By Don Rich
Photos by Don Rich, Patty Morgan, Megan Zeller and David Beyerle
In life, there are bumps in everyone's road. Most people simply glide over each relatively minor inconvenience, take a deep breath, and then move on.
For others, those bumps can become mountains. And when they're finally over one, there may be another.
For junior distance standout and budding star Tessa Barrett of Abington Heights, the mountains in her life are both real - honest-to-goodness mountains just outside her door; and the proverbial mountains that life has thrown at her since her freshman year in high school.
She is conquering each and every one with an outlook that is easier to describe, than to actually do.
The fact that Barrett is even competing, let alone competing at a nationally elite level, is testament to her iron will; parents who will move mountains to ensure their only child has every opportunity to get better; and coaches who care deeply about all the athletes under their charge. Quite honestly though, her two coaches have never seen what Barrett has had to endure.
Tessa's incredibly tough journey began during her freshman year at Scranton Prep. Her condition would eventually be diagnosed as Atypical Migraine Syndrome.
It is not something you ever want to experience. And with Barrett, the condition is about as bad as it gets.
An athlete much of her young life, Barrett played basketball for fun, and field hockey for serious fun. In 7th and 8th grades she was on the futures pre-olympic field hockey team. And she ran track for Abington Heights in 8th grade.
2010 PIAA State Champs
But private school was in her future, and Scranton Prep was the choice. The school did not offer field hockey, so the runner in Tessa decided cross country was a good choice.
"My parents are all about academics. My dad is a doctor and a lawyer, so if I haven't done my homework, there is no running," Barrett states matter of factly. And there's absolutely no hint that she has any problem with those priorities. "I love to read and learn. I'm doing all honors and AP courses. It's exactly what I want."
So for her freshman year, Scranton Prep it was.
"I loved it there."
Her cross country season was pretty successful, and included a season best of 18:53 at Paul Short, plus a 3rd place finish in AAA at the District 2 meet, and 32nd overall in the state.
As fall turned to winter, she started to experience headaches, some dizziness and regularly getting sick (We shouldn't have to draw a picture).
2011 PTFCA Indoor Track Carnival
During indoor, Barrett managed to compete twice, once at East Stroudsburg where she ran a 5:20 mile, and then in a loaded field at the PTFCA Track Carnival, she went 5:24.65, finishing only behind names like Piccirillo, McGovern, Weisner, Schmidt and Seykora.
2011 PIAA District 2 Championships
She would not race again until September; somehow gutting out her soph cross country season with a 4th place finish at her district meet and 34th at states. She did finish 34th in the seeded race at the Foot Locker Northeast Regionals in late November. But Tessa would miss her entire indoor campaign, before qualifying for outdoor states in the 1600 and setting a PR of 5:04.51 in the trials.
In between her early success in February of her freshman year and the outdoor state meet as a sophomore, she would face one mountain after another.
After the Track Carnival success, the headaches started to get worse. She experienced small seizures.
Life was not fun.
With her parents help, she found her way to the Headache Institute at the New York-Presbyterian/Columbia University Medical Center. It is one of the top facilities for the disorder in the country. Those who know that area of New York City should recognize the name. It's right across 168th Street from the New Balance Track & Field Center - the Armory - for shorthand.
2011 PIAA State Champs
The sight of seeing such a grand facility, even just from the outside, made Barrett long for a chance to race on the storied track. The chance would come soon enough.
But her health, and finding a solution, was obviously her greatest priority.
Barrett would spend a week in the hospital undergoing test after test. "I basically missed the last quarter of my freshman year," she says.
The cause of her migraines? The flicker rate of fluorescent lights. Noise can contribute. But it is the type of lighting that is the culprit.
2011 Foot Locker Northeast Regionals
Medication. Stay out of flourescent lighting. Exercise. And time.
Finding the correct medication was the hard part. "I'm 5'2" and tiny, so everything is going to affect me more." The docs would go through 25-30 meds - for migraines, seizures - until finding the correct combination.
Staying out of the lights is even more difficult. Barrett finds that she can do the race, but if the lights are bad enough, she doesn't even have time to do striders. "Just show up at the line, and run."
The disorder also means malls, supermarkets, movie theaters… pretty much most of the public world is off-limits.
Exercise is the only part of the treatment that Barrett likes. The docs recommend 3-4 hours of exercise a day. "Lucky I'm a runner."
Time is her friend though, as the condition should improve the older she gets. "It eventually will even out," she says.
Tough to say goodbye to the Prep.
Barrett loved Scranton Prep. Academically. Athletically. And she had great friends there.
But she couldn't go to class.
"It was a difficult decision to leave Prep, and the team, but I had no choice."
So in early 2012, after indoor of her sophomore year, she enrolled with the Pennsylvania Leadership Charter School - an online program that enables the straight-A student Tessa to get the academics (remember, honors and AP courses only), that she wants. Because her home is in the Abington Heights district (Waverly is barely in)… and because of the home-school act signed by former Governor Ed Rendell several years ago - Tessa is able to participate in activities at Abington Heights. Her former Junior High and current coach - Frank Passetti - was more than thrilled to welcome her back to the team.
Passetti is now in his 8th years as the head T&F coach at the school. His distance coach; Rob Ahrens; has been with him since 2009 - and that same year took over as the head cross country coach.
Barrett was still adjusting to the medication, so they took it slowly. Her freshman outdoor invitational racing was li mited, and considering her physical trials, she performed beyond anyone's expectations. Over a four-week period from April 27th, through the trials of the 1600 at the PIAA State T&F Champs, she dropped her 1600 meter time from 5:19, to 5:07 to a 5:04.
Barrett was beginning to feel almost human again. And coach Ahrens says she was able to get a good base over the summer and most of the cross country season.
From her perspective, the summer was adequate, but it wasn't until cross country that she felt good most of the day. "Let's just say I wasn't sick every morning."
There was one more mountain to conquer.
2012 PIAA Foundation XC Invitational
At the Cliff Robbins Invite in early September, Barrett would take 2nd to District 2 rival and fellow junior Regan Rome. At the pre-state (PIAA Foundation) meet, she would take 9th in the AAA field. And then at the William Tennent Invitational in suburban Philly in mid-October, she achieved a season-long goal of breaking 18 minutes with her 17:58. "I had a good feeling going into the meet. We had done a tempo a week before at 5:50 pace."
According to Coach Ahrens, he was expecting a top 5-10 finish from her at the state meet.
It was not to be.
The week before the District 2 race, Barrett got a virus. The meet was on a Wednesday, and they did their last workout the Friday before. "I was achey, but it was a good workout. But then I got a fever, only ran a little the day before the meet. I was up all night."
Abington Heights was the favorite to win the District 2 title. Dallas had been moved back to AA, and with Barrett moving from Scranton Prep, plus three fellow returning juniors; Erin Jaeger, Jenn Burke, and Sarah Walsh; and senior Taylor Ross; Abington Heights was in a good position.
The days leading up to the meet at Elk Lake High School; located like everything else in the district - at the top of a hill - were all rain, and the course was saturated. The mud was everywhere, not just on the course.
2012 PIAA District 2 Championships
Just after the mile there is a sharp left turn and the runners go down a long hill before winding through a woods and returning for a finishing loop. At this point in the race, Barrett was still in 4th place, with Ross and Jaeger leading for her team.
During the race she felt her leg twist in the mud. "I didn't fall, but I felt a lapse of about ten seconds. I didn't feel any pain, but I found myself walking and dragging my leg."
She was a DNF.
Another visit to the doctor. And this time, it was a micro-fracture in her femur.
It was time for total rest. Four weeks in fact. During the following few weeks, she was finally allowed into the pool to swim laps. "I hate to aqua-jog." She was permitted to use a stationary bike two days a week. And just three weeks ago was cleared to begin running again.
During that time she has had only two workouts; one hill and one tempo. But Barrett was eager to get back to actually try to qualify for the Millrose Games. Her preference was to race in the New Balance Games this past weekend (Jan 26), but with the SATs scheduled for that day, she had to move up her debut at the Armory to January 16th at the Millrose Games Trials.
She didn't get into the hot heat, but running virtually alone the entire race, she PRed in the mile with a 5:07.66. Just five days earlier, she had run a 5:09 1600 at East Stroudsburg… one of the least friendly fluorescent light venues anywhere. It's a warmup outside… no strides… go on the gun and say thanks, see ya' next time at the end of the race.
At the Armory, even with the halogen lights, Barrett didn't get to hang around to watch PA go one-two-three in the top heat. But she was thrilled with her time, and anxious to see what she could do in her first-ever 3000 on January 27th at Susquehanna University.
One of the reasons Barrett was able to come back so quickly- in addition to the strong base she was finally able to get over the summer and during cross country - is that they do a lot of hills, and also focus on strength.
Coach Passetti says they end all workouts with core work, including planks, Myrtle series, and a lunge matrix.
It's not just about strength, but flexibility as well.
Coach Ahrens obviously uses hills for most of their hard workouts, occasionally sprinkling in a fartlek or tempo workout to keep it interesting. "The athletes like to remind me that there are no hills on a track, but I think hills deliver an excellent mix of strength, speed, and stride development. Hills give you the most bang for your buck!"
* Click to see more on Coach Anrens' workouts
Barrett says she usually runs based on time, anywhere from 25-40 minutes; and doesn't think she ever exceeds 35 miles a week.
But the solo 5:07 in her first time on a banked track opened some eyes.
Barrett's goal was to qualify for the 3000 at the PTFCA Indoor State Champs on February 23rd in State College. The flat track auto-qualifying time is 10:45.63.
Her coaches figured out the splits she would need to make that time.
2013 Susquehanna Indoor Classic
They gave her a goal of 5:25 for the first mile.
So much for goals… as Tessa blew through the mile in 5:18, and cruised from there to a PA#1 and US#8 10:02.69. She split 2:37 for the 800, 2:41 for the 2nd 800, 2:45 for the 3rd 800 through 2400m, and closed her last 200 in 38. She had opened with a 36.
"She did it by herself," noted Passetti. "We were very pleasantly surprised."
Ahrens echoes the surprise. "I certainly didn't expect her to be running at this level so soon, but I can't say I'm that surprised either."
The lighting a Susquehanna cooperated as well. They are pointed upward and reflected. Plus, the meet was during the day and two walls of the facility are all glass.
Despite the disappointment of not getting to race at states in cross country, the enforced rest appears to have benefited Barrett well.
Ahrens says the obstacles that Barrett has had to overcome have contributed to her thirst for success. "I think she is racing with a little extra gusto right now. "
But, Ahrens continues, there is much more to the story than simply the running. Because of what she had had to overcome, Ahrens believes running has become even more important to her. "Not only is it an opportunity to exercise, but it also provides her with social opportunities that are very important as well. I think the benefits she receives from running are worth many times what she puts into it. And she puts a lot more into it than the average teenager!"
Passetti says the team is trying to qualify a DMR for states, and will race that event at the February 9th PTFCA Track Carnival. And Barrett will anchor with a newfound confidence that should make for an interesting race.
Barrett doesn't seem to dwell on the difficulties she has faced over a very rough two years. In fact, she thinks she is "lucky" that her condition that will improve with time.
But for now, she says, everything she has gone through has "fueled my fire."
Her dream after high school is to run in college. But she quickly adds, "at a good academic school, of course."
The best not only overcome the mountains that are placed in front of them. They actually look for more.
* Coach Rob Anrens' workout overview: We will do hills based on time (running hard uphill for 30sec or 1min) or distance. I tell the athletes to take as much time as they need between repeats but it's usually between 1-2 minutes. An athlete like Tessa will usually accumulate between 6-7 minutes worth of hard uphill running by the end of the workout.
We do fartleks and tempos on the road, though we only do maybe 3 or 4 of these workouts throughout the whole indoor season. We normally do fartleks based on time. For example: 3x(1min hard, 1 min easy, 2 min hard, 1 min easy, 3 min hard, 1 min easy). When we do tempos I usually mark out a few different distances on a flat stretch of road and we do repeats back and forth with 1 min recoveries. One of the recent hill workouts we did I called "Choose Your Own Adventure" hills. I had cards with "20 seconds," "40 seconds," and "60 seconds" written on them. Each time a group got to the bottom of the hill they picked a card and whatever it said, that was the duration of their next hill. It's a simple way to do essentially the same workout we normally do but make it fun!
Ahrens is a 2005 grad of Cardinal High School in Middlefield, Ohio. His senior year, his DIII XC team was state runnner-up. He was the 4th scorer on the team that day.