Pushing Past the Limits: An Off-Road Warrior's Story of Perseverance

"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."

Rachel, revealed

We get the off-road racer to spill the beans on her "real life."

Favorite band: Band of Annuals. Every time I hear them play it sounds like it's coming straight from the heart.

Pre-race rituals: When I wake up, I meditate and visualize my race for 20 minutes. To warm up, I jog 15 minutes, then do some sun salutes and breathing exercises to help my focus.

Best pre-race fuel: I slurp down slow-burning, high-energy Chia seeds.

Post-race drink: Beer to settle my stomach. An hour or two later, I eat a salad with some protein or PB&J sandwich.

Last thing I read: "The Art of Slowing Down: A Sense-able Approach to Running Faster." If I want a long career, I can't force the body. I'm learning to honor it.

Biggest pet peeve: Absent-minded drivers. I've been hit twice while riding my bicycle. Luckily, I walked away both times.

If I weren't a runner I'd be ... Living in a third-world country teaching retreats on how to run and do yoga. I like to help people realize their abilities.

Mantra: Effortless effort. It means work hard, but trust that you can do it.

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