Junior Jen Schappert became the first Lehigh cross country runner ever to qualify for the NCAAs.
Heading into the fall cross country season, junior distance runner Jen Schappert was in tip-top shape and had set lofty goals for herself. But during an early season 10-mile training run with teammates, everything changed in an instant.
At the eight-mile mark, Schappert began to feel nauseous, so she sat down. Things quickly worsened as Schappert had difficulty breathing and speaking before experiencing numbness in her hands, then in her chest and legs.
Suddenly, her immediate goal wasn't team success or all-league honors. Instead, Schappert, who suffers from hypoglycemia, an abnormal decrease of sugar in the blood, was worried about simply staying conscious.
Fortunately, Schappert was running with teammates that day. One of them sprinted back to inform the coaches about Schappert's condition, while others kept speaking to her in an effort to keep her conscious. Two cyclists who happened to be riding on the path dialed 911 on their cell phone and an ambulance arrived 20 minutes later with much-needed oxygen and an IV.
After that episode, Schappert was told that she couldn't run for two full weeks. That news—at a time when cross country runners are traditionally building up their mileage, not taking a break—seemed to put Schappert's goals on hold for a year.
"As a team captain, I was worried about not being able to help my team," she says. "I figured that many of my individual goals were out the window after missing two weeks of critical training. But I just took one day at a time."
And amazing things happened.
With her sixth-place finish in a time of 20:44.9 in the NCAA Mid-Atlantic Region's 6-K race on Nov. 12, Schappert became the first Lehigh cross country runner ever—male or female—to qualify for the NCAA Championships. With a time of 21:19, Schappert finished 123rd among the 253 finishers at the 2005 NCAAs held at Indiana State University in Terre Haute, Ind.
"The whole NCAAs experience was pretty incredible," says Schappert, who was joined on the trip by Lehigh's cross country coaching staff, her parents, and two teammates—junior Carolyn House and senior Tracie Fails (both of whom drove all night to support her). "I've never been in a race with so many runners of that caliber. During the first mile, all 255 runners were within 10 seconds of one another.
"Next year, if I'm fortunate enough to qualify again, I'll be much better prepared for the race—from how packed together the runners are to how best to attack the course."
The 2006 NCAAs will also be at Indiana State and Schappert's goal is to finish among the top 60 runners there. The fact that Schappert has become a top-notch distance runner is remarkable, especially when one considers that she constantly battles hypoglycemia and that she went to a high school, Rising Sun (Md.) High, that didn't even have a cross country team, which means that she had never run more than a 3,200-meter race before entering college.
Running longer distances (women's college cross country races are 6,000 meters) than she had ever run before first brought Schappert's hypoglycemia to light during her freshman year.
"I wasn't able to finish all of our races during my first year here," she says. "I had to learn how to balance my diet and training and how to monitor my blood sugar."
She's made the necessary adjustments and became Lehigh's first-ever Academic All-American in cross country in 2004. Schappert carries a 3.9 grade point average in international studies. She then received All-Patriot League and All-East laurels during the 2005 outdoor track season, and followed that up with her history-making cross country campaign in the fall.
"I'm so happy that Jen was the first Lehigh cross country runner ever to reach NCAAs," says head coach Debbie Utesch. "She's everything that's right about college athletics."
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