The Colts Neck HS girls enter Sectional Championships ranked No. 2 in New Jersey and could very well prove to be the best in the state by season's end.
They have strong senior leadership up front, a program with a successful history, and a national level talent in Lilly Shapiro setting course records.
But nothing comes easy, they've put in the work to get there. And just one example of this team's determination can be found with their No. 3 runner Ava Wilmot.
Wilmot is a junior who's been running through symptoms from Lyme disease for over a year now.
When did you first realize something was wrong and when were you diagnosed?
During the beginning of September 2020, I began experiencing some left ankle pain in my workouts. I was not completely sure of what was going on, I just thought I must have twisted it in a funny way one day when I was running in the summer and it was still recovering.
But as the days of September went on, the pain increasingly became worse. My first race of cross country my sophomore year was at Cougar Invitational at Bucks Mill Park, which my team (Colts Neck) hosted.
My ankle pain was very severe and I could barely finish because of it. After that, I did not want to know what was really going on, so I continued to race through it- big mistake. I then raced at Monmouth County at Bucks Mill and Colt Invite at Holmdel- both of which I could not finish due to the horrific pain.
My mother finally took me to the orthopedic to get an MRI approved, and it turned out I had a stress reaction in my ankle, which put me out for the rest of the cross country season.
I started training again around Christmas time for the upcoming indoor season, little by little. When it came February, racing was right around the corner for me. My coach, Jim Schlentz, decided to send some of the distance runners down to Adidas Indoor Nationals in Virginia Beach, VA on February 27th to get a competitive race in because there were few to no opportunities to really compete during the indoor season, due to the COVID precautions.
I was racing in the two mile. From the gun to the first mile, I felt very smooth going through in about 5:45. But once I hit the ninth lap, I hit a wall. My legs just wouldn't move - I ran 12:26. I was so bewildered because I was not even out of breath, I felt perfectly fine cardiovascularly - my legs just would not move. My mom took me to the doctor March 1st to get bloodwork done and a COVID test because we thought I either had Mono or COVID. It turned out I had Lyme Disease.
And the worst part was I had it since April 2020- 11 months without knowing it.
What are your symptoms and how have they affected your lifestyle both inside and outside of running?
I don't even know where to begin. The biggest ones for me have been fatigue and joint pain.
I would come home from practice after easy runs and just go to sleep immediately because of how tired I was. My joints have also been super sensitive, so almost all of the outdoor track last year I raced in the Nike ZoomX Vaporfly Next%, to make the fast pace of any race feel a little more comfortable on my joints.
Outside of running, it took such a mental toll on me.
I cannot tell you how many times I have cried into my pillow at night not being happy with the person I had become. It was so hard for me to accept myself. I felt like I lost myself- who Ava really is. I was going through depression. I let Lymes get the best of me back in March and April. I was ashamed of myself, I hated to look in the mirror and see that I was the one going through this. My head turned into complete negativity: a glass-half-empty attitude. It was horrible for me during that time.
What's something people may not realize about lyme disease?
Lymes can affect you A LOT psychologically. I have some brain fog issues now from it, where I cannot remember things as well as I used to- especially at school. Lymes also likes to hide as other things. For me, everyone was convinced I had Mono for the longest time. I was tested multiple times for it and always tested negative, never knowing what I really had was Lyme Disease.
What kind of treatments have you gone through and have you seen improvements? Is there a full recovery in sight?
I am currently on my seventh round of 28 days on Doxycycline. I have been going to the chiropractor every week to get realigned so there is a lower chance of my joint pain firing up again.
The past month I have seen the most improvement of all. I have not felt anywhere near as fatigued as I did in outdoor track. I am in the best shape I have been in over a year and a half. I have felt great in my workouts, and the doctors, my coaches, and family are all confident that a complete recovery is coming in the next few months.
I am so excited to finally go into a race feeling confident.
What have you learned about yourself throughout this process?
Running is not everything. I used to make close to everything in my life about running which is so unhealthy.
This sport is supposed to be fun, and it should not ruin your day when you have a race. But it did for me. There are so many great things about my life outside of running- I have great friends and family and there are other things I love to do besides running.
My boyfriend, Jack Moran, who runs for Christian Brothers Academy, has especially been for me through it. I was having a rough night once, and I wrote down in my notes on my phone something he told me, and open it and remind myself of this everyday I wake up now:
"Look- don't be so down. Everyone is missing something. It will all get better no matter how long it takes. But never give up. Trust me, you'll be stronger and happier after that you didn't."
And I haven't given up. There are so many times I have asked myself "Why are you still doing this?" The answer is because I love it, and I regained the passion back for it. I have worked hard in the classroom, on the trails, and psychologically to become the best person I can be. I started eating better, getting more sleep, taking my medication more strictly, and most of all, staying positive.
I am in such a better place now than I was a few months ago. This has been the hardest year of my 16 years of living, I do not take any of it back. In a way, I am happy I got Lymes because it made me rethink my whole outlook on life. Life's a rollercoaster- there are peaks and valleys, and after every valley, there is a peak. I am on that peak now. I owe it all to the people that have supported me through it. And especially Jack for telling me this- it changed me for the better.
Do you have advice for others?
The biggest piece of advice that I can give is to never quit.
You do not get anywhere in life by quitting. When I found out I had Lymes, I did not know what to do.
When I was in middle school, I was coached by Bob Andrews, the father of 2016 Rio Olympian Robby Andrews. Robby has fought with Lymes off and on, so I gave him a call and asked him what he thought would be best.
He told me that no matter what, the Lymes would not get worse. He said I could run through it, but my times were not going to be where I wanted them to be. So, I decided to run through it, instead of giving up. Do not get me wrong, I thought about quitting the sport for good many times- but there is always a light at the end of a tunnel. I pushed and pushed and pushed to get as close to the times as I ran freshman year, and I came pretty close. I am so happy I never quit.
Another big thing is to surround yourself with great people. My teammates are my best friends and have been so supportive and loving through the past few months and I am so grateful for them. We love hanging out with each other outside of running from going to the beach, to Six Flags, and shopping. Lilly Shapiro and Natalie Shapiro deserve a lot of the credit. They are the older sisters that I never had. As incredible of runners that they both are, they are better friends. They will be there for you whenever you need it and are always willing to be a shoulder to lean on. They are such great role models and two of the best friends I have come across in my life.
I also want to write something about my parents. My parents are amazing- they always want what is best for me and are so proud of how far I have come this past year. I have become a stronger person overall because of all of this. They are so supportive of me and truly believe in me that I am going to leave a positive footprint on this earth before I leave it. To my mom, you are my rock. You have helped me grow into the person I am today and I am finally proud of who I am because of you. I remember arguing with you about going to get that blood test done after nationals, and you forced me to get it done. Thank you for forcing me to go, because if I did not go, we would have never known I had Lymes. Thank you for letting me cry in your arms when I needed to, you made it easier for me to get my feelings of frustration and defeat off my chest. Thank you for being you and showing me that I am perfect just the way I am, and no disease can define me. I love you.