- Associated Press - Friday, May 6, 2016

RENO, Nev. (AP) - Twelve hours after Wolf Pack distance runner Erika Root posted a personal best in the 3,000 meters at the Mountain West indoor track and field championships, she was on a hospital bed in Las Vegas.

The doctor told her she almost certainly had cancer, the Reno Gazette-Journal reported (http://on.rgj.com/1SsIh0r).

At that moment, Root had been up nearly 24 full hours. She had awakened at 6 a.m. the morning of Feb. 27 excited by the notion of running in the final event of the indoor season. Root was having a breakout year and that continued later in the afternoon when she clocked a 9-minute, 48-second time in the 3K to finish 14th in the conference. Content with her time, she and the team headed home for Reno later that day.

The meet was held in Albuquerque, N.M. The Wolf Pack’s plane first had a layover in Las Vegas. Root’s neck was swollen, something she noticed before her race but didn’t think much of. The swelling was more pronounced after the first leg of the flight home. So, Root, her coach, Kirk Elias, and athletic trainer, Ashlee Gates, decided to check her into an emergency room in Las Vegas rather than continue home.

“It has to be an infection or an allergic reaction,” Root, a Reno High graduate, thought to herself.

Five hours later, after X-rays, CT scans and a battery of tests, Root learned that it wasn’t an infection. It was something far more severe. Root most likely had lymphoma, the doctors told her. She had cancer.

“They told me that at 4 in the morning after I’d been awake since 6 a.m.,” Root said. “I’d run a 3K. I’d be awake all day. We were traveling. I just got my first X-ray ever, my first CT-scan. I was a little dramatic. I started crying. When you first hear, ‘You have cancer,’ you think, ‘Oh, my, god I’m going to die.’”

One week later, following a biopsy, Root was diagnosed with stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma - the most advanced stage. She had a mass in her lungs. The five-year survival rate of stage 4 Hodgkin Lymphoma, per the American Cancer Society, is 65 percent, although the doctors told Root her cancer is “very treatable.”

Just 22 years old, Root described the initial news as “earth-shattering.” This was as fit a person as you’d find. She got up early every day for training - “She’s like a farmer,” her father joked. Her diet was nearly perfect - “She doesn’t eat Twinkies,” dad said. She didn’t stay up late and party - “She always had to get up early the next day to work out,” dad said. She had done everything right. And then came this life-altering diagnosis.

But as Root began her first of six months of chemotherapy treatments March 23, she did so with her usual personality: upbeat, focused, optimistic and with the grace, determination and courage that has defined her running career.

“When I found out she had the illness, I called her and told her that I knew she had the mental and physical strength and the positive, optimistic view of life that would get her through this,” said Jim Parker, her former running coach at Reno High. “That’s exactly how she handled her running. Very optimistic, very joyful, very focus, very relaxed but very goal-orientated and determined. She’s very competitive.”

Born to run

Brian Root’s favorite meet that his daughter ever ran in came when she was in middle school.

Erika and her twin sister, Sidney, entered the Washoe County cross country middle school race at Shadow Mountain Sports Complex when they were in seventh grade. Root remembers the morning of the race.

“It was one of those things when you tell your kids in the morning, ‘You can win this thing,’ but you’re really thinking, ‘You’re not going to win this thing. There are 160 girls running,’” Brian said.

Erika proved her father both right and wrong. She did win that race. Sidney came in second. And the Root sisters learned they might have a future in running even if their favorite sport was soccer.

“I think that’s when we first thought, ‘Yay! We’re kind of good at this thing,’” Sidney said.

That realization kicked in during the Roots’ early teenage years but their desire to run came far earlier.

“From the time they were very little they’d ask, ‘Can we go run around the block?’” Erika’s mom, Jeni, said with a laugh. “Thinking back, how many 4-year-olds want to go run around the block for fun? We’d just tell them, ‘Sure. Go have fun and make sure you’re back before dinner.’”

The Root girls ran wherever they went, so it was only natural they’d play soccer. Sidney made varsity as a sophomore. Erika figured she’d make the team as a junior. But that’s not how it played out.

“My junior year of high school I didn’t make varsity in soccer and I was really upset,” Root said. “But then I was talked into doing cross country and I ended up being really good at it.”

She excelled in track, too. Root was a three-time regional champion in the mile and won state as a junior and senior, beating Las Vegas’ Sidney Badger, arguably the best distance runner in Nevada history. Between track and cross country, Root collected five first-place finishes, five seconds and one third in the state/regional meets. But she wasn’t defined solely by her wins. She was defined by her grace.

Sidney’s favorite running memory of her sister came during the 2010 Northern Nevada regional when she won the 1,600 meters. Erika was only a sophomore but edged Reno High teammate Demerey Kirsch, a senior who had welcomed Erika onto the team and been a mentor early in her career.

“She was so concerned Demerey didn’t get to win during her senior year and she felt so bad even though she had just won the race,” Sidney said. “She came up to me with tears in her eyes and said, ‘I just wanted Demerey to win so bad but I was fastest.’ It was so sweet and it was such an Erika moment. She killed it that race but she has such a big heart she was worried about other people.”

That grace and a killer finishing kick came to define Root in high school. Both of her state titles came with less than a 1-second margin of victory, including beating Badger by 0.23 seconds in 2011. Each of her three regional titles came with less than a 2-second margin of victory, including one by 0.32 seconds.

“She beat Sydney Badger as a complete underdog,” Parker said. “She took off with about 400 meters to go and just took over the race. She has a phenomenal kick. She could start kicking at 300 meters and she just ate people up. Just a fabulous kick. She was pretty tough pacing a race but when she turned on her kick, you just couldn’t out-kick her. That’s why she won so many races in high school.”

Staying in Reno

When it came time to pick a college, the Wolf Pack’s Elias had a major influence on the Root sisters. He visited their house on the first day he was allowed to talk to recruits. His goal was to get to know them.

“He came to the house and talked to them and it wasn’t a sales pitch,” Jeni Root said. “He came to talk to them because he wanted to know them as individuals. He wanted to know if they loved running.”

Erika, a national merit semifinalist at Reno, and Sidney decided to stay home to run. They joined the Wolf Pack’s cross country and track teams and became two of Nevada’s most reliable runners.

Erika blossomed this season, her senior year in cross country and junior year in track. She set personal bests in nearly every race this cross country season and finished 25th in the Mountain West Championships and 44th in the Mountain Regional Championships, both personal bests. She thrived in the indoor track season, even with cancer developing in her body.

“She was ready to qualify for NCAAs in the steeplechase this spring,” Elias said. “She’s come a long way the last four years, but especially in the last 18 months when her improvement has been dramatic.”

Her running goals have been pushed aside for the moment. The goal now is beat cancer. It’s a battle Elias is familiar with. He was diagnosed with Hodgkin Lymphoma in 1980 and 1982. He’s been cancer free for more than three decades. Elias has no doubt Root will follow that path. She’s a fighter.

“I told her that she was going to live,” Elias said of his initial talk with Root. “I did and she’s tougher than I am, so she’s going to be fine. She’s in for a rocky road. Chemo is nasty. Basically they’re poisoning your body and trying to kill cancer cells quicker than your regular cells. They go into division more rapidly and when cells are in division they can be killed more rapidly. You’re basically poisoning yourself. It’s nasty stuff.”

While the diagnosis shocked Root, she said the low point was initially being told she couldn’t run during recovery and that she might lose lung capacity and pulmonary function as a long-term side effect. For somebody who thrives on running, that news was tough to take. Elias’ advice to Root was to find an escape for the down days and be clear and assertive with your doctors about what you need.

One of those needs was the ability to run. She knew she couldn’t train with the Wolf Pack at full strength. There would be no 13-mile runs in her near future. But she wanted to run on days she felt well enough. Doctors approved that request and her friends and family notice a difference after she runs.

“That is absolutely critical to her well-being,” Jeni Root said. “She feels so much better when she runs. It is absolutely critical to keeping her mentally and physically where she needs to be moving forward.”

Root is introspective. She’s a thinker and so intelligent she ends up teaching her coaches as much as they teach her. Elias said that reflective mindset sometimes backfired during races early in her career. She’d get caught up in breaking down the situation before attacking it. By then, it was too late. The race was gone. But, with cancer, she attacked early. She’s already started that finishing kick she’s known for.

“When it counts, she makes it happen,” her mother said. “In high school, she had a lot of races where she had to mow down people late in the race and she did it by the skin of her teeth. When she decides what she wants, she gets it. She often doesn’t make the decision until the very last moment. With this cancer, it’s the same thing. She knows what she needs to do and she’s going to make it happen.”

‘Discomfort is progress’

When Erika was in fifth grade, her friend had brain cancer. After a brief remission, she died about 2 years later. With a family history of cancer, Root was no stranger to the deadly disease. She’s been around cancer for much of her life.

“Erika and I always had the assumption that it wasn’t a matter of if we’d get cancer but a matter of when,” Sidney said. “My first thought when I heard the diagnosis was, ‘Wow, this was a lot sooner than we thought it would be.’ The next thought was, ‘OK. What’s next? How do we beat this thing?’”

One of the biggest ways to defeat it is with the love and support of thousands. Root has been surprised by how many people have reached out to her. When she was at the hospital in Las Vegas, the UNLV coaches and runners came to visit her. She was not a rival in that moment. She was a friend.

Her Wolf Pack teammates have brought the ultimate support. When Erika had to trim her long curly hair into a pixie cut, so did some of her teammates. When she had to shave her head, it was a teammate who grabbed the clippers. Her teammates have been the sounding board as she copes with her diagnosis.

“I could not imagine doing this without my team,” Erika said. “My family is super awesome and I don’t want to knock them down at all, but my team is like my rock. It’s been so nice to have their support.”

Root began her first of six cycles of chemotherapy in March. Each cycle is a month long. Each cycle has two infusion days in which four drugs (ABVD) are pushed into her body via a port. She’s undergone two infusions thus far. After four full cycles, she will get another scan to see how the trea421tment is working. If all goes according to plan, she’ll do two more cycles and the cancer will be gone. If all goes according to plan, she could finish the final season of her track career at Nevada next year. That is the hope.

Anybody who has been through chemo treatments will tell you the hell it is. But it’s all part of the process of healing. It’s all part of the process of being healthy again. The pain is a necessary evil.

“She came home the other night and said, ‘Mom, discomfort is progress,’” Jeni Root said. “It’s kind of like her athletic training. Discomfort is progress. She’s trying really hard not to let it get her down.”

Root has remained in school. She can’t get up early in the morning like she used to. The treatments leave her tired. She sleeps about 11 hours a night and takes a nap or two during the day. She’s adjusting to her new life, but she hasn’t lost her sense of humor. She remains in good spirits. Her smile is unaltered, her blue eyes as bright as ever.

“She’s dealt with it as well as you can expect anybody to deal with it,” Brian Root said. “She’s really carried on her life as normally as possible. She’s just tough. She has that same grit she’s always had.”

Root is used to pain. As a distance runner, your job is to punish yourself in training so you can thrive on race day. Sure, this is a different kind of pain, a different kind of race. But the goal is the same: to win.

“In long-distance running at this level, you learn that there’s a lot of time in the middle between races where you have to work very hard and be uncomfortable and it kind of sucks but it’s worth it in the end,” Sidney Root said. “I think she’s approaching all of this in that sense. She knows there’s going to be a time period in the middle where it’s not great but in the end it will definitely be worth it. She’s going to come out with a win.”

___

Information from: Reno Gazette-Journal, http://www.rgj.com

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