Wednesday, February 19, 2014

Taking it in Stride to Find Answers

By Kristine Lozoya
UC Davis Athletics Communications, student assistant
Cross Country, Track and Field student-athlete

My career developed from gymnastics as a youngster to competing three years as a collegiate distance runner for UC Davis. Sometimes it’s hard to grasp that I completed three instead of four years of my athletic eligibility due to something involuntary and out of my control.

Regardless of how disappointed I feel, there is also a part of me that is satisfied to know I did all I could to help my situation. As I continue to push through my final year as a student, I sometimes find myself reflecting and missing the days as an athlete.

 My athletic career started way back as a four-year-old kid who had way too much energy and climbed furniture like it was Mt. Everest. My parents decided it would be best to make use of my energy and soon signed me up for gymnastics at a local club, which eventually became my second home. 

 The older I got, the more competitive I became. Seventh to ninth grade were the three years where I competed in the higher levels of gymnastics. I competed two years as a level 9 and my last year as a level 10. Although I was young, my dream was to compete as a UC Davis gymnast and I felt like there was nothing that could stop my motivation from achieving my long-term goal. Or so I thought.

The first semester of my freshman year at Oakmont High School in nearby Roseville completely changed my image as an athlete. The head cross country coach, Ryan Nugent, recruited me to join the team after he saw me running track laps during PE class. He explained what cross country was and regardless of how bizarre I thought this sport was, he successfully persuaded me.

Before I knew it, I was traveling with the team to my first cross country race. Aside from the scorching hot weather, dry and hilly course, and the rawness of my throat, I felt extremely accomplished to compete something where all I wanted to do was curl up in a ball and cry.

Kristine Lozoya
I understood that running was the polar opposite of gymnastics, but I already saw myself falling in love with this sport. I concluded my first cross country season in November 2006 and my gymnastics season was coming up in January. At some point during the next two months, I felt like gymnastics was becoming more of a habit and less of something I enjoyed. I eventually laid out the pros and cons after the season ended and decided to end my gymnastics career that July and begin my sophomore year continuing with cross country and debuting as a track runner.

For the rest of my time at Oakmont High, I must say that I had no regrets with my decision. Between running for Oakmont and a local running club, Buffalo Babes, I gained experience as a runner and understood how the two sports worked. In the end - and I mean the very end of my senior year of track season in 2010 -, I was able to sign a national the letter of intent (NLI) with UC Davis, the school of my dreams, as a collegiate distance runner.

As a freshman on the Aggies' cross country team, I was the girl who came on report date, letting Coach Drew Wartenburg know that I could not walk on my right foot without me being in pain. It turned out that I had a stress fracture and as a result, I had to bike, swim, and rehab for countless hours all Fall Quarter 2010 in order to stay in shape. I was frustrated and disappointed that I could not partake in my first season, but there was nothing I could do to change the past. My whole mindset had to switch and although my teammates were halfway through their cross country season, I was already training for track.

I received a medical hardship waiver season for cross country - preserving a year of eligibility - and found myself satisfied with my debut season as a 5k/10k runner during track. I lowered my time in the 5k and I had the chance to compete and contribute a point to the team in the 10k at the Big West Conference Championships in 2011. Although my freshman year took me by surprise, the next step was summer training and then my "first" cross country season; there was nothing I wanted more than to keep up the momentum.

My first season of cross country during my sophomore year  was a complete success.. In the beginning of the season, however, I had an incident of blacking out while racing, which had also happened during a couple of high school races but I was never diagnosed with anything. The athletic trainers and doctors were unable to figure anything out so I just made sure I was hydrated and ate well before my races. The rest of the season was golden and the blacking out discontinued. 

I raced as a redshirt freshman and my team and I performed just as we needed towards the end of the season. The conference championship race was the most memorable experience for our UC Davis women’s cross country program during as Div. I . My team and I traveled to Riverside, Calif., for our race which was held in late October. After our warm-up and racing strides, my teammates and I did our usual pre-race huddle with the coaches and it felt like money. The girls and I were confident and the adrenaline was already starting to kick in. Coach Drew told us to keep pushing until the end no matter how hard the race felt, and so we did.

Once our results came in, the entire team immediately went through short spurts of crying, laughing, and shouting with excitement. We all performed top-notch and we finally won.
A couple of weeks later, we concluded our cross country season at the regional meet and then took our two weeks off before prepping for track.

Sometimes as an athlete, whether it happens to the individual or their team, there are roller coaster moments during one’s career. To elaborate, cross country season was a strong season overall and I came into winter training rested and ready to roll. Unfortunately, I hit a point right before track season with an Achilles injury. Although I raced a few times, I struggled towards the end of the season because another injury occurred in my hip. It was disappointing but I was able to watch the women’s team win the 2012 Big West Track and Field Championship at UC Irvine - another proud moment for our program.

Kristine Lozoya's passion for
running developed while at
Oakmont High School in Roseville
In addition to the highs and lows as an athlete, sometimes unforeseen moments occur. Throughout my entire junior year of cross country, I was in constant battle of preventing episodes of experiencing tunnel vision and sometimes blacking out. Prior to a race I could never predict that it would happen because my episodes only occurred while I raced. During tunnel vision, my visual field was constricted and it literally felt like I was looking through a tube. My peripherals were black and all I could see were my competitors slowly blurring out. At times my tunnel vision would transition to a black-out where I would pass out and not remember the previous few minutes. I understand that these spells were completely out of my control but every time it happened I was beyond frustrated, startled, weak, and embarrassed. It took me about a weekend’s worth of time to recover, both mentally and physically, but I managed to move on each time.

Compared to the previous cross country season, I went through twice as many tests during my junior year in order to try and figure out why these episodes were continuing. I had multiple tests done on my heart and lungs, I got my blood tested and I also had to keep a food and water log. Overall, my nutrition was fine, my results came out negative, and we still could not figure out the problem.

I proceeded to race at the regional meet but tunnel vision symptoms reoccurred. Despite finishing the race, my junior season of cross country was over before my eyes and I left the course disappointed. With no explanation as to why this was still occurring, all I could do was turn over a new leaf and look forward to track season.

In a perfect world, my track season would consist of me meeting all of my goals in the 5k and 10k. However, the reality is that I continued to struggle with my previous symptoms. Although my body was fit and I was healthy towards the end of my season, my race at the Big West Championship was yet another race that will forever stain my memory.

It was a late Friday night in May 2013 and I was finally at UC Riverside’s starting line with a few of my teammates ready to conquer our 10k, which consisted of 25 laps.. We had a plan and we wanted it to work but sometimes things don’t always go as smoothly as you want them to. At some point later in the race, the tunnel vision crept in, my form was sloppy, and my head kept bobbing as if I were trying to stay awake. With team-oriented competitions like the conference championship, there was no way whatsoever that I was going to give up on my race. I was trying so hard to stay focused and to forget what was currently going on, but I couldn’t shake it off. 

After completing my 24th lap, I blacked out and fell to the ground. My memory towards the end of my race is still fuzzy,but I ended waking up in the medical tent cursing in my head and wishing all that had happened was just a dream. It took me a little bit of time to gain my strength back, but once I was able sit up I immediately started bawling because I realized this happened to me again and there is no way I can re-do any of it. 

To conclude the weekend, the women’s team won the conference championship for the second straight year. Sure, I was disappointed with my own performance but it was great watching my teammates, both men and women, tear it up on the track and on the field as a good portion of them won medals and conference titles.

My teammates were the core reason why I never wanted to give up. They motivated me and even after coming off two rough seasons, I still wanted to make a comeback my senior year in 2013-14 and finally figure out what was going on with my body. 

I set up an appointment in early June with one of our sports doctors in Sacramento. The doctor had me run on a treadmill to the point where I felt the tunnel vision occur. Even after reaching tunnel vision, he could not figure out any immediate problem. His assistants had me go back on the treadmill and I put on a blood pressure cuff and walked up a steep incline in order to increase my heart rate. They found that as my heart rate raised, but my blood pressure failed to increase. The doctor told me he would look more into intensive exercise and low blood pressure. My dad picked me up from the lab and I cried the rest of the way home to Davis. I felt defeated and my mind was fixed on not expecting any “cure.”

In the end, the sports doctor and I met in my athletic trainer’s office in Hickey Gym. He did his research and found two types of medication that would help increase my blood pressure but he could not guarantee that it would work. It did not take me long to weigh the pros and cons because taking medication that might work was not worth it to me. I told him how I felt and he was supportive in offering a medical retirement. The hardest part, however, was talking to Coach Drew and my teammates. Although I would still be going to school, I wouldn’t see everyone as much and a part of me felt like I lost my family.

After finals were over in June, my “mental rehab” began and I moved back home to Sacramento for all of summer. Although staying home and keeping busy helped me recover, the adjustment of knowing my career ended was not an easy transition. I had bouts of anger and sadness and just wanted my life to be back to how it was. After a few months, I was finally able to accept the situation and I thank all of my family and friends for being so supportive. To this day, I find it a bit taboo that I no longer have a daily regimen of practicing almost every day of the week and lifting in the weight room twice a week. It took me a while, but I’ve adapted the “new ways” by mixing up when I exercise and what I do. I still run most days of the week, but I also incorporate other exercises like biking, doing the elliptical, and doing HIIT exercises (high intensity interval training). 

My 17-year long adventure as an athlete was priceless, and as bittersweet as it may feel to be completed, I would never ask to change a thing. The experience I had with each sport was unique and I met lifelong friends along the way. I have no regrets with the decision I made and I feel confident concluding such a significant part of my life and beginning a new chapter after graduation.

Kristine Lozoya is a student assistant in the UC Davis Athletics Communications office and is majoring in communication. She is also pursuing a writing minor. While she is a wonderful example of the importance of running, she has not entirely convinced the full-time staff she works with that they can run more than a mile.