The day was quickly turning into night last January, but that didn't stop Kelly Wesolowski from heading out for a run.
That it was just a 15-minute jaunt at a gentle pace didn't matter.
During the previous 14 months, Wesolowski, a standout senior on the Hereford cross country team, had been dealing with a bum right foot caused by Freiberg’s disease, a rare form of avascular necrosis — or the death of bone tissue — in the second metatarsal. There were crutches, a surgical boot and extended rest. Then a setback, followed by surgery and more recovery time for a girl who was always on the go.
Earlier that day in January, she went to the doctor's office feeling apprehensive, like all the other times she visited.But this time, the news was all good: She was cleared to run again.
"I was like, 'Yes!' and was in the mindset that I wanted to run a marathon, but obviously I couldn't do that," Wesolowski said. "I remember my mom saying, 'Kelly, you're so happy. This is the best mood you've been in for months,' and I said, 'Yeah, I am just so happy.' [Later during the run,] I was in my neighborhood, it was just starting to get dark out and it just felt so amazing."
On Oct. 8, about one year removed from the surgery, Wesolowski overwhelmed the 22-team field in winning the Gettysburg (Pa.) Invitational.Coming in at 18 minutes, 7 seconds, she broke the course record by 17 seconds and was 34 seconds faster than the runner-up.
In her first season of cross country — she had previously played soccer during the fall and then moved on to indoor and outdoor track seasons earlier in her high school career — she has convincingly won two races and placed second in two others.
At the Milestat 5K near Richmond, Va., on Saturday, she took second and was one of nine runners who finished under the previous course record. Her time of 17 minutes, 41 seconds also was the fastest ever by a Hereford runner — taking 10 seconds off the previous mark set by 2009 grad Kristen Malloy.
There were certainly high hopes for Wesolowski this fall with the record-breaking success she enjoyed during her freshman indoor and outdoor track seasons and also the fact she was finally healthy to train over the summer.
But this much success and this quickly?
"I think we knew all along she had the capacity to do this, but you can't hide when the watch comes out. She really had to show up and do what she can do," said Hereford cross country coach John Roemer. "She has been so successful, it's hard for me to remember and realize that she really is a novice.She doesn't have the race experience at that distance in cross country that somebody who is a senior and running that well typically has."
What Wesolowski definitely has is a love for running, a dedication to training and a fierce competitiveness. The school's track coach, Brad Duvall, discovered something else her freshman year.
He did a pulse differential test with the team, which then included senior Sarah Ashwood, a three-time state champion in the 1,600-meter race, taking each runner's pulse before and after a workout.
"Five minutes after the run, Kelly was almost back at her resting heart rate. So while all the other girls were still elevated well over 100, she was back in the 70s and 80s. It's almost inhuman," Duvall said. "The reality is that her cardiovascular capacity is so beyond anybody I've ever coached or seen in my years of coaching."
Wesolowski grew up playing soccer and had her mind set on playing it in college. But then she joined a running club during middle school and quickly became hooked.Her father, Joe, ran several marathons, so it was in the family blood.
As a freshman in indoor track, she broke the school's record in the 3,200 meters that was established in 1982 and lowered her own mark two more times before being slowed by a hamstring injury.She finished second at the state meet after just a few practices returning from the injury. During the outdoor season, she set the school's 3,200-meter mark at North County's Knight Invite with a time of 10 minutes, 47.16 seconds.
She considered going out for cross country in her sophomore year but decided to play another year of soccer with the chance to play on the varsity team.Near the end of the season, she felt pain on the top of her foot and figured she just got kicked or stepped on, common in soccer.
When the pain persisted into the indoor track season, she visited a foot specialist, Dr. Jeffrey Brodie, and learned it was much more serious.
According to Brodie, who performed the surgery on Wesolowski, Freiberg’s disease occurs most often in adolescent girls who are athletes. It is believed to be caused by repetitive microtrauma, in Wesolowski's case, her running.
"What happens is, the blood flow to that head of the metatarsal diminishes and part of the bone can die.And when that bone loses blood supply and dies, the cartilage surface can actually collapse," Brodie said.
After extended rest did not prevent it from further collapsing, Wesolowski needed surgery. Using a bone graft from her heel, Brodie replaced the dead part of the bone to allow blood flow to return in the matatarsal head area.
"When we go in, we take out the bone that's not alive and put in this bone with her own cells that helps it to fill in and try to heal and she did great," Brodie said. "It's a process that takes a lot of time and patience to get through because that bone has to heal and revasculariz and then we have to slowly allow this. Often times, young athletes want to get back and you kind of have to hold them back a little bit because they want to get going. But you got to slow them down to make sure they are healed."
Joanne Wesolowski watched her daughter in tears twice over the long and difficult stretch — first at the original news and again when she was told she needed surgery.Joanne has also seen her recently-turned 17-year-old daughter become stronger and show a resilient ability to overcome adversity.
"I couldn't imagine being 15 and dealing with something like that.But she handled it very well," Joanne said. "It was very hard for her, but I think the good thing in the long run is it makes her realize how precious everything is in her life.I think she is very grateful she had a really good surgeon that took care of her and she's able to go back to what she loves to do."
Kelly Wesolowski, who maintains a 3.8 grade point average and has a growing list of interested colleges, says her foot feels fine and while Brodie told her it has healed perfectly, she still thinks about the injury recurring.
Mostly, though, she's moving forward, through the trees and up the hills to cross the finish line — determined to reach it first.
The same goes for life.
"I think mentally it has really helped me push through things in life that have nothing to do with running," she said."It's like 'I was able to get through that which was a year and some months away from what I love the most, so I can get through a tough 40-minute test."