Parker Smith chased down the leaders Friday in Rock Springs, hammering the final straightaway to pace Jackson with a fourth-place finish. She led another victory for the team in a season when the squad has yet to experience a defeat.
It was the first time Smith finished as Jackson’s top runner, though she’s held down the third spot on the team strongly, a crucial cog in a decorated program that undoubtedly views this season as a prime opportunity to return to the top of the state podium in two weeks.
“After four years I’ve figured out how my season goes,” the senior said. “The first half I kind of struggle mentally … towards the middle of the season I always have that one race where everything seems to click.”
It’s an awareness that comes only from a veteran of the sport, an athlete whose daily schedule almost always includes a run and whose weekends through the fall almost always include a race day.
But it wasn’t always like this. Far from it.
Smith always had trouble breathing, she said. But it was never so bad until her sophomore season of track. She wasn’t closing in on her freshman personal records, and, frankly, the sport was not fun. She had this “breathing thing” that worsened as she logged more miles. A feeling in her throat, like it was closing as her turnover increased. When that happened, her hands would start to tingle.
“It was the most mentally challenging thing I think I’ve ever gone through, because I had no idea what was happening to me,” she said. “It made running so much harder. It made it not fun anymore. I didn’t know why I kept doing that to myself. Why would I run if nothing was working?”
For awhile Smith thought she had asthma. She went through the gamut of inhalers and nothing worked. After that sophomore year and before her junior cross-country campaign in the fall, a bit of research into vocal cord dysfunction turned up matching symptoms. VCD, according to the American Academy of Allergy Asthma and Immunology, occurs when the vocal cords do not open correctly, and it is often confused with asthma because the two have similar symptoms. With VCD the vocal cord muscles tighten, while with asthma it’s the bronchial tubes.
To confirm her suspicion, Smith went to a specialist in Denver that summer. She recalls a scope threaded up her nose, a harness attaching her to the ceiling as a safety measure while she progressively increased speed on a treadmill. The scope kept a live image of her vocal cords as her pace increased dramatically.
“The goal was to make me have an attack, get it on camera and see if that’s what I had,” she said.
Sure enough, that’s what she had.
“It was the worst experience of my life. I do not want to do that again,” she said. “I puked afterward because it was such a physically challenging experience.”
There was no cure, but Smith can implement a breathing technique during races to stave off the closure of her throat. It includes using her mouth and teeth to create what she describes as a suction-like effect. She does it every few breaths and releases it.
“The only way to learn that was through speech therapy,” she said.
Before Smith knew what was happening, the flare-ups would come near the end of races, and they would induce a much stronger, more real panic than the usual feeling of fear or fury a distance runner experiences come race time. She recalls seeing head coach Jeff Brazil along the race course during those episodes, trying her best to express the discomfort physically in the hope Brazil would pull her off the course.
“If I panic or get stressed it makes it worse, and I actually can make it worse myself,” she said. “I’ll see Brazil on the course sometimes and been like, ‘Oh, I don’t want to do this.’”
“That ain’t happening,” Brazil said back.
“It never works,” she said.
Judging by her finish to last season, Smith’s found a way to race – and race well – despite the condition. She finished as Jackson’s second runner at state last year as a junior, placing eighth to help her team to a relatively disappointing third-place finish.
For a time, as could be expected, VCD felt as though it limited her potential on the track or the cross-country course. That seems obvious. Instead of viewing it through the lens of a limiting factor, Smith chooses to see it as another fold in the race plan, a development to overcome and live with, the breathing technique as much a part of her race as pushing the middle mile or kicking the final quarter.
“Because of the experience I’ve been through, my mentality is stronger, which has helped my running significantly,” she said. “Also, the technique has given me the opportunity to run faster, too.”
As odd as it is, the experience, from hating the sport at times to learning to cope and excel, may be a resounding net positive. Not just for Smith, but the team as a whole.
“One of the cool things about being a coach over time is watching kids go through things like that and watching them come out the other end stronger than they were before,” Brazil said. “And that’s where I saw she’s a really great leader, because she’s been through the tough parts of running, so she can really appreciate it now.”
That dialed-in approach to racing has helped her reel in the emotions that come along with racing. Brazil said it’s infectious. While the rest of the team might not be working through a suction-like breathing technique across the course, they are influenced by her newfound calm. As the conference meet goes off this weekend in Laramie before that gives way to state in Casper in two weeks, the squad will see just how far that learned, calming presence goes.
“We’re undefeated this year, and I think that’s a lot of Parker’s influence,” Brazil said. “I’m sorry she had to go through the VCD bad part, but part of it is the good parts now, and Parker comes with just this really great positive attitude, and it’s kind of infected the whole team.”