By Dedra Cordle
Less than a year after Laura Kaulen’s body helped propel her across the finish line in the hottest U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials on record, it began to rebel against her.
Having been a long distance runner since joining her middle school’s cross-country team, Kaulen was used to the aches and pains, to that feeling of having accomplished something good and hard. But there was nothing good about the feeling spreading throughout her body.
“It was sheer exhaustion,” she said. “Just this overwhelming sensation of lethargy.”
She could not understand what was happening, nor why it was happening; it didn’t make any sense. She was in the middle of making plans for upcoming races and still basking in the glow of having completed the grueling Olympic marathon trials in Los Angeles.
So she did what she had been trained to do and tried to work through the listlessness. She figured out she could run her household and run her special education classes at Central Crossing High School, but she couldn’t run and she couldn’t run away from her body.
“It was one of the lowest points of my life,” she said. “I went to a number of doctors to help me figure out what was going on and they couldn’t offer me anything conclusive.”
Over time, Kaulen became more depressed and started gaining weight. Then came the headaches, the dizzy spells, the lowering and speeding of her heart rate and the drops and spikes in her blood pressure.
Though scared, she was determined to figure out what was happening. She made appointments with more medical professionals and finally, in 2017, received a diagnosis: chronic fatigue syndrome and hypothalamic dysfunction.
“I was happy that I had a name for what I was going through, but I knew I would probably never be able to run again with it,” she said.
Since the age of 6, since joining a local recreational center’s track and field program in Garfield Heights, running had been a part of her life. It propelled her to numerous records in high school, to Youngstown State University where she became the school’s first female runner in cross-country history to compete in the NCAA Championship and to the fastest time in Erie’s Marathon’s history for women, clocking in at two hours, 42 minutes and 12 seconds. That score helped qualify her to her first U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials in 2016.
Running had provided Kaulen with so much – bonding time with her husband and three children, time to clear her head, to plan for and accomplish goals – and now it was being taken away from her by her own body.
“It was hard to adjust to this new reality,” she said. “I had done so much research after my diagnosis and learned that most people do not fully recover from chronic fatigue syndrome.”
But she was one of the fortunate few.
Under her doctor’s care, Kaulen was able to slowly get back to a normal functioning level with the help of thyroid medication, vitamins and supplements and some dietary changes.
Under the care of her long-time running coach, Brenda Hawley, she began to find her joy in the sport again after being sidelined for 18 months.
“I started doing little races, 5K’s here and there in smaller towns,” she said. “I hate to say this, but I was embarrassed to do any locally because my name was attached to the Olympic trials. I didn’t want people to see how far my times had fallen.”
In October of 2018, she ran and completed the Columbus Marathon at a time of two hours, 52 minutes and 44 seconds and then refocused her sight on the 2020 U.S. Olympic Team Marathon Trials in Georgia. Those closest to her inquired about her sanity.
“It didn’t make any sense to them why I would want to do this,” Kaulen said. “I was coming off two serious diagnoses and I had entered my early 40s. On paper it does sound a bit out there but I said I wasn’t going to place limitations on myself. I was going to try to drop my time so I could meet the Olympic standard and qualify for these trials. It was what I had my mind set on.”
Over the course of the year, she trained like, well, like she had before; visiting spots in Dublin, Grandview Heights, the track at Central Crossing and the hills at Battelle Darby Creek Metro Park.
Three months ago, she competed at the Chicago Marathon, crossing the finish line in two hours, 42 minutes and 48 seconds. According to the qualifying time set by track and field’s governing body, the women’s Olympic Standard is two hours, 37 minutes for the A group and two hours and 45 minutes for the B group. With her time at the Chicago Marathon, she qualified for the Feb. 29 Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, joining several hundred other elite runners across the country.
Unlike many of her peers, she does not harbor dreams of making the U.S. Olympic team.
“Only the top three finishers from the men’s group and the women’s group will go on to compete at Tokyo,” she said. “I am nowhere near the top three. I would say I’m more along the top 100 or 200.
“I am, however, extremely happy to have made it to the trials. Just getting there was the accomplishment.”
After the trials, she plans to compete at the Boston Marathon in April where she has been accepted into the Elite Master’s field and then it’s onto the Masters Outdoor World Track and Field Championships in Toronto this summer.
She said like the upcoming trials, she has no goals other than to cross the finish line in a good time – and to have a good time. And maybe, along the way, she’ll begin to think about the 2024 Olympic Marathon Trials.
“I might give it a try,” she said. “I’ll be in my mid 40s by then, but I have learned that you can’t place limitations on yourself. That you have to keep going and never say never.”