The symptoms started at a July training camp with Central Cross Country (CXC) in northern Wisconsin. The runner-up from last year’s SuperTour series, Jennie Bender, 24, wasn’t feeling well.
For two to three days at a time, she’d experience bouts of nausea. Then her neck felt sore, along with her jaw and teeth. One night, she tossed and turned with cold chills, and feared that she’d wake up a leper. The next day, she pushed on with her team during dryland training. Bender didn’t know what was wrong, but was sure she’d muscle through it.
Things got worse. Bender’s eyes started to get puffy and dry, she felt an unusual frequency of headaches, and finally, fatigue set in.
She went to the doctor and learned she had Lyme disease, a bacterial infection caused by a tick bite. When Bender called back for more information, they told her she also had mononucleosis, a viral infection commonly known as mono. She cried at first, but the second diagnosis made her laugh out loud.
“Like … seriously? You’re just messin … ” Bender recalled in a blog entry.
Left with one option, she chose to rest.
“I have never had either before,” Bender wrote in an email to FasterSkier. “So I had to stop cold turkey for a solid month [starting July 21], which needless to say was not easy. My legs felt like Jello and I had a lot of practice sitting.”
While absorbing all this during her three-hour drive back to Minneapolis, Bender had a bit of a scare. About 2 ½ hours in, she started singing to herself. That wasn’t the scary part.
“Suddenly I realized my speech was slow, and I couldn’t formulate my words very well,” she wrote on her blog. “My upper lip was also curling up in an abnormal way as I spoke (to myself), and I was trying to figure out if this was in my head, or actually happening. It lasted about 5-8 minutes, then slowly started to change back. This was followed by brief leg and forearm/hand tingling.”
She called several friends, which were doctors, and they advised that she go to the emergency room. She did so at 5 p.m. on a Saturday, and seven hours later, left the ER with little information.
“They concluded I didn’t have a tumor, or MS, or a slew of other worst case scenarios,” Bender wrote. “I keep thinking, what if they DID find something like that? My first reaction was that I would have had a better excuse than Mono for not doing the strength test during camp. Then, I would have freaked the heck out. Probably run around the hospital naked looking for that sheet cake to ape throw at bystanders.”
Since then, Bender has run through a roller coaster of emotions this offseason. She’s hated Facebook at times for photos of people training and been frustrated with herself for working out too soon. After making the podium at both U.S. and Canadian nationals last season, she’s had to reconsider her goals this year and be her biggest advocate in achieving them.
“This whole process has been a learning experience of how to trust myself,” she wrote. “After numerous blood tests, the Dr (correction many Drs) couldn’t tell me when to train or when not to, and neither could a coach. I was the only one who knew how I felt. I had to cancel many camps, convince people I shouldn’t do races or events, change my diet, disregard my yearly training plan, and change my mindset.
“I have no doubt in my mind. I will come back just as strong,” she added. “And I will be ready to slay. Just a speed bump.”
Here is the rest of FasterSkier’s interview with Bender, who is picking up the intensity in Canmore, Alberta:
FasterSkier: How’s Canmore?
Jennie Bender: I arrived in Canmore [Oct.] 11th to hang out with [former CXC teammate] Sara Hewitt before the team arrived on the 13th. We started skiing the 14th around the rolled out loop, and the snow has been holding on thus far. We had a warm spell with rain and I thought it was a goner, but it’s doing OK.
The team started out the week getting used to the altitude, so we have been doing mostly distance, but [Wednesday] the men started intensity, which will be the theme of the rest of the camp. The mens team up here consists of Eric Wolcott, Karl Nygren, Adam Martin, and Doug Debold, and they are looking really strong. Last year our woman’s team was a force, and now this year I have a feeling the men are going to shine.
FS: How’s your recovery and transition back to training been?
JB: I have been working on technique a lot this summer, and it really feel like I have made some improvements. I just need to transfer them to on snow. [New CXC head coach] Igor [Badamshin], along with some other positive influences, have opened my eyes to some big changes.
Technique wise, I am working on relaxing into the motions more. I muscle a lot of skiing, and I would like to take advantage of natural movement more so than in the past. … When I am healthy, I will do intensity. That should be soon.
FS: How long were you on medications?
JB: The doctors told me to take two weeks of antibiotics, but I heard so many horror stories from fellow friends and athletes who have had Lyme before, that I requested three weeks. I think I caught it early, but I don’t know if I picked it up in June or July. I don’t remember finding a tick on me, it was sort of ironic because I was the most paranoid athlete at camp towards tick prevention. Warning to others, Deet does not ward off ticks, only Permethrin, which can’t be sprayed on skin.
Note: Bender was unable to compete in the hyped Telemark Forest Mountain Bike Race (part of the CXC Triple) on July 14.
“I actually was just going to slow ride the race because I felt bad about skipping it,” Bender wrote on her blog. “Then I finally put together that I probably shouldn’t. Yes, it was actually a decision that was stressing me out, and not an obvious ‘No F-ing way’ for the normal, logical brain. You would be surprised how many hopeful ‘Are you going to race still?’ that I received.”
FS: How did you spend the rest of the summer?
JB: I had to miss the CXC altitude camp in Colorado, so I went to Vermont to visit home in late August and early September. There, I had a few setbacks, trained, then had to rest again. I would think I was easing into it, then realized just how little reserve to recover I had in me.
When I came back to Minnesota end of September, I finally started to get in some consistent training. Now I am here in Canmore, which feels really good. I still haven’t done much intensity, and of course picked up a slight cold right when I was going to lay it on, but I have been rolling with the punches thus far … so I just have to deal.
FS: What’s your outlook for the season ahead?
JB: My goals are still the same. I just have plan A, B, and bah humbug C. I want to race in the Canmore and Quebec World Cups, I want to race well at Nationals in Soldier Hollow, and I want to race spring in Europe. We’ll see how far my stubbornness and new technique gets me.
Through all of this, I have learned and reiterated three important things. 1) It’s important to know how to make yourself happy and laugh on your own. That being said, those who reach out to you when you start to fall off the map really mean a lot. 2) This summer, I have had the least amount of structure given to me since high school. Igor has urged us to know how to lead our own way, and at first I fought it, but now I understand its importance. You are your best coach, and confidence is key. 3) Every great athlete needs to have a setback story, so I am hoping this is mine, and now I can move on and ski fast.
Alex Kochon (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the former managing editor at FasterSkier. She spent seven years with FS from 2011-2018, and has been writing, editing, and skiing ever since. She's making a cameo in 2020.