Kate Murphy’s legs were burning.
It wasn’t because she had just run 4:07.21 to qualify for the 2016 Olympic Trials in the 1500 meters. Or had just run against a professional field to make it to the semifinals of those trials. Or any of the performances over three years that made her one of the University of Oregon’s top recruits in 2017.
No, this was happening months later. She had just run a routine workout around the Lake Braddock Secondary School track, notching times she could hit in her sleep. The speed was there, but the sensation was enough to shake her. For a while, it came and went. Then, it stayed. Running, which made it worse, didn’t seem worth it.
“I just wanted to quit,” she said. “Not quit the sport, but I needed a break from racing. It was getting too frustrating.”
She hasn’t quit, but she’s spent more than two years running in circles while trying to get back to what felt right. As a college sophomore, she has retired from competing at the University of Oregon, where she never got to put on a uniform, but she’s not exactly moving to Del Boca Vista any time soon.
This isn’t the story of teenage burnout. Murphy wasn’t running too many miles or doing too many high-intensity intervals. Her legs, which carried her to Penn Relays championships and several state titles in cross country and track, just had something wrong with them.
Murphy took her time coming back to competition after the Olympic Trials and the world junior championships. She raced sparingly in cross country, leading the Bruins to another state title and Nike Cross Nationals appearance, but she did not go to the well that fall in training or racing, with her sights trained on a big spring season.
“After cross country, I really started getting after it,” she said. “Running more miles and hoping to build up to something good.”
But that’s when her legs started going rogue. She was hitting the times, and she ran a solid, if not spectacular by her standards, leg on the distance medley relay team that broke the indoor high school record. But she couldn’t physically enjoy that because she couldn’t feel it.
“I wouldn’t have run if we didn’t have a chance to win,” she said on New Year’s Eve 2017.
“We knew it was a problem after the distance medley relay,” her mother, Patty, said, referring to Lake Braddock’s national indoor record run in January 2017. “She was miserable the entire time…her legs felt like lead. She didn’t think her legs could run the 1k the next day, something she had been wanting to do for a long time. For her to say that, we were worried.”
She had run 4:37 to anchor the team, with a 32-second last 200, despite that feeling. What followed was seven months of hell and mystery for the Murphys. No race against the pros at the Millrose Games. Light racing for the rest of the year, scoring what points she could for the Bruins in the spring, all throughout not knowing what the problem was.
Was it iron? A thyroid problem? A nerve problem? A brain tumor? Growing pains? A 16-needle test said it wasn’t compartment syndrome.
Wait, go back to growing pains. That wasn’t it exactly, but it was close. Bronson Delasobrera, the Capitals’ head physician figured it out. An MRI that showed she had Popliteal artery entrapment syndrome.
It’s a vascular condition that cut off blood from reaching her calves and feet as her calf muscles developed. That blood deprivation caused the burning and the numbness. It’s a rare enough condition, particularly in women, that all of the dozens of tests missed it, even the vascular surgeon who thought she “couldn’t possibly be PAES,” Patty in an email detailing the various tests Kate underwent and the guesses medical professionals came up with.
The condition affects primarily males under the age of 30, according to the Cleveland Clinic, but some women develop it, with less than 3 percent of the population born with the defect that makes the condition possible.
Two weeks before she was off to Eugene, Murphy had surgery on one leg. A week later, the other. Dr. James Black removed muscles from Murphy’s calves, giving her arteries room to move blood, but sending her off to school in a far different position from when she had committed to the Ducks. And, missing muscles she’d had her entire life to that point.
She got to school and immediately started rehabbing, starting the clock for when she would be able to join her teammates. She biked alongside them when she could, but a lot of the time she was on her own, in the pool, on a stationary bike or an elliptical.
Murphy couldn’t travel to meets with the rest of the team, and since she wasn’t running, she spent more time working with the trainer Grant Wilson than the coaching staff.
It wasn’t all bad. She had the opportunity to befriend a lot of track teammates in different events while her distance teammates were focused on cross country. She adjusted to undergraduate life the way she wouldn’t have as full-time varsity athlete. Though far from joining Eugene’s counterculture, Murphy has felt free to spend some time exploring extracurriculars, including undergraduate sports marketing seminars and taking on a mentor who was an executive for Nike, a company for which Murphy wouldn’t mind working.
“I know I won’t be running forever, but I feel like I’ve gotten a head start on thinking about my professional career and I don’t think that would have happened if I was training more and racing a lot.”
She got the go-ahead from Dr. Black to start running Dec. 18, and less than two weeks later was eyeing a comeback within a few months.
“I’ll try to run a race unattached indoor and show my coach (then Maurica Powell) I’m ready,” she said Dec 31, 2017. “I want to be racing by outdoors.”
She was doubling by the end of December. On the AlterG treadmill, which lets you run at a fraction of your body weight, she was hitting 4:30 pace for her workouts.
But she was running on legs that were missing some stabilizing muscles, which subtly changed the way she was running. That contributed to Achilles tendonitis problems that plagued her spring 2018. Then a stress reaction in her right femur closed out her freshman year.
“Like most high level athletes, she was eager to train and compete at the same level she had prior to her injuries, and a lot of her stress came from setting goals and timelines around her recovery that were really out of her control,” Powell said in February 2019.
Murphy also found that the team energy that made her fall in love with the Lake Braddock Bruins didn’t fit with the Ducks.
“I would go to practice, try to bring enthusiasm to the stretches and the drills before I went to the bike to cross train,” she said. “I wanted to do the most with the team with the time that I could, but trying to be super enthusiastic could come off as being not serious about running.”
Though her injured time was isolating, trainer Wilson was her champion as she struggled to try to get back.
“He was there for me at my lowest,” Murphy said. “He helped me, vouched for me, he’s someone who always has my back.”
In June, Powell and her husband, men’s distance coach Andy Powell, left to take head coaching jobs at the University of Washington.
During her freshman year, Murphy took comfort in her friendships at home and in Oregon, and graduate student Samantha Nadel, formerly of Georgetown, straddled those worlds.
“I obviously wasn’t her caliber in high school, but I had a lot of injuries in college. I tried to put myself in her shoes, how hard it was to feel like she belonged.”
Nadel, who has lived her entire life on the East Coast, at least had running to help her transition to living in Oregon.
“On top of everything else, she was just a freshman, and that’s hard enough, especially across the country,” Nadel said. “She tried to put on a brave face and she was always planning to race. It’s a testament to her drive and love for the sport.”
Nadel was there for times when the frustrations boiled over, too, but Murphy’s focus would reorient her.
“Anytime she’d get frustrated to the point that she would even say something about quitting, she’d correct herself right after,” Nadel said. “It was just a matter of when she was over that injury, she’d be back on track.”
“The way she’s handled it has been way beyond her years.”
Nadel now runs professionally for the Boston Athletic Association. (She now coaches at the University of North Carolina.)
In July 2018, Murphy was ready to try again.
She waited the requisite four weeks before starting to run immediately. She was eagerly awaiting her new coach, who would turn out to be Helen Lehman-Winters from the University of San Francisco.
She saw an opening when some Oregon runners left for Seattle with the Powells.
“They’ll need a six or seven,” for the cross country team. Kate Murphy was now aiming for a non-scoring spot on a college cross country team.
“I can do this,” she said. “It’s just a matter of distinguishing good pain from bad pain. When it my breaking point? I need to figure that out because I will run to my breaking point and that’s not good. I know this is going to hurt no matter what.
“I just want to run, I don’t care how much it hurts, I need to keep my sanity. There’s been a lot of lows, times I wonder why I’m here. There’s always something that keeps me there. We’re getting this new facility…our athletic trainer… small things. I came here for other things. Oregon is totally different if you’re training and competing. It’s hard to go here to do one thing and have to spend my time doing other things.”
A few days after we talked in July, pain started again. Looking back with seven months of experience, Murphy knew she was impatient, but it was hard to tell at the time.
“The doctor said I should take four weeks off, minimum, so I started up again right after four weeks was up,” she said in February 2019. “I took my time off, I should be healed, right? No, that was the minimum time I should expect to be off.”
Her father, Howard, knew things weren’t going well in August 2018, after he and his son drove a car out to Eugene before flying back. One of Kate’s stressors during her freshman year, in addition to having to live in the dorms, was difficulty getting around.
“We’re trying to support her in every way,” Howard said. “We’re all in, still hoping there’s a chance for her to compete again on that level. We just give her space, we’re a little more lenient than we ordinarily would be because we know she’s going through some hard things.”
He and Patty had their doubts though.
“She’s a teenager,” he said, groaning with the knowledge that most college freshmen come home insufferable after a few philosophy classes. “She’s had so much success, but things just aren’t working right now. We just want to be supportive, but we wonder if she’s doing the right thing, but what do we know? We’re not track coaches.”
So they waited, a continent away, and hoped their daughter was finding her way.
“We haven’t seen a point where she’s gotten close. She keeps having setbacks,” he said, just a week before she was due to go back to school.
“I believe she still has it like she did before. Maybe a new coach will be a fresh start.”
It was, but not the way the family expected. Lehman-Winters had a talented runner on her roster, but she didn’t recruit Murphy, and wasn’t around for the previous year’s struggles. The fresh start might not be one that granted leniency, but it certainly added a new perspective.
“She also took the time to sit down and talk to me one-on-one, and she learned about everything I had gone through before,” Murphy said.
Lehman-Winters invited Murphy to the team’s training camp in Sun River, Ore., with the goal of running 45 minutes a day around the resort.
“I could stick with the girls for 20 minutes, but I was feeling every step,” Murphy said. “I spoke up and said it was painful, but I could handle it. By the end of most runs, I was crying.”
“You don’t want to give up a season, but I had no idea what was going to happen competing wise,” she said.
When she returned to campus, an MRI showed another stress reaction, close to the one she had just returned from.
“Cross country was out,” Murphy said. “Indoors probably was, too. Walking and biking hurt. I was waking up just to do this to myself.”
Murphy had joked about retirement before. But, just as Nadel observed, she would quickly regain her focus on the big picture. But maybe the picture was changing.
A year before, Murphy saw her recovery as a matter of weeks until she could run a fast time again. Now, with her fourth separate setback, her timeframe changed to having a year to rebuild herself, which would mean another year of sitting out.
Howard Murphy said the second stress reaction prompted her to look more seriously at medical retirement, which would allow her to relinquish her roster spot to a runner who was healthy enough to compete.
“(Lehman-Winters) knew I was in a dark place and I wasn’t happy,” Murphy said. “The decision was easier than I thought because I was so unhappy. I started seeing myself as a long-term project getting back, but the team needed me ready to win a title. That just wasn’t going to work.”
So, in October 2018, less than two years since she won her second Nike Cross Southeast title, she was a retiree.
Murphy could keep her athletic scholarship, but Oregon would not have to count her on their roster, since she wouldn’t be eligible to compete for the Ducks for as long as she was at the university. It would mean her dream of wearing an Oregon uniform would end, but given how frustrating everything had been to that point, why not try something new?
“We mourned the loss of her NCAA career,” Howard said. “While we watch the ACC and the PAC 12, you see conference champions winning races in times she could run in high school, but we try not to dwell on that.”
For a month after her most recent stress reaction diagnosis, she didn’t run or cross train. Then she eased back into cross training, which was mentally difficult.
“I can’t really do something without it going toward a training goal,” she said. “When I got to November, it took all of my willpower not to run and hurt myself again.”
She still has Wilson’s help as a trainer, and access to the university’s athletic facilities. She’s running alone, but she has flirted with joining the university’s club running team, coached by former Ducks women’s coach Tom Heinonen, who won two NCAA track titles.
“There were a few times the club runners saw me crying after my runs went bad,” she said. “Once we start a new quarter, my schedule might be better for making their practices.”
An Olympic Trials semifinalist… running on her college’s club team.
The Oregon Track Club, based in Eugene, also offers an option outside of the NCAA system.
In the meantime, she is volunteering as a team manager when her class schedule allows.
“She’s been an awesome teammate, it’s been challenging for her, but she helps out with the team in any way she can and we try to include her, even though she’s not on the team anymore,” Lehman-Winters said. “She wanted to run so badly, but her body wasn’t letting her, in the context of where she was, you could tell it was tough for her.”
In January, after a few weeks of building back up to 30 minutes of running, Murphy added some strides to her routine. That flipped a switch that brought her more than two years back, when she was in Eugene for the 2016 trials. The last time she had been running that comfortably while in Oregon. She was ready to think about racing again.
“I know I can race at that level again,” she said. “The fastness only goes away when you don’t run, but I’m feeling it still there.”
She’s thrown in a few fartleks into her runs and gotten below 5:00 pace for about a minute. Most importantly, running has not been uncomfortable since she started up in earnest.
“With some consistent training, about five or six months, I should be able to do that a lot longer,” she said. “I can feel it coming back. I don’t need to run a lot of miles to get back in shape.”
Looking back a year, she knows she had put unrealistic expectations on herself to get back after a pair of surgeries that changed the way her legs worked. The tenaciousness that made her a fierce competitor cut both ways and nearly kept her from returning to the sport.
“My body needed to readjust to functioning without those stability muscles,” she said. A few months after surgery, she couldn’t get out of a chair without pushing off with her arms. “You think you’re invincible; I was used to going out and doing whatever I wanted to do with running.”
The long-term plan, two months into her comeback, is to get back to racing as early as July. She’ll be back in Virginia then, home to work at Camp Varsity where she spent weeks as a Lake Braddock runner. She didn’t dismiss the possibility of racing the Crystal City Twilighter 5k.
“Whenever she’s ready to race, we’ll send her there,” Howard Murphy said.
Back in Burke, Mangan is pleased to see her focusing on the future, rather than the past.
“I’m very proud of how she has handled the adversity that has come her way,” he said in February 2019. She’s “running on her own schedule and is happy doing it. Her only focus is making sure she is healthy and happy.”
After settling herself in her new normal, Murphy will consider a year or two of collegiate competition while in graduate school when she pursues a master’s in sports administration.
“I’d be happy to do one year,” she said. “I’m keeping my options open.”
She could transfer, but at least right now, she wants to graduate from Oregon.
“I would rather finish something once I’ve started it,” she said. “Plus I’d like to be here when Hayward Field is finished.”
She did consider leaving briefly, but ran into another Northern Virginia star who boomeranged after a year of college and injury frustrations. South Lakes alumnus Alan Webb, now living in Portland, was in Eugene for a race and the pair talked briefly. Mangan and relied on Webb’s high school coach, Scott Raczko for guidance while setting up Murphy’s summer training in 2016.
“He told me to to be patient,” she said.
It was a long way from the plans she hatched as a freshman, while the surgical scars on her calves were healing a few months after her surgeries.
“They’re my racing stripes,” she said with affection.