Keeping Track of... Erica Palmer Cordes
By Peter Gambaccini

Erica Palmer Cordes competes in the 5,000m at the 2001 NCAA Indoor T&F Championships. She did not finish the race.
(Both photos by Alison Wade/New York Road Runners)
Palmer Cordes on her way to a third-place finish at the 2000 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

Erica Palmer was the the NCAA Cross Country Champion in 1999 as a sophomore at the University of Wisconsin. At Monadnock Regional High School in New Hampshire, she was the state cross country champion twice and, as a senior, won the 800, 1,600, 3,200, and 4x400 relay at the New Hampshire intermediate class meet. She moved on to Wisconsin and became the Big Ten Freshman of the year in all three seasons, winning conference titles in cross country, in the indoor 5,000, and in the outdoor 10,000. She was second to Leigh Daniel of Texas Tech in the NCAA 5000 indoors that year and then, in a harbinger of woes to come, DNFed in the 10,000 outdoors. She came back to win her '99 NCAA cross country title over Amy Yoder of Arkansas. Despite injuries and disrupted training, she was the Big Ten Cross Country champion in 2000 and third in the NCAAs that fall. But runningwise, there has been very little good news since then for Palmer, who on December 22, 2001 married Wisconsin teammate Jared Cordes, a steeplechaser and winner of the last two USATF Fall Cross Country Championships. Palmer Cordes, who actually still has NCAA eligibility left, said in 1999 "I would love to have a running career after college, and hopefully, if everything goes well, I will. But you can't guarantee anything." No... You can't.

Fast-Women.Com: Are you running at all now?
Erica Palmer Cordes:
No, I can't. I have compartment syndrome. I had four surgeries, none of which worked. I have a lot of numbing in my (left) leg. Pretty much, I've been told if I run, I'll do more damage, and at some point there could be damage that's so irreparable that I have to have amputation or whatever. That's kind of what's going on at this point.

FW: Compartment syndrome is a problem on the outside of the calf, right?
In between the muscles and the fascia, fluid builds up. It causes a lot of pressure, which cuts off nerves and blood. It started in '99, my freshman year, but I was misdiagnosed for two years. I didn't get diagnosed until May of 2001.

FW: You had an injury in your freshman outdoor track season. What did they think the problem was at that point?
They just thought I'd pulled a calf muscle. So, pretty much, I had the problem every single season since then, and they kept saying I'd pulled a calf muscle. Then finally, they tested for compartment syndrome.

FW: So you actually won your NCAA cross country championship while you had this problem -- you were training through it and got good enough to win?
Right, for some reason I was able to come back and be healthy. But the time between being able to run and not being able to run decreased. I was injured longer and running less. Then, at the end of February 2001, I pretty much couldn't run anymore.

FW: So the pain came and went before that. Were you in pain when you won NCAA Cross Country?
No, I wasn't. But three weeks later, I ended up missing my whole indoor season because of the problem. But then, of course, I kept being told I had a pulled calf muscle. I don't have very many positive things to say about doctors.

FW: But you did run some in 2000.
Yeah, I ran. My outdoor season, I was injured, but I still ran it. It wasn't very good. Then I had cross country that year. I hadn't run very much that season. I went to nationals having not run for two weeks and took third.

FW: When were you last able to compete?
February of 2001, at Big Tens indoors. I pretty much fell apart. I ran three races. I had to run the mile, and I'm not a miler. It was too much for my calf. In the mile trials, on the sixth lap, I just felt it get really really hard. Because of what I'd been told, I felt like I'd pulled my calf muscle again. Really, I hadn't.

FW: Does this compartment syndrome problem exist in both legs?
Mostly in my left leg. I had one surgery on my right leg, but that's not really the problem. I've had four on the left leg. I would do this therapy between operations, and they'd say, "You can run again," and I'd run about three weeks. I wouldn't be training; I'd do about 20 minutes, every other day, and then it would come right back. It was the same cycle all over again. I have nine scars on my two legs. They put cuts down the fascia. The idea is that the fascia will expand so the problem won't reoccur. But it didn't work.

FW: When was it finally decided that you shouldn't run anymore?
For me, I had my fourth surgery in July 2002. The other three hadn't worked. I was emotionally exhausted from being cut up four times, so I just decided I was done for a while. I took a medical hardship redshirt in September of 2001, right before my second surgery. I think I already knew that I would never run again. My problem was so severe. I wasn't going to keep putting myself through this emotional thing.

FW: So after the July 2002 surgery, there was no improvement?
I never even tried running after it. I couldn't even walk without pain. I still can't. My leg still hurts to walk. That's just part of life. The pain is in the outside of my calf, behind the knee.

FW: There are an awful lot of young women who run hard. Did anyone give you an idea why this happened to you?
No. We were just talking about that two minutes before we called you. No. Some of [the doctors] were like "w=Well, it's how your body is, or how you place your feet when you run." But there wasn't any clearcut "This is why this is happening." And they really don't know.

FW: Running has got to be something you miss quite a bit at this point.
Oh, every moment of every day.

FW: Do you wake up every morning, still thinking of yourself as a runner?
Yep. And I'm still waiting to run again, you know? Definitely.

FW: But you don't see any way it's going to happen.
I would love it to happen. I don't know if it will. I'm still seeing doctors -- outside of western medicine, obviously, because that didn't work. I do have a referral to go to the Mayo Clinic at this point. But I'm not in college anymore, so I need to work, so I can't take medical time, the two weeks off from work, all of those things.

FW: What are you working at right now.
I'm a nanny, but I'm trying to apply for other jobs. I was a social work major, so I'm looking for a social work job.

FW: Are you trying to do anything athletic at all?
I can bike, on a stationary bike. It's winter in Wisconsin. I just can't stand up on the bike. But I can't jump at all, so I couldn't do step aerobics or jump rope or anything like that. But I go to the gym and lift weights. But ... it's not running. I'm not staying fit for anything. You just [bike] to have a healthy lifestyle. It's hard to have motivation. I can't do a triathlon. I would love to other sports, but I can't do anything that has running in it.

FW: Do you swim at all?
I hate swimming. Everybody asks that. I hate it. It's boring. You can't do anything else but swim. When you're running, you can look around and see other things. I listen to music and read a book while I'm biking. You can't do any of that when you're swimming.

FW: Can we assume you and your husband Jared met while teammates at Wisconsin?
Actually, we had mutual friends. But we really got connected through Athletes in Action in Church. It wasn't running that really connected us.

FW: So you're both Christian athletes?

FW: Do you derive some satisfaction out of Jared's running career and how it's going?
Umm... I'm happy for him. But no. I'd like to be doing that, too. This would be my life, too. I would still be a fifth year senior, and I think about that all the time. I would still be on the team.

FW: You were Big Ten Freshman of the year all three seasons, right?
Yeah. Wow, are you remembering that? I don't remember that at all.

FW: Well, if you put your name in, things come up. You did that, and then won the NCAA Cross Country as a sophomore. You had some intermittent pain at that point, but you still must have felt there was a great future ahead of you at that point, thinking Olympics, and everything.
Oh yeah. Totally, totally. I still think about, even though it's not going to happen. That was our plan, we were going to train for the Olympics. That was my life's plan. It's odd at 21, that all my dreams and all entire life plan changed. That's what happened. It's still very hard adjusting. But I don't want to make that adjustment. It wasn't by choice.

FW: Amy Yoder, now Yoder-Begley, the runnerup to you in the 1999 cross country, is now thriving, at longer distances like the half-marathon. Do you think eventually, you would have gone to longer distances?
Oh yeah, I was totally a marathon person. I had known that since high school. And I was kind of just waiting. And unfortunately, that's just never going to happen. My longest race was a half-marathon I did in New Hampshire in 1998, and I just loved it.

FW: Did you notice, by the way, that "Sports Illustrated" picked the top 50 athletes of the 20th century from every state, and you were 25th from New Hampshire? They had you ahead of Cathy O'Brien (the former Kinney Cross Country champ and two-time Olympic marathoner), who was 43rd.
I know. Very interesting. People remember what the most recent thing was, and I was the most recent thing.

FW: Do you have any idea what things you'll try to do to match the fulfillment of running?
No, I'm totally lost. It's almost like I'm just waiting to run again, which is very sad. And I'm looking for other things, but I haven't found anything equal. Running was my life, and I loved it. It was my first love, and I was deeply, deeply in love with it.

FW: Do you think you eventually will go to the Mayo Clinic?
Oh yeah. I will try everything. I've done acupuncture, but it hasn't worked. At this point, I don't think anything will work. I have a negative attitude about it.

FW: We hope somebody has some answers.
If you have any ideas of where I should go... I've done a lot of reading on [compartment syndrome]. I'd really have to spend my life doing it, and I wouldn't be able to do anything else. First of all, we can't afford that. Is it worth it to pursue it, if nothing works? Why should I be pursuing it?

FW: Is the pain going to lessen now as you just walk around?
No, that's the problem. The pressure's going to increase, and as the pressure increases, I'll have to have recurring surgery. At this point, it's my decision when I want the surgery to occur. I've stepped back now for six months, taking a break from doctors and hospitals. I did four surgeries in 13 months.

Maybe somebody knows something, but I'm not connected with that person. There may be somebody out there who has the answer, but I can't get to that person

FW: Well, maybe someone who can will read this.
Yeah. That'll be great.

Peter Gambaccini is a New York-based freelance writer. He is a frequent contributor to New York Runner, Runner's World, MetroSports, The Village Voice, and other periodicals.

(Interview posted February 6, 2003)

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