Valeria Straneo figured the constant fatigue was normal. She attributed it to her daily version of a triathlon—training as a national-class runner in Italy, raising two young children, and teaching part-time in a pre-school.
But the condition reached a crisis point in 2010, when Straneo could barely finish the San Blas Half Marathon in Puerto Rico in February. The exhaustion intensified until she didn’t have the energy to do the grocery shopping.
She started seeing doctors, who diagnosed her with hereditary spherocytosis, a disorder of red blood cells, which are crucial for delivering oxygen for endurance athletes. She had been anemic for her entire running career. Her spleen had become alarmingly large for someone who was 5-foot-6 and weighed 97 pounds.
In May 2010, the doctors removed the spleen, and Straneo resigned herself to becoming a recreational runner. Then came an amazing transformation. The splenectomy solved the problem of her abnormal blood cells. After running casually for a few months and entering a half-marathon during a family vacation, she broke 1:14 for the first time. It was a personal best by about a minute.
“I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I could not say I had worked so hard for this result. I was really surprised. I began to run strong, stronger than before.”
Finally healthy after years of undiagnosed anemia, she resumed serious training and started running impressive times, including a 2:26:33 effort in Berlin in October 2011, and an Italian-record 2:23:44 in Rotterdam last April. In August she finished eighth (2:25:17) at the London Olympics, after leading the race at the halfway point.
Two years after the removal of her spleen and her resignation to becoming a jogger, Straneo is a world-class performer at age 36, and considered a contender for the crown at the ING New York City Marathon on November 4.
“I feel really grateful,” she says. “Because it’s really a gift for me. I just finished my first Olympics. Sometimes I think it’s a dream, not real. I really feel grateful to God because it’s a gift.”
It’s a gift just to feel well again. “When she improved a lot in 2011,” says her agent, Marcello Magnani, “the doctors told me the most incredible thing isn’t what she was doing then, but that she could even be a runner before. Nobody can usually practice a sport when suffering from that kind of pathology.”
Not everyone considered Straneo’s sudden rise in her mid-30s a feel-good story. There were the inevitable suggestions that she must be using performance-enhancing drugs to make such an improvement. To combat the rumors, Magnani had her meet with the Italian federation and provided them with her medical history. Beyond the usual testing, she voluntarily provides blood and endocrine profiles every six weeks to demonstrate that she’s not using drugs.
“I really disapprove of doping,” she says. “I never did it and would never do it. I was really sad that people said this about me. But I can understand them because my getting better was strange.”
Straneo lives in Alessandria, about 60 miles southeast of Turin, with her husband, Manlio, and their son, Leonardo, 6, and daughter, Ariane, 5. She’s a full-time runner now.
“I really love running,” she says. “It’s a passion for me, a real love. It’s incredible that now I can also do it as my job. But first of all, I really enjoy it.”