Recovering from the flu and overtraining syndrome, Amy Cragg is unable to race for a spot to compete at the Tokyo Games. But her career isn’t over.
Amy Cragg, who won the 2016 Olympic Marathon Trials, announced on Thursday that she will not compete on February 29 for a spot on the 2020 U.S. Olympic marathon team, due to illness.
It was a heartbreaking decision for Cragg, a member of the Bowerman Track Club, to make alongside her support team, but since 2018 she said she’s struggled with health concerns that were difficult to diagnose, likely a result of overtraining during the peak of her best marathon performances.
After winning the 2016 Trials—famously running step-for-step with then-training partner Shalane Flanagan and encouraging Flanagan through the final miles while heat illness started to derail her—Cragg placed ninth at the 2016 Rio Games, then went on to earn a bronze medal at the 2017 World Championships marathon, the first American woman to land on the podium since 1983.
Cragg, 36, then placed third at the 2018 Tokyo Marathon in 2:21:42, the second-fastest qualifying time for the 2020 Olympic Trials, behind Jordan Hasay (2:20:57). Although she had made plans to race the 2018 and 2019 Chicago Marathon, she had to withdraw each time due to injuries and extreme fatigue. Most recently she won the Rock ‘n’ Roll New Orleans Half Marathon on February 9, but her 1:16:53 was an indication that she wasn’t in top form.
After announcing her decision to scratch her entry for the 2020 Olympic Marathon Trials, which will take place in Atlanta in nine days, she spoke with Women’s Running by phone about her health and running plans going forward.
Women’s Running: You’ve been struggling for about two years now—since that performance in Tokyo. Have you figured out what’s going on with your health?
Amy Cragg: The last couple of years I’ve been really struggling. There have definitely been moments when I’ve gotten back and felt good and then all of a sudden I’ve hit this wall where it’s just crazy. I can only describe it as this extreme fatigue. Before, I knew what it was like to get through marathons, I knew how exhausting it could be, but my most tired days in training for the marathon kind of became my best days [when training was going well].
We thought maybe it was just being out of shape—you go through ups and downs naturally in the marathon. My mentality has always been pushing through things, which I think is pretty common in distance runners. That’s what we did, but I kept hitting these weird injuries—my body just wasn’t recovering or healing the way it had in the past.
This last summer, I was diagnosed with overtraining syndrome. Nothing showed up on blood test results—I looked like a very healthy person. They couldn’t figure anything else out, so that was the diagnosis.
WR: So you took some time off?
AC: Yes. I made a slow comeback and went up to altitude [the Bowerman group trained in Colorado Springs for the first part of the year]. Around that time I started to hit the wall again. We got a much more extensive blood draw test then and I met with a sports physiologist. My adrenal glands weren’t producing enough cortisol and also I had a recurrence of Epstein-barr [mononucleosis], which doesn’t usually happen in adults, but when you get really worn down, it can happen.
WR: It must give you some sense of peace that you know what you’re dealing with now?
AC: The cool things was, we figured it out, however we didn’t have much time to go before the Trials. The Epstein-barr we could see through blood tests that I was getting over it. I cut out caffeine, I focused on rest and doing everything I can to get my body to go back to normal. But we were also trying to fit in the training so I’d be fit enough to run the Trials.
In the end it wasn’t enough time. This last week, we pushed training a little bit and things were going pretty well, but I think it pushed me over the edge because I got the flu pretty bad. It was enough to knock me out. It was unfortunate timing and figuring things out a little too late.
Now we know exactly what it was and we know that if I take it easier, things do come around pretty quick. My body was healing itself, so now that we have a firm answer, we can be a lot smarter in the training in order to move forward.
WR: You seem to recognize the positive part of this, despite having to make a hard decision.
AC: I thought I was going crazy for a little while. It’s good. It puts things in perspective, too. I was struggling for so long—at first I got the results and I was upset because it was so close to the Trials, but after talking to my husband and my mom and even some of the people at Nike, they were like, “It’s not worth your health. This is a good thing.”
It’s not a long-term thing, it’s just being smart for a while.
WR: If you look back, can you see when in 2018 you started overdoing it?
AC: I made a couple mistakes. After Tokyo, I really wanted a track season. I had so many goals and I felt like I was finally in a place where I could finally accomplish them. After Tokyo I didn’t take as much time off as I should have. I was on a high after the race and I rushed back into it. I really felt good, but I should have looked at training logs from the month before the race and realize I was completely exhausted for a very long time. That’s how I should have dictated how much time I took off.
It’s tough, you start training and you keep thinking about whether you should call it quits when you’re not feeling good or should double down and make it worth it? I kept trying to salvage everything I had done when I should have just called it and started over.
WR: Are you planning anything now as far as running is concerned or trying to fully recover first?
AC: We do kind of have a plan. I know I’m not done. But right now, we just made the decision [to scratch the marathon Trials] officially the day before yesterday. I took yesterday to just kind of get through it. The goal is to just get healthy so I can train the way I really want to train again.
WR: I know you’re not much of a social media person, but there are a lot of well-wishes being sent your way. What does that mean to you?
AC: I did read some of them right at the beginning but I haven’t in a little bit. The support I’ve received, I get really overwhelmed by it. That’s one of the things that makes it so hard, knowing the amount of time and energy and resources that so many people have put into me. We all have so many people behind us, which is the incredible thing—you see us out there in the race, but we probably have bigger teams than any other sport of people backing us as individuals. When we can’t make it happen, it’s tough—it’s not just you. It’s so many people who have put so much hope and belief in you, that it makes it kind of hard.
People have been so wonderful and so kind. I think we’re going to send an amazing team to Tokyo and I’m really excited. I have so many friends in the race—it’s going to be a really fun one to watch. I’m excited to see who we send—it’ll be an incredible team. We haven’t seen anything like this, ever.
WR: Do you plan to watch the race in Atlanta or at home in Portland?
AC: We haven’t talked about it but we’ll probably stay home. I’ll definitely be watching, but I have a feeling it’ll be from home.