In summer 2019, after rigorous training in Colorado for the upcoming season, Shippensburg University senior Isabella Marchini returned to the Shippensburg area for a counselor position in the local high school cross-country summer camp.
On her last run during the summer camp, Marchini felt her leg seize up. She immediately realized something was wrong.
“I had been racking up mileage,” Marchini said. “And on my last run; it was a long run. About 10 miles. I just stopped after the 10 miles and that’s when it just hit me. It just happened.”
That happening Marchini described was an injury to her iliotibial band (IT band). The IT band is a long piece of connective tissue that runs along the outside of the leg from the hip to the knee and shinbone. It is most used to rotate, extend and abduct the hip.
In Marchini’s case, the injury was just the beginning to a long road of visits to the doctor, rehabilitation and multiple rounds of tests and scans. In fact, the entire process stretched seven months (July 2019 to February 2020), forcing her to forgo her junior cross-country and indoor track-and-field season.
Marchini said her journey consisted of five steps: physical therapy, MRI’s, X-rays, a cortisone shot in her knee and an arthrogram (an MRI where dye is injected into a joint). Through all that, the end result yielded no diagnosis.
After the lengths of testing, Marchini eventually had surgery on her leg, with the official diagnosis being IT band syndrome. Marchini said a band of foreign tissue was found wrapped around her patella (kneecap) in addition to other structures. Thankfully, after the surgery was performed, her pain went away.
Marchini placed 34th in last Saturday’s Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference (PSAC) Championships, just four spots outside of All-PSAC Second Team honors, her recovery from the grueling injury coming full circle.
But even after the seemingly never-ending nightmare, Marchini said the previous seven months took a toll on her. Not just physically, but mentally. And she did it with the nagging pressure of coursework, making trips home for testing, all while assuring she was still there for her teammates in some capacity.
It was the ultimate test. It broke her heart knowing she could not compete with her teammates and friends. Marchini wanted to be a leader, but she felt she could not.
She said it was the darkest moment of her life. It was a time when she did not want to be around anyone.
“I was trying so hard to be emotionally there for my teammates because we were such a young team,” Marchini said. “I was the oldest one. We had about two seniors that were part of the track team that ran cross country, but other than that, I was the most experienced. I was supposed to be the leader.”
“I could not lead them physically. I could not run with them. I couldn’t travel with them. And so, being away from my teammates, I felt super isolated. I was pretty much putting on an act in front of everyone that I was doing OK. I was pretty much a disaster.”
The climb back
Marchini refused to give up.
In total, she was unable to run for 10 months. However, through consistent physical therapy, a positive attitude and believing in herself, Marchini saw the light at the end of the tunnel by defying the odds and returning for her senior season.
For most SU cross-country runners, it had been over a year since they had taken the course in a competitive collegiate meet.
But for Marchini, the highly anticipated wait was significantly longer — 840 days to be exact.
Last fall, the Raiders saw their fall season stripped due to the seemingly ceaseless and unforgiving coronavirus pandemic. However, once the raging storm of COVID-19 ever so slowly began to settle, the PSAC announced a championship cross-country schedule would be held this spring. And it did take place, with the PSAC Championships wrapping up the truncated season March 20.
For Marchini, who had seen a plethora of success at the PSAC Championships in past years — a 2018 All-PSAC First Team nod, followed by a 2018 All-Atlantic Region First Team performance — this year’s championships served as a rollercoaster full of emotions. It was her first cross-country appearance in nearly two and half years, with her last being the 2018 NCAA Championships. It was also likely the last in her lifetime.
“I was honestly just trying to take in every moment,” Marchini said. “It’s kind of weird. You don’t really experience something new a whole lot, really things just don’t end. And I have been running cross-country since I was 10 or 11 years old, and this was the last cross-country race I’ll ever run. So, I was really trying to take in that day.”
Marchini, who placed 34th last Saturday, said although the impressive finish felt rewarding, it was the improbable comeback and months upon months of training, rehabbing and growth of mental toughness that got her back to this point. It is what hit home the most.
While the 2020 cross-country season ended just about as fast as it arrived — Marchini did not compete in the two cross-country regular season meets due to foot tendinitis — Marchini has another six-week campaign ahead of her: outdoor track-and-field. She said she is more excited than ever.
“I get so motivated for track. It’s just so fun. Way more fun than cross-country, honestly,” Marchini said with a laugh. “It can be just as painful, sometimes more painful than cross-country. But there’s just something about the track, I want to do it every single day.”
Similar to her feats in cross-country, Marchini thrives on the outdoor circuit in track-and-field. Seeing most of her success in the 1,500-meters and 5K — with a concentration in the 5K this year, she said — Marchini’s accolades beat to the drum of personal bests, a 2018 sixth-place finish in the 1,500-meters and a fifth-place tally in 2019 in the 5K.
“I honestly feel great and I am really, really excited to end my career on a good note,” she said.
Despite all the hardships, Marchini said she will never forget how she got here. If anything, she said she is thankful for those unrelenting seven to 10 months.
She also credits the support team she had around her. Specifically, SU cross-country head coach Steve Spence.
“I couldn’t have asked for a better coach. [Coach] Spence is the most knowledgeable human being I have ever met,” she said. “Him being my coach is one of the reasons being at Ship has been so good. And I love my teammates and Spence is that added bonus.”
Marchini is set to graduate from SU in May with an exercise science degree and said she has fond memories to take with her from her tenure in a Raiders’ uniform. Everything from unforgettable moments on the track and cross-country course, to traveling from meet to meet or even things as simple as preseasons.
One of her most memorable moments was traveling to nationals her freshman year.
“My favorite memory was during my freshman year. I didn’t run at nationals, but I was able to travel with the team to nationals in Indiana,” Marchini said. “I personally love travel days. Not a lot of people do, but that was probably one of the most fun things I’ve ever done because I got to go and watch everyone but not have the stress of actually running at nationals.”
And after everything she endured, she now lives by the mantra, “Everything happens for a reason.”
“Everything happens for a reason,” she said. “I was not supposed to run my junior year of cross-country for whatever reason, but it’s like that happened, so that I can be here now. It sounds so cheesy, but everything does happen for a reason, and I was not meant to run in my junior year. Maybe something detrimental would have happened, and in a sense this injury saved me.”