rabbitELITE Austin O'Brien's journey from Iron Deficiency Anemia to OTQ

September 15th of 2019 is a date that will always bring back challenging memories. It contains both frustration and embarrassment but was also a major turning point in my running career. I raced the Capital Pursuit, a 10-miler in Des Moines, IA where I posted the worst result of my life. I remember thinking that “my high school self would have crushed me today.” Truthfully, this is the first time I have even looked up the actual result, 57:28 (5:44 min/mile). I understand that many runners would be ecstatic to run this time, but I was training for my third and final attempt at the US Olympic Marathon Trials standard of 2:19:00 (5:18 min/mile). I felt defeated. How was I going to drop almost 30 seconds per mile for over double the distance in just eight weeks?

Something had to be wrong. My workouts weren’t stellar leading into the race, but I had never felt that weak before. Fortunately, I had an annual biometric screening scheduled for work, so I asked them to include a few other tests to assess iron and blood cell count. I was below the normal range for everything, but some notable results included: (1) hemoglobin at 11.6 g/dL, (2) hematocrit at 37.8%, and (3) ferritin at 8 ng/mL. I was officially diagnosed with iron-deficiency anemia. Basically, I had few red blood cells, minimal iron stores, and a very limited capacity to transfer oxygen to my working muscles. This is not conducive to peak performance in distance running! 

Relieved that I finally had a physiological reason for my performance decline, now I wondered how I got there? I am a male and consume animal products along with several servings of fruits and vegetables so most would say that I am at a very low risk for developing iron-deficiency anemia. This answer was tough to find as there is so much conflicting information about diet, but I was willing to try any changes necessary to go after the OTQ. A conversation with a prior coach pointed me in the direction of gluten and dairy intolerance. I found a few supporting articles of gluten intolerance and reduced iron absorption but nothing concrete. Furthermore, there is no medical test that can confidently diagnose a gluten intolerance vs celiac disease, but I figured why not give it a shot? Fueled by aspirations of an OTQ, I instantly cut both gluten and dairy out of my diet. Goodbye (real) pizza. Goodbye (real) ice cream. I swapped bread and pasta for oatmeal, rice, and sweet potatoes. 

Now seven weeks before my final OTQ attempt at Monumental Marathon, I was strictly adhering to the protocol of iron supplementation every other day (better absorption vs daily) in conjunction with no gluten or dairy. My coach, Tom Schwartz, kept my training volume high but recommended I adjust paces as needed to run the appropriate effort. I had three tough long runs in this build up that included 10 miles at marathon effort and saw incredible progress each time as my iron stores returned to normal. The first, six weeks out, was around 5:45 pace. The second, four weeks out, was completed at 5:34 pace. Finally, with two weeks before race day, I cruised a 10-mile tempo in 52:40 (5:16 min/mile) and felt more comfortable than ever. That was the first time in the entire build up that I believed the OTQ was not only possible, but likely!

I still had doubts on race day, but this is a normal part of pursuing your best performance - you just need a good strategy in place to confront it. I overcame my doubt by flooding my brain with thoughts of gratitude: “grateful for well-timed health and fitness,” “fortunate to have a large pace group,” and “confident about my improvement from eight weeks ago.” As the race started, 20-30 of us settled into OTQ pace (5:18 min/mile) early on. I remember smiling at each mile split knowing that I was ahead of pace and feeling very comfortable. The group was still strong as we rolled through 20 miles with a 30-second cushion on 2:19:00 pace but this is where it got challenging! My confidence was shaken with a 5:30 split into a 17-mph headwind but I didn’t come this far to miss my mark. Working with three others, we traded leads and helped each other stay on pace. Finally, I saw a clock with 1/2 mile to go and realized I had 3 minutes to finish – it was “in the bag” at this point, barring any falls or freak accidents. After a few more turns, I came into that final straight-a-way seeing 2:18 on the board, smiling as the crowd brought me to the finish. Truly an unforgettable experience!

Looking back, I view that 10-mile race with gratitude. Had I not run so poorly, I may never have taken steps to discover my iron-deficiency and accomplish the dream of qualifying for the Olympic Marathon Trials. In summary, here are few takeaways: (1) get your iron and blood cell count checked frequently, (2) uncover the root cause of your iron-deficiency, (3) be patient and grateful for progress one day at a time, and (4) turn every “poor performance” into a learning opportunity. Thanks for reading – I hope this helps you overcome any barriers you may be working through! Your perseverance will be rewarded.





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