Ever since I was a little girl I was constantly trying to keep up with my brother, Grant. It was a healthy, competitive sibling relationship. We pushed each other to limits I didn't even know existed. There is absolutely no one else I would rather experience life with than him. He led the path and I followed along very closely.
Sports were a huge part of our lives from the very beginning. I started with dance and gymnastics. Then I began playing soccer and quickly it became my passion. I played basketball in the winters and swim team in the summer. Soccer remained number one above all. Little did I know those tiny legs were going to take me places, places I had never been.
It was a beautiful, sunny day outside and I was about to run the mile in 5th grade. Every time I went around the bus loop I would receive a popsicle stick to make sure I completed six laps. I crossed the finish line in 5:52 and broke the school record. 11 year old me was ready to get out to soccer practice that evening, I didn't even think twice. A couple months later I started middle school cross country.
I was young and all I cared about was winning because that's what mattered to me at the time. I was a 3x county champion in cross country and a 6x county champion in the 3200/1600 in track. Sounds impressive but the part that wasn't was my attitude.
It's embarrassing to admit but I honestly didn't enjoy running. I dreaded the bus ride to meets because of how nervous I would get. I would usually race on Wednesdays and hop in the car immediately after to head to Ukrop Park for soccer practice. My teammates were my best friends. I continued to play through 8th grade and once high school came around I was ready to put my talent into one sport. Oddly enough the answer was easy once I started high school cross country. I said farewell to soccer and put the spikes on.
I owe my high school career to my phenomenal coaches, Coach Moye and Coach Averill. They are two incredible people who put nothing but passion into my life. My freshman year in October of 2015 I won my first big 5k, the Milestat Invitational in 17:57. Followed by a 2nd place finish at the Virginia State Cross Country meet.
I remember toeing the line with Kate Murphy, someone I idolize for many reasons.
Indoor track came around and I broke 11 minutes in the 3200 meter at regionals. The following week at states Kate Murphy whooped me again in the 3200 but I was very pleased with a second place finish. Outdoor track wasn't my best season but I remained happy and healthy. Sophomore year came around and I was ready to throw down some fast times. I placed 1st again at the Milestat Invitational and ran a PR of 17:35.
My grandma was extremely sick at the time with lung cancer and ended up passing soon after this meet. I can remember crossing the finish line with the biggest smile on my face because I knew I did it for her. That was the first time I ran for something bigger than myself. I will be honest, I was immature and never had a true reason as to why I ran. It just felt natural and I wanted to be out there to win. Indoor track of 2017 was the first time I faced some setbacks.
It was a Monday afternoon and I was out at our local park with my coach doing a 3 mile tempo. I laid down halfway through because my legs were so heavy. It was a feeling I had never felt before and I couldn't describe it because it was far beyond the normal lactic acid. I had a really hard time that season executing my races because I no longer felt confident.
Somehow, I turned that around at states when I ran the 1600 meter. I walked away a state champion that day. I appreciated that victory more than normal because I knew how much I struggled building up to that day. Outdoor track was nothing spectacular and quite honestly I was just okay with the sub-par races I performed.
My junior year was the beginning of this deadly cycle I am still battling. I was diagnosed with a sacral stress fracture in August which put me out for the whole cross-country season. I was devastated but honestly it was a much-needed break. I shot up a whole six inches and I never realized how much extra stress that was on my body. I struggled to get back that indoor season after adjusting to body changes and coming back from an injury.
Unfortunately, that indoor season was the last time I raced like myself.
May of 2018 I was diagnosed with another stress fracture but this time in my femur. This news was tough to swallow but I didn't think it was anything I couldn't handle. I recovered well and I was back on my feet before I knew it. I had big goals for my senior year so that summer I trained harder than I ever had before. My training never clicked like it usually did but I continued to push through. I was out at Pocohonatas State Park doing our usual Saturday long run. I was finishing up a solid 12 miles and I can remember my calves burning and the pain was unbearable. I figured it was just soreness and it would go away over time.
Our first meet did not go as planned but I continued to keep my head up and get back to work. We headed to Lynchburg for a meet a couple weeks later. As we were warming up I can remember almost not being able to feel my legs. I got on the start line and when the gun went off my legs felt a rush of lactic acid. I tried to convince myself it was normal until half a mile into the race I stepped off the course. My eyes filled with tears and quite honestly I felt so helpless. I didn't know what I was going to tell my coaches or parents. From the outside I looked perfectly fine but I knew deep down something was not right. I convinced myself it was all in my head and that overtime things would get better.
About a week later I was doing an 800 meter repeat and the burning in my calves again was unbearable. Every time I went home from practice I cried to my parents because my body felt so foreign. Walking up the stairs at home or at school made my heart rate sky rocket to the point where I had to sit down and catch my breath.
I eventually saw Dr. Greg Bentley, a PMR, in Raleigh who ultimately changed my life. After a couple weeks of watching my symptoms worsen he ordered some baseline bloodwork. On December 5th I was sitting at my kitchen table doing homework and Dr. Bentley called my dad with the news. My hemoglobin was 7.1 and the normal range is anywhere between 12-15.
I can't lie, as much as I was terrified it almost was a relief that we were able to figure out what was wrong. Within 24 hours I was at the hospital seeing a hematologist. My dad and I walked in and we were directed to the hematology/oncology department. I remember holding his hand in the waiting room and tears filled my eyes because I knew things were not good.
They called me back and took blood from both my arms and little did I know that was soon to become my new life.
The doctor didn't have a definitive answer but that it could either be leukemia, autoimmune disorder, or a viral infection. He ordered a bone marrow biopsy in which I urgently had that done 3 days later. It was December 11th, it was a snowy day, I was in the hospital bed trying to remain calm before the biopsy. I laid there on my stomach for the whole procedure while listening to Christmas music. My hemoglobin came back at 5.9 which meant I was getting my first blood transfusion. They transported me to a small room where they attached me to the IV pole and gravity took care of the rest. I remember feeling a little better after receiving a blood transfusion. I stared out the window and just prayed to God for some peace.
I knew things would be tough ahead but the unknown was the scariest part. The bone marrow biopsy unfortunately left us with no answers. So the next 5 months consisted of weekly blood work and weekly blood transfusions. I went from being a healthy year 18 year to barely being able to catch my breath. In April of 2019 I saw a pediatric hematologist and my whole world changed for the better. I was diagnosed with autoimmune hemolytic anemia but it's unknown as to why I have these immune mediated responses.
After a dose of steroids and a 6 month round of an immunosuppressant we were finally seeing relief in my counts. It took me awhile to get back on my feet but most importantly it felt good to look at myself in the mirror and see the old Rachel coming back.
I headed to Greenville in August to start my freshman year in college as a nursing major. I was so eager to get out there with my new team, but my body was not quite there yet. I look back and wish I had taken it slower. I forgot what it was like to be an athlete, it honestly felt so different. I was determined to get back because I wanted to prove myself.
Couple months into my first semester I was diagnosed with a stress fracture in my sacrum. It fueled my fire and I figured it was from coming back too fast so I worked my ass off on the bike and got back to work. I recovered well and I was back on my feet for summer training. In June of 2020 my blood had another inflammatory response, so I was back on the steroids for a short period. After a couple weeks of recovering
I started to feel better. In July I was doing hill repeats and it was the first time I remember feeling like myself. Ironically, that same day I can recall pain developing in my femur. That came back to bite me in the butt around August. I had a stress reaction in my femur so I got back on the bike for another 8 weeks.
I had thoughts of medically retiring then but that spark was still lit inside of me. I started training again but this time things were not clicking like they usually did. I felt sluggish and my body was not responding well to training. It was this constant push and pull every week. After a 7 mile run pain in my femur developed.... yet again. I am so in touch with my body I knew what it was at this point. The usual doctor visit, it didn't take much for the doctor to tell me it was another stress reaction. At this point, I knew this was my body's way of telling me no more.
I was constantly thinking about medically retiring but pushed the process under the rug for later. I was uncomfortable and scared because I knew it would be a transition. I didn't want to let my teammates and coaches down so I kept quiet for a little. I eventually had a meeting with my coaches and trainer in early April. Tears were shed but the inevitable had made its way out of the ground. It was time for me to put my health first.
It's been about 3 weeks since I made my decision and I wouldn't say I'm at peace but I'm relieved. I am still in the fight to find answers. I was in the hospital a couple weeks ago which ended up being a blessing in disguise. I was laying in my hospital bed and the weight of the world came off my shoulders.
I knew I made the right decision by medically retiring my lack of health is obvious. Closing this door is a priority at the moment. I'm not at ECU to do more miles on the bike than on the track. I want to prosper in my years down the road and while I could keep taking the risk of getting injured, enough is enough. Running is a huge part of my life but it doesn't have to define who I am. Which is why I want to share my story with others. I let it consume who I was.
I'm Rachel Northcutt, not a runner. Every athlete eventually graduates and will have to find their identity. So I'm here to tell everyone to start working on it now. Let your sport become part of you, not define who you are. It's easy to get caught up in the winning and training. Setbacks are part of the inevitable and it's about how you approach them. I'm a big believer in that things happen for a reason and we must embrace adversity. Life would be boring if we were never faced with hardship. I went from being an elite athlete who allowed my sport to consume my everyday life. When I got sick I barely knew who I was because all I saw was a runner. I thank God every day for helping me grow as a person and not just an athlete. I have experienced so much and I cannot wait to put it towards my nursing profession one day.
I may never get to wear ECU across my chest, but I wouldn't change a thing. The grass is greener on the other side and I see this as a chance to grow. So I want people to reach out and use me as a resource. It's important to learn from others and I wish I did sooner. I have experienced these things in life to show others it's okay to struggle and it's okay to let go of the things we love. It may feel like your whole world is crashing down but sometimes stepping out of our comfort zones is when we flourish the most. I still plan on staying involved in this sport and I hope to get my story out there.
I will be back on the trails when the time is right. For now, I am going to put my shoes up and allow this body to heal. I have been referred to the National Institute of Health to be part of clinical trials and hopefully find an answer and maybe even a cure! It would be easy for me to give up but I will remain optimistic. My fight used to be the race to the finish line but this time my finish line looks a little different, and that's okay.