Hannah Whetzel couldn’t sit down. When she did, pain radiated everywhere. This is how the then junior stood at the University of Arizona. She got up during the four-hour bus ride to Flagstaff for the team’s first cross-country meeting of the 2017 season. She was at breakfast. And she always stood there when she wasn’t driving or in class.
The problem started in her Achilles tendon when she was running at the preseason camp. She notified her coaches the first week of school, but she says they didn’t seem too concerned. Sometimes Whetzel would stop crying because of the severe pain – sometimes in front of her buses, sometimes alone in her car. But she ran and raced on. Oddly enough, it didn’t hurt when she did hard workouts. It was as if her body’s circuits had failed and stopped the searing sensation until the endorphins had faded. Not being a member of the team, she felt she had no leeway to disappoint her coaches. Finally, Whetzel received an MRI in February 2018 that revealed a partially torn Achilles tendon and tendinosis. After Whetzel received two platelet-rich plasma injections, she had to rehabilitate herself without the assistance of sports coaches or her coaches. “I felt incredibly alone and isolated,” she says.
Whetzel used to love running – the sense of achievement after hard workouts, laughing with friends and all the people she met through sports – and it was her dream to run for a Division I school. She also understood that exercise and injury can go hand in hand. But over the course of her four year college running career, she began to associate running with one thing: pain. In the spring of her freshman year, coaches thought she had sustained a tendon injury and insisted that she try an anti-gravity treadmill. But she could hardly walk. How should she keep running? A week later, she saw an orthopedic surgeon diagnose a fatigue fracture in her fibula. Then, in her senior year, Whetzel developed another stress fracture, but she still rode every meet that cross-country season.
“They compete at Division I level and have to endure a few injuries,” she says, expressing the unspoken belief of many on the team. “It felt like you couldn’t say no, like you didn’t have much choice. If you complained, you are weak. “Even when she reported an injury, she said the coaching staff didn’t always believe her. So she ran, mostly afraid that her leg might break in mid-run or that she would not meet the high standards of her trainers.