Drew Hunter Recovering From
Bout With Lyme Disease
by Jeff Hollobaugh
Where is Drew Hunter? The drumbeat is starting to sound on the Internet about the nation’s top prep distance runner, a graduated senior at Loudoun Valley in Purcellville, Virginia, who after his State Meet in the first week of June called it a season.
Happily, Hunter is alive and well and bouncing back with some great workouts, though he cringes when he hears people’s reactions to the ailment that hit him last month.
“For people who don’t know anything about Lyme Disease, they hear horrible stories of people like dying from it or their limbs falling off. But it’s one of those things it’s kind of like the flu. You stay miserable for like 3–4 weeks but once you start treating it, you just get better and better every day. I caught it really early.”
According to the Centers For Disease Control, the key to dealing Lyme is early detection. In the vast majority of cases, a round of antibiotics will clear it up. While there is no definitive test to prove someone is “cured,” once the symptoms clear up, victims are out of the woods.
In the weeks following his same-day 1:48.64/8:43.18 double at a prep invitational in Charlottesville, Virginia, a tick bit Hunter and he developed the early symptoms of Lyme. He began sleeping terribly and his recovery from workouts was much slower. Normally perfectly in tune with his body, suddenly he had trouble reading the signals it was sending him.
“I have a really good feel, and the last couple weeks of my season, that was off, that kind of connection,” he explains. I wasn’t sure why, and I was really hard on myself.”
Despite his worries, he traveled to Eugene to run in the Bowerman Mile against a strong field of pros. Despite finishing last he still ran a magic 3:58.86, just a second off his indoor best (and still a world Junior leader outdoors).
“I didn’t have a good race,” he judges. “It was one of those things that I really couldn’t control. I was getting sick then. I don’t like to make excuses, and that’s why I kind of pushed the race to the side, but really it wasn’t my day and that race didn’t reflect the workouts I had coming into it. I knew I was in shape to run. On a bad day I thought I could run 3:56 and be disappointed with that. It is what it is.
“After Prefontaine I still didn’t know I had Lyme. I went to the doctor a week later, and I was still really hard on myself. I kept telling myself, ‘You’re not acting tough enough, you’re not performing well, you’re not eating healthy enough, you’re not getting enough sleep.’ I was literally trying to force myself to feel good when really it was something that I had no control over.”
Hunter had a couple of bouts with Lyme as a child, at around age 10 and 13, he recalls. This time, however, it hit while he was doing serious training and at first he didn’t recognize the symptoms. He was slated to run the adidas Boost meet in Boston in the pro 1500.
A week before that, he and his coaches (Tom Schwartz and his parents) decided to test his fitness. He went through with the workout despite only two hours sleep the night before (insomnia can be one of the Lyme symptoms).
In 85-degree weather, running alone, he hit a 2:59 for 1200. “With negative splits,” he says. He thought, “I’m just in incredible shape, but I’m not at all healthy.” The decision was made to run easy for two days to monitor his recovery. “I just couldn’t recover. I was really hurting on the runs, really tired, exhausted, I couldn’t sleep in the night.”
Hunter was in shape to run fast, but the concerns were real about whether he could handle it all—the racing, the travel, etc.—and still recover adequately. For Hunter, it wasn’t easy giving up on all the goals he had set for the outdoor season.
“It was a pride thing,” he says. “Personally I was like, ‘I know what I’m capable of.’ And to have something that you can’t control dictate how you’re going to go about it was really hard. But about two days after that workout we just said, ‘No, it’s not worth it.’ And I took some time off, did some easy running.”
With the Lyme diagnosis in hand, Hunter started on the antibiotics at about the time of the decision to end the racing season. Since then his recovery has been remarkable. “I’m bouncing back. I would say two weeks ago was the worst, most miserable that I felt. Right now I feel really good.”
The episode brought to an end one of the most remarkable prep distance running seasons ever. After capturing the Foot Locker XC title in December, he went on a tear indoors, shattering the 3000 HSR with a 7:59.33 and then smacking down Alan Webb’s HSR in the mile with a 3:58.25.
Two weeks later he improved the undercover standard to 3:57.81. Outdoors, he ran 3:42.42 in an April college race, then won again at the Penn Relays, producing a 4:00.73 anchor on the distance medley in a stirring photo finish.
In early May he clocked 1:48.64 behind Brandon McGorty in one of the best prep 800s ever, and came back later in the afternoon with a solo 8:43.18 for 3200. Then—sick—he ran the 3:58.86 at Pre, the No. 6 prep mile ever outdoors.
He laughs, “If you’ve seen me run, that 1:48 might be the most incredible performance out of all of them, because I’m such a distance runner.”
Then there were the goals he didn’t get to. Schwartz has been very open this year about what Hunter might be able to run, saying that Hunter would aim for the Olympic Trials 1500. That’s created criticism from some of the anti-bragging militia, but generally Schwartz has been right on with his predictions.
The two of them both are, quite simply, realistic and open about their goals. And Hunter is intelligent, well-spoken and candid, traits that will serve the sport well in years to come.
“[Schwartz] just has so much confidence me and he sees the workouts that I do. I really think everything he predicted would have happened had everything gone smoothly and I hadn’t had the bumps in the road that I had. I’m very confident that I would’ve run 3:37 and I would’ve run in the Olympic Trials. I am very confident that I could have run my goal of 3:54–3:55 in the mile at Pre, based off my workouts and everything.
“If you run 1:48 and 8:43 in the same day and it wasn’t challenging, it’s just something that if it was going to come together, I would have run fast [later on] but unfortunately it didn’t… I don’t think anything Schwartz put out there was far-fetched or anything like that.”
Hunter has had to be philosophical as the postseason passes him by: “It’s all relative and it’s all about perspective. A lot of people were expecting something bigger and I was too, but it didn’t happen.”
He made his decision based on what was best for his career in the long run: “I didn’t at all like how I finished the season. It was kind of aggravating because I know there was so much more left in the tank. I wasn’t at all burned out. I was just getting going, but unfortunately my health kind of jeopardized that. Sometimes you got to do things to make sure you feel better later down the road instead of short-term gain.”
It was an interesting year at the top, he says. He likens his victory over Grant Fisher at last year’s Brooks PR 2 mile to a passing of the baton as The Prep Phenomenon—and with it, the myriad discussion threads second-guessing every aspect of his racing, training, and life.
“it can create excitement,” he admits. “I think the pressure is just something that comes in any sport. I think at the same time it’s exceptionally hard to deal with it. It’s what comes with being a top athlete, but sometimes you get to a point where it’s a little overwhelming. Sometimes I felt that, but it’s definitely part of the sport.”
Back to full-tilt training, Hunter is feeling great and has gotten green lights from his doctors. Now it’s all about getting ready for the coming fall, when he will join the Ducks of Oregon. At heart, he is a competitor, and he’s anxious to get back at it.
In fact, he says, he might do a few special training sessions soon. Upset with missing much of the fun of the track season, he says he “potentially might look for a race later on in July or August.”
June 23, 2016