On Feb. 8, 2015, Brianna Schwartz was in rare form, dominating a distance triple in times all worthy of the high school top 10 nationally.
That indoor season debut also proved to be the final high school meet for one of Pennsylvania's all-time great distance talents.
It would be more than 600 days before the former Shaler Area star was able to return to competition. And today, slightly more than another year later, Schwartz finds herself as physically fit as she has been in years and taking every precaution to make certain that her return to form continues with the nation's top-ranked Colorado Buffaloes.
"It's definitely been a long time since I felt this good," Schwartz said. "I am very grateful to be healthy, and I am really not taking it for granted. Every day I'm doing different strengthening exercises and injury prevention. This summer I was able to build up slowly so I think just not having to rush into the hard training definitely helped."
Schwartz will look to take another step forward in her return to the form that led her to four state titles and numerous WPIAL victories in today's Division I Pre-Nationals Invitational in Louisville, Ky. Four of the top 10 women's teams are scheduled to compete on the 6K course that will determine this year's national champions in just five more weeks (Nov. 18).
"I think it has made me a better athlete in the sense that I am a lot more focused on my health, doing the little things like injury prevention," Schwartz said of the difficulties she has endured over the past several years. "I am definitely grateful for every run and every healthy race that I get and just being able to train with the team, which I haven't really gotten to do yet (before this season)."
Photo by Don Rich
This September, Schwartz raced as many meets as she had in all of 2016 and twice as much as she did in 2015 as both a high schooler and collegian. Injuries resulting from a previously undiagnosed condition that slowed her in her final outdoor track season at Shaler Area and other running maladies have had her as a bystander for months on end.
"Two springs ago, I had a stress reaction in my sacrum so that just wiped out the whole summer training," the journalism major said. "So coming back last year, late July I was jogging 20 minutes on the ground (three days a week).
"I still wanted to try to do something in cross so I just jumped into workouts and stuff. The whole last year I never had a bone injury, but I had lots of small hiccups that interrupted training and that didn't really help my fitness at all, having to take a couple days off or a week off here and there."
The aforementioned bone injuries were a result of bone density problems that arose out of Schwartz being diagnosed late in 2014 with Celiac disease, where the ingestion of gluten leads to damage in the small intestine and the inability to absorb certain important nutrients, including iron and calcium.
Schwartz's coach at Shaler Area, Sam Bair, believes that her milestone performance on March 1, 2014, in the annual PTFCA Indoor State Championship might have been her final big-meet race before Celiac disease began to unknowingly affect her times and her overall health.
With former Elk County Catholic star Kennedy Weisner off on a record-setting pace, Schwartz floated behind the now Georgetown Hoya by as much as 10 meters during the opening four laps of the mile at Penn State. Finally with just over 400 meters to go, Schwartz zipped into the lead and was never challenged en route to a memorable dash to the line that ended with her crawling to the finish after her legs buckled and gave way with meters remaining.
Her victory in 4:42.58 remains the state indoor mile record and her PR in the distance.
"I really thought that when we got outdoors (in 2014) that she would run under 4:40," Bair said of his star pupil's historic run in State College. "I just figured that was just part of the deal. That she would be fit enough once we got outdoors because we didn't really race her that much, we looked after her. I thought well she's a shoe-in to run a faster time. Things were really going well at that point."
Things continued in the right direction performance-wise for Schwartz in the early stages of the 2014 outdoor season as a 4:45-2:10 double at the Butler Invitational catapulted the then junior toward the top of the national charts. Her negative split 1,600 meters was the fastest in the country at the time and her two-lapper was US#4.
Three weeks later, she was dialed in for a run at the state 3,200 record, with her 10:10.03 at the Baldwin Invitational just missing the nearly 40-year-old mark for the second-fastest time in state history.
Despite the abundance of low numbers, Bair felt something was not quite 100 percent with his standout.
"She was running fast, but she seemed more tired than usual," the veteran coach recalled. "You just saw little differences in her physical appearance, she just didn't look strong, she was kind of pale.
"I just wasn't sure what was going on. When she won the state meet, she hung on coming down the straightaway and was almost passed by Madeleine Davison. The two of them had been training together through the entire year really, but you could see that during her training periods with Maddie, Maddie looked better physically than Bri. Maddie looked healthy. Bri was just off-center."
Performances in the Adidas Grand Prix and Brooks PR Invitational that did not measure up to the indoor mile or expectations further puzzled Shaler Area coaches. An ensuing blood test revealed low-iron levels and an apparently correctable situation.
Photo by David Beyerle
"It didn't make sense for someone with her talents ... there was a time when three months before that, she could have done that in a workout," Bair said of her post-season meets in June 2014. "She was just so strong but then when she went to those two races, we tried to justify it in our heads by saying, 'well maybe she's just tired, it's been a long year. But it just wasn't her. Her talent level was so high that there must be something else going on."
A high-quality iron supplement was added to her daily routine, and Schwartz responded with cross country performances that were more in line with her talent and workload. Meet and course records preceded a state title at Hershey, and Schwartz was prepped for a successful title run at the Foot Locker regional in New York and another trip to San Diego for the national final.
"She looked really good in the regional meet, now mind you she had been taking really good iron supplements from after (Adidas and Brooks PR) for three months," Bair remembered. "We thought her ferritin would shoot up because all the information I had read indicated that.
"She goes back to the doctor, gets another ferritin test and it had stayed the same. This does not make sense. She eats everything, her diet is perfect. She found out between the regional and Foot Locker that she had Celiac disease."
The diagnosis in early December 2014 came at an inopportune time for Schwartz as she was preparing for her second trip to the Foot Locker Finals fresh off a resounding victory in the Northeast regional race at Van Cortlandt Park in the Bronx.
Schwartz stopped short of blaming her then new gluten-free diet for a finish in her second trip to California that failed to match her All-American run in the previous national final.
"I felt great at the regional meet and then sometime in between there was when the diagnosis came and they had me on the diet," she said. "I don't really know if it was the diet or what, but the energy levels were definitely low at nationals. I couldn't find anything (gluten free) to eat (in San Diego) and I felt really just depleted during that race.
"From the start, I didn't feel good at all. I don't know what to attribute the low energy levels to for that race but ... it could have just been all the stress. That was bad."
Not long after pulling out of the state indoor meet in 2015 because of the stress reaction to her left leg that stopped her season after her amazing triple at Youngstown State, Schwartz's positive attitude was put to the test when it became apparent that she would not run again for Shaler Area.
"When she came up with that injury, after a few weeks had passed, we knew that that was it - that she was done for the year," Bair said. "I told her don't stress out about running the outdoor season, just forget it. You need to get healthy. You need to get with your diet, you need to prepare for college and the good thing is where you are going, there is so much talent out there, there's a chance that you would have been redshirted anyway that first year.
"That's Colorado. They have some of the finest distance runners in the country. They are going to redshirt you that first year and let you get into your diet, let your body heal."
Working with high-performing athletes during times of injury is nothing new in Boulder, and Buffalo coach Mark Wetmore and his staff had Schwartz sharing in the decision-making on the steps to take on the road to recovery and how quickly it would happen.
"Indeed, we had to reduce her training level," said Wetmore, who has guided Colorado to seven team titles this century after taking over the program in November 1995. "Those decisions were somewhat democratic; we let Bri tell us how she was feeling and what she felt she could try. It was a slow progress, but most of her recent success developed over the summer. So that was almost entirely her decision-making, with a few e-mail discussions with Coach (Heather) Burroughs."
Schwartz utilized the state-of-the-art therapeutic facilities at Colorado as she worked patiently to get back to a healthy state.
"When Bri needed to cross train, she did different things - cycling, underwater treadmill and AlterG," Burroughs said of the alternatives available in Boulder. "We didn't write specific workouts but rather gave her some guidance and had her decide what type of cross training she preferred. Some interruptions were a few days, some a few months."
As for the bone density issues that brought an end to her high school career, Schwartz is hoping for continued improvement in that area.
"Really, the hope was and is that by taking gluten out of my diet, I am going to be able to absorb what I need to absorb," Schwartz said of vital nutrients. "And taking calcium supplements, that's really all we can do is that hope, over time, the bone density gets better. It takes years but that's the trend that we are going for is strengthening my bones slowly."
When Schwartz committed to Colorado over a trio of top distance schools, she said a "strong team culture that I could instantly fit into" was a major consideration. It appears that the Shaler Area graduate sized up the environment in the Pac-12 Conference and national power perfectly.
"The whole staff, the coaches and the trainers and everybody - they're really great about being supportive through an injury," Schwartz said. "They understand that we're just as upset as they are. They make us plan as if were running the most mileage on the team. Every week we sit down and plan what we can do even if it is just jogging in the water.
"It was still difficult to not be running, but that definitely helped me be patient in healing. I knew they wanted me to get healthy and better things would come. They weren't rushing at all, and that was great."
Schwartz's collegiate debut finally came last Oct. 1 at the Metro State Invitational in Denver, with her 23:04 worth 10th place and eighth among CU entries. Two weeks later at the Bradley Pink Classic in Illinois, she was 58th in 22:03 and the seventh of eight Buffaloes in the 6K race.
Her return to the track after more than two years came earlier this year with performances at the CU Invitational (10:23.88 3,000) and Brian Clay Invitational (4:37.63 1500).
"It took an unbelievable about of time for her to heal up, but we all knew that she had enough faith, enough emotional strength to handle it," Bair said. "We knew that she just wasn't going to quit. That is just not part of her makeup.
"She ran low key races last year. The times were not as good as she was running in high school, but she persisted and continued to train and stayed healthy."
The top-ranked Buffaloes opened their season at the CSU Ram Invitational in nearby Fort Collins, Colo., but it was apparent to the Colorado coaches prior to the race that a Brianna Schwartz that they had not seen since she was being recruited in high school was back.
"Yes, we were pleasantly surprised," Wetmore said of Schwartz's effort in leading the Buffaloes at the Colorado State invitational. "She is a very different runner now from anything we saw in the prior two years."
Schwartz finished fourth overall in 17:37 and was the first uniformed CU runner across in a pack of five Buffalo varsity runners all with the same time.
"It definitely gave me a lot of confidence," she said. "I was happy with my training leading up, but I didn't know how fit I was. That race our coach tells the top two girls to go out until we have five or six of us together and just cruise in. So that was just a great feeling, just feeling fit enough to run with my teammates up at the front.
"Feel good and run a good time. I just felt healthy and fit. It's a feeling a hadn't felt in a while. It was a really good race."
As a result of her return to form in the season opener and throughout the opening weeks of training, Schwartz earned a trip with Wetmore's top 7 to the Joe Piane Notre Dame Invitational, which featured several nationally ranked women's teams. Another solid effort two weeks ago - sixth for the Buffaloes and 22nd overall - had Schwartz completing the 5K golf course layout in 16:49.9, less than 15 seconds behind the team's No. 3 runner and away from the event's top 10.
Photo by Don Rich
According to Burroughs, Colorado's associate head coach and its first female three-time cross country All-American, Schwartz is getting her racing legs back under her.
"Bri is quiet, both in dealing with disappointment and in her self-belief," Burroughs said of the redshirt sophomore, who still has three seasons of eligibility in both indoor and outdoor track. "She surprised us when she returned this August with such a big jump in fitness. But I don't think she surprised herself. I think her primary emotion after the CSU race was relief that she is finally getting back to where she believes she should be.
"Bri ran very well (at Joe Piane). She was a little tentative mid-race. She is still figuring out her racing limits after two years without high-level competitions, but she got it mostly right at Notre Dame."
For Wetmore, Schwartz's personality and limited racing schedule carried as much weight as her top-ranked times when she was a high school recruit.
"Of course, her high school performances were important, but also that she seemed to have been developed slowly, and not over-raced," he said. "We also liked that she was soft-spoken ... not at all a 'star'."
With the championship part of the 2017 season around the corner, Schwartz is working to make up for time lost to running, racing and furthering her running career. And each day, stay true to the gluten-free diet that has allowed her to return to competition.
"There is still a lot going on about Celiac disease and how it affects me specifically," Schwartz said. "Right now, what it means (is the same as) when I got the diagnosis, taking gluten out of the diet. Even with cross-contamination (of food items), it was really stressful at first. I really had to figure out, but I've gotten a handle on it for the past two years now."
Most with the disease have symptoms, which normally include gastrointestinal problems. Schwartz, and her mother, Paulette, who was tested and diagnosed after her daughter, had none except for unexplained fatigue.
"Right now, I am able to do a lot of my own cooking," Schwartz said. "It's manageable, but I've never had any physical symptoms like stomach pain. People get stomach pain when they eat gluten, but I never had that so I would never know if I accidentally had something that I shouldn't be having. It's pretty tough for me. I always have to be on top of it and be thinking about it."