A dietary overhaul changed the game for Dixon graduate Haley Thorpe. She kick-started the process of curing her iron deficiency with a supplement, and went from crashing at the end of races to finishing strong and healthy. Now the supplement is history, but her healthy eating habits are here to stay.
Haley Thorpe was posed an offer as unique as it was lopsided: Eat a couple of pounds of steak and spinach each week, and she could shed the hundreds of proverbial pounds she was carrying while she ran.
Tired of crashing at the end of cross country races and running times that were mediocre by her standards – despite feeling like she was sprinting throughout – Thorpe took the deal.
It was a process. And in order to trigger change, one must know what’s wrong. For Haley, the light went on at a Sub 5 Nike camp between her junior and senior years. Fellow campers, counselors and nutritionists shared stories about this mysterious protein called ferritin.
Ferritin controls release of iron from bone marrow into the bloodstream and, when in short supply, results in massive fatigue from head to toe. Because of their menstrual cycles, women are more subject to low ferritin levels than men.
At camp, Haley suddenly enlisted allies.
“I sat there and thought, ‘That’s exactly how I feel,’” Haley said. “You’re putting everything you have out there, and you’re not getting anything back.
“It literally felt like you had 100-pound weights attached to each leg.”
Haley convinced her father and coach, Evan Thorpe, to have her ferritin tested.
Her ferritin level was at 11 micrograms per liter. The accepted minimum for a healthy runner is 24.
Problem identified. The next step was change.
Unable to swallow pills, Haley took liquid iron throughout her senior cross country season. The results? A spike in iron and a strong distaste for orange juice.
She had to mix 3 tablespoons of the over-the-counter supplement with orange juice for two reasons: first, the OJ provided the best vehicle for her body to absorb the iron.
“Liquid iron tastes like a penny. It tastes horrible,” Haley said. “So I could not drink orange juice for a long time without tasting it.”
Another test leading up to the state cross country meet revealed Haley’s ferratin to be at 23 mcg/L. Shortly thereafter, she quit taking the liquid iron, as one of its side effects – if taken long enough – is wreaking havoc on a runner’s stomach.
“To get started off, a supplement was good – initially, I needed to take it,” Haley said.
But by the point she ditched it, a far more fruitful process than mixing liquid-iron cocktails was in full swing.
“Knowing what to eat and what not to eat and knowing the right way to do things is a lot better than forcing something into your body that your body is going to eventually reject,” Haley said.
Unleash the Green Giant
They say it takes your taste buds 10 cracks at a new food to determine whether they like something. It took a few more than that for Haley.
Especially considering her diet growing up.
“I had Pop Tarts for breakfast every day,” Haley said.
“She grew up on corn dogs and mac and cheese, big time,” Evan said. “She had a very immature diet.”
So Dad changed the menu, packing spinach salads for her every morning.
“She literally had to choke it down,” Evan said.
“At first I was thinking, ‘Spinach? Yuck,’ “ Haley said. “Now I prefer that over any other salad. Just because I know it’s healthier, and I just like the taste of it. Same with a lot of things I never would’ve tried before I knew I needed to.”
Red meat previously was missing from her diet, too. More prone to breads and pastas, she couldn’t stand the chewiness of red meat and found it tasteless.
“I’d have a quarter of a steak, and it would take me so long to get through it, because I hated it,” Haley said.
But the results were indisputable. Her ferritin level reached the acceptable range, albeit the fringe, and the proverbial 100-pound sandbags were gone. She placed 23rd at the state meet her senior year. Then a new problem arose.
Back to the present
Haley admits she’s bitter about missing her first year of cross country at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside. She had surgery on the labrum that covers her hip bone and had her very first training session Tuesday afternoon.
“I’m excited, but I’m kind of nervous,” Haley said. “I get nervous at every little thing I feel. After surgery, you’re never going to feel like you did before surgery. You have to find your new normal and your new balance.”
She hopes to resume racing in October, but one thing that needs not resume is her improved diet. She admits she could always stand to eat more meat, but when she goes to Subway, spinach goes on the sandwich without fail. At the campus dining hall, her salads are always comprised of spinach.
“It really surprised me how much just simply eating spinach over lettuce would make the difference,” Haley said.
Haley stayed in touch with such nutritionists at the Sub 5 camp as Amy Baltes, and even worked as a counselor last summer. Baltes is always staying on her about eating better, but the lesson has taken full hold.
“If you get in the habit of doing something enough, you will what you need to do,” Haley said.
The experience was eye-opening for Evan, a longtime wrestler who marvels at the lengths runners are – and aren’t – willing to go.
“Girls are willing to put in long runs, 10 to 12 miles, but they can’t choke down spinach,” Evan said. “Nutrition is a huge puzzle piece.”
Chris Heimerman interviews Mark Jordan, who recently underwent triple bypass surgery. Since then, he is striving toward better diet and exercise, and is already finding success. Click here to watch.
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