Monday was another routine workout for the Ogden High cross country team ahead of Wednesday’s state championship race in Salt Lake City. The runners ran around the stadium track, alternating between running slow and running fast.
The day was anything but routine for the girl in the grey zip-up sweater and pink shorts as she ran around the turn on the west side of the track. Her coaches, Missy Allred and Merilee Blackham, were watching her intently.
They watched her favor her right leg for a few seconds of running. Then she stopped and shrugged.
This has unfortunately become the routine for Kalii Caldwell, a senior cross country and track runner at Ogden High who has watched as injury after injury has limited what is, on the rare occasion she gets to race, a very promising running career.
And yet, in spite of all that, she might have a chance at finishing high on Wednesday at Sugar House Park.
Caldwell didn’t race for a month and a half this year after a stress reaction in her right hip put her in crutches. But she won the Region 11 championships last week by five seconds after hardly any training and with a time that’s nearly a minute slower than her personal record.
"That was really nice," Caldwell said. "I had no idea what I could do."
Either way, last week was one of the rare times she's actually raced in the past year.
When she was a freshman, she missed most of cross country season and all but the last three events of track season with an ASIS avulsion fracture in her hip. Last track season was cut short very soon after it began with a stress fracture in her tibial plateau, right under her knee.
She started running again — very lightly — after the state track meet. Over the summer, she came back very slowly and biked a lot in lieu of running. Caldwell still got hurt. This time it was the stress reaction.
“I did a lot of injury prevention and so for none of that to pay off is really frustrating. I didn’t ski this winter so I wouldn’t get injured. I got injured. This summer I did really low mileage so I wouldn’t get injured and I got injured. So it’s just frustrating when none of your effort is paying off,” Caldwell said.
The timing of the stress fracture earlier this year was particularly frustrating. It came after a pretty good indoor track season that culminated with a 10th-place finish in the 5,000 meters race at the New Balance Nationals Indoor in New York City this March.
All of it has been frustrating, especially not knowing exactly what to do to solve the problem, how long it will be around or if it will be here to stay.
Sometimes it hurts to run, like on Monday. Other times it's manageable, like during the region championship race. Doctors suggested many things, which haven't revealed too much other than a lower-than-normal bone density.
Taking time off doesn't completely solve the problem. Neither does constant care: icing her leg, rolling out her muscles, etc.
Her teammates did what they could to make the situation better. At the City-County Meet last month, the Ogden runners had “Run 4 Kalii” written on their arms.
When the Ogden girls won the team title, they had her come up with them to accept the trophy even though she watched the whole meet on crutches.
“They have been the most supportive team ever through this whole thing,” she said.
The Tigers have done well at every meet where Caldwell's been watching as a spectator: three first-place finishes, a second-place finish and a third-place finish. Ogden comes into Wednesday's state championships with more than a chance of claiming the top spot as a team.
Everyone hopes that eventually "Run 4 Kalii" becomes "Run With Kalii."
Running through it all
Caldwell has always been a runner. It started in the sixth grade when she ran the mile — and ran it in around 7:20 she said — and her dad then suggested she run cross country at Mount Ogden Junior High.
Two years ago when she was a sophomore, Caldwell finished 12th at the state cross country meet, then followed it up last year's region championship and a fourth-place finish at state.
Her expectations for this year's region meet were low, she said. She didn't want to injure herself or push too hard.
The Friday, Saturday and Sunday before the race, she ran pain-free. It started to hurt the week of the region meet though.
Caldwell figured she would see how it felt during the warmup. Then she won the race with a time of 18:19.3, beating her teammate Bonita Gray by nearly five seconds as Ogden coasted to the team title.
At last year’s region championships, Caldwell ran the same race in 17:25.2.
Both of Caldwell's coaches expressed heartbreak for all of the frustration Caldwell's dealt with. Allred is convinced Caldwell would be a state champion if not for the injuries.
Caldwell wants to run in college, if someone gives her a chance. Since she hasn't run a lot of fast times, she has to advocate for herself and tell coaches she has a lot of potential.
"A lot of coaches are telling me, 'Well we have a lot of girls who've been running and we're giving them athletic aid over you because you haven't been running,'" Caldwell said. "It's frustrating, but that's the truth of the matter and it's nothing I can change. I just need to deal with it and look for a coach who is committed to me and knows my potential."
Chronic injuries and mental frustration can derail even professional athletes’ careers at their height. Caldwell isn’t halfway through her senior year and wonders about her long-term health or if this bout of injuries is here to stay.
And yet, she still runs and wants to run, for better or for worse.
“I love running and it is my favorite sport, my body just makes me second guess it sometimes. Maybe this is just a run of bad luck and maybe it will get better from here? I’m not sure,” she said.
Caldwell smiles, shrugs and says she hopes she will run on Wednesday, then immediately follows that with a definite statement that she will run on Wednesday.
All the while, she’s stretching her hip, trying to solve the puzzle.