Even if she weren’t one of the roughly 400,000 Americans suffering from multiple sclerosis, Kayla Montgomery might be prone to collapsing after track races.
She’s the type of runner that gives it her all, and in the three years since being diagnosed with the disease, she’s gone from being one of the slowest members of the Mount Tabor High School track squad to winning a North Carolina state title in the 3,200 meters.
Montgomery won that championship last month, finishing in 10:43, the 21st- fastest time in the country. On March 14, she’ll head to New York for the national indoor track championships, where she hopes to break 17 minutes in the 5,000 meters.
If she succeeds, she’ll likely end the race as she always does—by falling into the waiting arms of her coach, Patrick Cromwell. She’s not being dramatic, and it’s not overexertion. As the New York Times reports, her M.S. causes “weakness and instability” in her legs, and while feelings of numbness may actually help her during races, when she doesn’t sense the same pain that other runners do, her “autopilot” only functions as long as she stays moving.
When she reaches the finish line or has her forward progress disrupted in any way, she’s liable to go down and need help getting back up.
“I start out feeling normal and then my legs gradually go numb,” Montgomery told the Times. “I’ve trained myself to think about other things while I race, to get through. But when I break the motion, I can’t control them and I fall.”
When Montgomery was diagnosed with M.S., she was running the 5000 meters in 24:29. She told Coach Cromwell she wanted to make the most of what time she had before the incurable disease left her unable to run, and thus began her remarkable transformation.
“That’s when I said, ‘Wow, who are you?’” Cromwell told the Times.
Fast-forward to last November, when Montgomery ran 5000 meters in 17:22 at the regional qualifier for the Foot Locker national cross-country championships, where she placed 11th.
Next year, Montgomery will run for Lipscomb University in Tennessee—one of the schools willing to take a chance on her and offer a scholarship. While her neurologist, Lucie Lauve, dismisses the idea that M.S. creates some kind of physical advantage, she says it’s possible that the disease gives Montgomery a “mental edge.”
If Cromwell disagrees, he clearly doesn’t believe that M.S. is responsible for this tireless athlete’s success.
“I think there’s a benefit to numbness,” Cromwell said. “I don’t know anyone in their right mind, though, who would trade this; who would say, ‘Give me M.S. so I have a little bit of numbness after Mile 2.’ But I think that’s when she gets her strength.”
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg