Running Writing ©
No. 5   August 1997
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Doug Binder from Oregon in the northwest United States is the featured writer for August 1997. 'Gaining Speed' first appeared in the Corvallis Gazette-Times.

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Gaining Speed - The Mary Libal Story
by Doug Binder

from the Corvallis Gazette-Times, Corvallis Oregon, September 11, 1996

Record Holder Fights Back From Chronic Fatigue Syndrome

The world's fastest woman over 40 years of age bursts down the home-stretch of the Corvallis High track during a workout, each stride pulling her farther away from invisible pursuers. Her powerful thighs drive her knees like pistons. Her feet punch at the track with a quick tempo that keeps the rest of her body aloft. She tows long black hair, which tumbles behind her as if in the jet stream.

"I always feel like I'm walking a tight-rope of being the fastest runner in the world or being bedridden again."

World Record Holder
Corvallis' World Record holder, Mary Libal.
- Cheryl Hatch photo

Mary Libal, a 46-year-old Corvallis mother of two and co-owner of a small business, is fast enough that bystanders (unaware they are in the presence of an age-group world champion and world record holder at 400 metres) can't help but turn their heads and notice.

Little do they know of the suffering she has endured to be there. The monster disease Chronic Fatigue Syndrome, which left her too ill to get out of bed for months at a time. The sense of loneliness and despair as she struggled to pull herself out. And the haunting residue from a small-print ruling in 1973 that coldly ended her budding athletic career.

The world's fastest woman over 40 runs so fast from fear that if she slows down, her demons could catch her again. "I always feel I'm walking a tight-rope of being the fastest runner in the world," Libal said, "or being bedridden again."

On a spring day in 1989, Libal sat on a curb at 13th and Taylor streets, her face buried in her hands in frustration. She was eight houses away from her own, but it might as well have been eight time zones. Her dog waited patiently at her side, licking her face. "The dog kept waiting for me to move, and looked at me like he was wondering, 'What's wrong with mommy?' " she said.


Select photo to view large image

Mary Libal
Mary Libal. [28k] (courtesy Mary Libal Resume web-site)

The Coach
Mary's advisor, Joe Fulton. [11k] (courtesy Timberhill Harriers web-site)

Joe and Wombatface
Joe (left) and Ewen at Bugendore, Australia, 1994. [36k]

Mary Libal
Age: 46
Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Best Times:
World record holder for 45-49 age group in 400 at 56.82 seconds. PB's of 25.81 for 200m (WR is 25.56) and 12.75 for 100m (WR is 12.50)
That Libal had emerged from her house at all was an achievement. It was one of the first steps to recovery from an illness that nearly destroyed her. Not long after moving to Corvallis from Canada in late 1987, the former University of Wisconsin track star's health began to deteriorate. It started with upper respiratory discomfort that Libal wrote off as a side effect of Corvallis' well-known hay fever season. But her health kept sliding, into a bottomless pit.

CFS is an all-body disease that is not widely understood, and difficult to diagnose. "There's no beginning and no ending," Libal said. "You think you have the flu or something and it goes on and on." Libal's virus was centred in her brain and affected her entire nervous system. She had a liver infection that spread to a heart valve. Eventually, she was too sick to sit up. She spent 20 hours a day in bed, sleeping or shaking from freezing cold under an electric blanket turned up to its highest setting.

"You're hoping after awhile that it's thyroid disease or liver disease or anything that you can give a name to," Libal said. "Because you're so frightened and you're so sick and there's no diagnosis a lot of times. Doctors don't help you. For a long time it was such an unknown thing, they were writing it off to be 'all in your head.' "

The doctors Libal saw did little more than recommend aspirin and rest. For almost eight months she couldn't sit up long enough to eat a meal, existing in a near-coma state while her entire body failed her. "I knew that this wasn't all in my head. I knew that there was something devastating going on in my body, something frightening that was destroying me." Libal reached a point of ultimatum: Fight the disease head-on, or give up. She thought of her children, Daniel and Sarah, and made up her mind. To fight. And live. "I said, I'm going to die or get better. And I know which one it has to be," she said.

Still another piece of Libal's past chases her around the track. It doesn't threaten her life, but it has eaten at her in the form of what-ifs, could-haves and should-haves.

Twenty-three years ago, Libal was part of the pioneering movement of women's college athletics. She was a senior sprinter at Wisconsin. The hopes and aspirations of her burgeoning athletic career (interrupted for two years in college with a torn plantar fascia tendon in her foot) were in full bloom, and rested on one race. The AIAW national championship meet (then the women's equivalent of the NCAA championships) was Libal's chance to compete on the biggest stage of her career, make a name for herself in the sport and possibly win a championship.

"It took me 25 years to prove I should have been a national champion."


She was one day away. "I remember exactly, we were on the outdoor track and I was warming up," Libal said. "The coach came in the gate and he was walking straight for me and looking at me. I knew he was coming to talk to me, and as he got closer, he looked like he was going to cry. He kept saying 'Oh Mary, Mary, Mary' in his thick German accent. I thought at first my mom or dad had died of a heart attack and he was coming to tell me."

He had come to tell Libal that she had been tripped up by a sticky piece of red tape. Libal had one credit too many to be eligible for the national meet. Never mind her four years of eligibility. The fine print in the rules said 124 credits of less. She had 125. "I would gladly have dropped a class," Libal said. "I was dumbfounded. It was the last day I ran."

Libal married, leaving track and most everything else behind. She moved to an isolated Saskatchewan village, about 800 miles north-west of Winnipeg, where her husband ran a Hudson Bay store and she worked a variety of jobs. There she stayed until the move to Corvallis in 1987. "I had a horrible sense of regret all those years, that I never proved myself," Libal said. "It took me 25 years to prove I should have been a national champion."

In Buffalo, N.Y., all the wrongs were finally made right. The pain washed away. "I'm still glowing from Buffalo," Libal said. "Everything from this point on is frosting on the cake."

At the 1995 World Masters Track and Field Championships, Libal broke the 400-metre world record for women 45-49 in an eye-popping time of 56.82 seconds -- faster than she ran it in college and as fast as many small-college sprinters today. She spent the day before the race holed up in her hotel room, convincing herself that the "Dreams Do Come True" poster she had stared at every night before going to bed had enough legitimacy to include her. "I kept saying to myself, I am the world champion, I am the world champion..." Libal recalled.

The night of the 400 final was perfect (the only night without rain during the week) and belonged to her. Libal dominated the fastest Baby Boomer-generation women's 400 race ever, driving nearly eight tenths of a second off the record. Libal's moment of triumph came when she saw her time, a moment reminiscent of Michael Johnson's ecstasy at seeing the clock after shattering the 200 record at the Olympics. "I was shocked," she said. Libal's was voted the outstanding performance by a woman at the meet. Four years removed from her nadir, Libal had achieved one of her lifetime highs. "There is no question this is a talented athlete," says Joe Fulton, Philomath High and Timberhill Harriers running coach. "She represents Corvallis, and all of us over 40 who have dreams and hopes."

After spending her 38th, 39th, 40th, and 41st birthdays bedridden with the ravages of CFS, Libal began to put into motion the steady rise to health that mad her one of the strongest 45-year-old women in the world. She found a doctor in Eugene, a naturopath who was the first health professional to confirm that she did have major problems.

She began walking the dog, going a few steps farther each time she mustered the strength to try. She began to ride a bicycle, a little at first, then a little more and a little more. Libal paid dearly for trying too much too soon, with relapses that put her back under the thumb of CFS for weeks at a time. But she persisted. In the summer of 1991, she decided to try running a 400 at an all-comers meet at Lewis & Clark College in Portland. She felt sick beforehand and took a nap in the car. She made it to the starting line and ran the one-lap race (her first in 18 years) in 64 seconds, stunning onlookers who weren't accustomed to seeing a middle-aged woman run so fast. They didn't even know about her bout with CFS.

The strain of the race gave her tendonitis in her still unfit legs. She couldn't run again for eight months. But it was worth it. "That race gave me hope that I could be an athlete again," Libal said. "Every time I was well enough -- even when I wasn't well enough -- when I could get myself out of bed and on my bike, I did it." The exercise load continued to grow and buoyed her through the relapses, which eventually got shorter and more manageable as her fitness level and strength grew. "I believe I still have a lot of damaged organs," Libal said. "The vigorous exercise is what keeps me healthy."

This summer, Libal has continued her against-all-odds comeback on the track. A dual citizen of both Canada and the U.S., she won the national titles in her age-group for the 100,200 and 400 for both countries a week apart in August. At the North American/Caribbean Championships at Hayward Field, she won all three events again and anchored a master's women's 4x400-metre relay team that broke the world record by nine seconds.

"You can't imagine how popular she is in master's track," said Fulton, who has lent some coaching support to Libal and is her chief promoter. "When they introduced winners (at the Hayward meet) most people got a light applause, but when they introduced Mary on the award's stand everyone took notice, cheered and ran over to take her picture. She is probably the No.1 U.S. master's track athlete in America right now." The all-black attire she dons for the 400 has earned her nicknames like "The Lady in Black" or "The Terminator" by other women at the meets. At most meets, Libal moves two age-groups below her to find sufficient competition with other women, or runs in men's races.

Which begs the question: How fast could she have gone in her unrealised prime? "I never came anywhere near my potential," Libal surmises. "I think I've gotten five or six seconds slower in the ageing process." Shaving that much time off her current times puts her in world-class territory. "I had three college team-mates run at the Olympics," Libal said. "I had the same talent, worked just as hard. This is proving that I should have been there."

Libal has no time to worry about what-ifs any more. She trains seriously now, with track work , swimming, weight training. "I don't think she's reached her peak as a runner," says Pat O'Shea, who has been her weight training coach for the past four years. "We're moving into heavier workouts. She squats 240-pound reps, that's a lot. She's very focused. There's no talking, no socialising."

The demons she races are falling farther behind, but they're still on the track. Last winter, Libal was back on the shelf for a couple of weeks with a potassium-sodium imbalance. "I always feel that I could relapse again, that something like a cold could come along and destroy my health again," she said. But she presses on. After taking stabs at the 100 (12.50) and 200 (25.56) records, Libal's goals include running at the European Indoor meet next February in England, and defending her world championship in Durban, South Africa next summer.

She thinks she can go even faster. Her new goal is 55 seconds in the 400. She hopes to find sponsorships beyond minor deals she has currently with Powerbar and Timberhill Athletic Club (maybe even attract a few endorsements) to defray costs. Further down the road, she is thinking about entering the women's health or fitness fields.

Libal hasn't completely beaten CFS. She knows it can reclaim her at any time, and she is cautious of it. "I never lose sight of the fact that I'm alive, and was given a second chance," she said. "Never in my wildest dreams did I think I could fix my athletic career." She pauses. "I never thought I'd run another step in my life."

Due to financial constraints Mary didn't make it to Durban. "The World Championships are coming to Oregon next year and she's aiming to do well there." said Joe Fulton recently. "She's just turned 47 and is training through the year, lifting a lot of weights and building up a base. She's very strong right now and has been running about 59 for 400, 26 for 200 and a shade under 13 for 100 in a few local meets."

"There is no question this is a talented athlete. She represents Corvallis, and all of us over 40 who have dreams and hopes."

- Joe Fulton, Philomath High and Timberhill Coach


"I don't think she's reached her peak as a runner"

- Pat O'Shea, weight training coach



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