention the slew of other injuries that had plagued the team.
“We had a slow start but the girls really advanced through the season,” Esposito said. “I think we came into the season, people were hurt and kind of run down. As the season progressed, everyone has been improving and working harder and having that team mentality. I saw it at the Great Falls meet, I think that was a big thing for us, we ran more as a team and at conference we took it up another notch.”
Now she turns her focus to nationals, Saturday in Elsah, Illinois.
“The fact that she is going to nationals is amazing,” Basten said. “Most people would take at least a couple of months to get back to where they were before hand and she was racing in three weeks. I will be watching the newspaper to see the results.”
Esposito’s goals might have adjusted but with the hurdles that she overcame just to be in the race, she isn’t going to take the opportunity for granted.
“Now that I’ve had a few races and the recovery is going much better than I think anyone could have expected. I’m starting to hope for a top-10 finish,” Esposito said. “I’m not going to be disappointed if it doesn’t happen this year, because of all the emotional and physical turmoil that’s happened.
“At this point, I just want to be happy with my race.”