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

Eighty miles into the 2011 Gortex TransRockies Run—a six-day, 120-mile trail race from Buena Vista to Beaver Creek, Colorado, 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 four 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.

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