WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — When a pack of whip-thin girls zipped across the finish of the 1,600-meter race at a recent track meet here, the smallest runner’s legs wobbled like rubber, and she flopped into her waiting coach’s arms. She collapses every time she races.
Kayla Montgomery, 18, was found to have multiple sclerosis three years ago. Defying most logic, she has gone on to become one of the fastest young distance runners in the country — one who cannot stay on her feet after crossing the finish line.
Because M.S. blocks nerve signals from Montgomery’s legs to her brain, particularly as her body temperature increases, she can move at steady speeds that cause other runners pain she cannot sense, creating the peculiar circumstance in which the symptoms of a disease might confer an athletic advantage.
But intense exercise can also trigger weakness and instability; as Montgomery goes numb in races, she can continue moving forward as if on autopilot, but any disruption, like stopping, makes her lose control.
At the finish of every race, she staggers and crumples. Before momentum sends her flying to the ground, her coach braces to catch her, carrying her aside as her competitors finish and her parents swoop in to ice her legs. Minutes later, sensation returns and she rises, ready for another chance at forestalling a disease that one day may force her to trade the track for a wheelchair. M.S. has no cure.
Last month, Montgomery, a senior at Mount Tabor High School, won the North Carolina state title in the 3,200 meters. Her time of 10 minutes 43 seconds ranks her 21st in the country. Her next major competition is the 5,000 meters at the national indoor track championships in New York on March 14, when she hopes to break 17 minutes.
Her trajectory as a distance runner has been unusually ascendant.
“When she was diagnosed, she said to me, ‘Coach, I don’t know how much time I have left, so I want to run fast — don’t hold back,’ ” said Patrick Cromwell, Montgomery’s coach. “That’s when I said, ‘Wow, who are you?’ ”
At the time, Montgomery was one of the slowest on her team, completing her first 5-kilometer race in 24:29; by last November, she had run a 17:22, placing 11th in the regional qualifier for the Foot Locker national cross-country championships.
The diagnosis of M.S. came after Montgomery could not feel her legs after she fell playing soccer and shocks ran up her spine. She was on Mount Tabor’s junior varsity cross-country team and told her coach that her legs went numb when she ran.
“I said, ‘Well, sweetie, that’s kind of how running is, you feel the pain and then you don’t, you just have to push through,’ ” Cromwell said. “But she said ‘No, they stay numb.’ I knew that wasn’t normal, and that’s when the doctor visits started.”
A magnetic resonance imaging exam revealed six lesions on Montgomery’s brain and spine. With treatment, she went into remission and resumed racing.
Because Montgomery has played down her condition, few people understand her unusual racing finishes. In the national indoor 5,000-meter championship last year, officials forgot to catch her and she fell on her face, lying prostrate on the track until someone carried her away. Announcers speculated that she had a seizure. Some assume she is fainting. Others, she said, have simply called her a wimp.
She dismisses the attention.
“I didn’t want to be treated differently, and I didn’t want to be looked at differently,” she said.
In many ways, Montgomery’s life resembles that of an ordinary high school track athlete. Before every race, she puts on the same lucky green sports bra and size 5 ½ racing flats that carry her 5-foot-1 frame. She is deeply involved with her Methodist church, along with her younger sister and her parents, a nursing student and a pesticide salesman. She carries a 4.70 grade-point average and logs 50 miles a week.
Though examples of elite athletes with M.S. are scarce, some have speculated that Montgomery’s racing-induced numbness lends a competitive edge, especially given the improvement in her times since the diagnosis.
“The disease has no potential to make her physically more competitive,” said her neurologist, Lucie Lauve, who also said she did not know precisely why Montgomery collapsed after races. “If M.S. has made her a better athlete, I believe it is a mental edge.”
Cromwell, Montgomery’s coach, said he thought that insensitivity to the pain of distance racing could be marginally advantageous.
“I think there’s a benefit to numbness,” he said. “I don’t know anyone in their right mind, though, who would trade this; who would say, ‘Give me M.S. so I have a little bit of numbness after Mile 2.’ But I think that’s when she gets her strength.”
The numbness is particularly dire for midrace falls. At her state cross-country meet last year, she clipped the heel of a fellow runner in the lead pack and crashed. Facedown with her legs splayed, she could not get up. Runners sprinted by, and she slipped from all-state contention. Seeing a rival pass was enough to get her to use a nearby fence to pull herself up and cruise into 10th place.
It was a lesson in resilience. “Now I know I can do it,” she said. “It may take a little while, but if I fall, I know I can get up.”
Exercise is commonly recommended for M.S. patients, and Montgomery’s doctor has cleared her for racing. However, some experts worry pushing to the point of collapse could have long-term drawbacks.
“When you push to your limit, your body usually sends pain signals to warn you that you’re damaging tissues,” said Dr. Peter Calabresi, director of the Multiple Sclerosis Center at Johns Hopkins. He has not treated Montgomery.
“Pushing that limit is what endurance sports are all about. But if you can’t feel those signals and push from tingling to extreme or prolonged numbness, you could be doing damage that we won’t even know about until down the road. It’s a paradox.”
College recruitment has been another challenge, Montgomery said. When coaches called, she told them she had M.S., and they told her it was not a problem. “But then they didn’t call back,” she said.
Lipscomb University in Tennessee was an exception. She will enroll there this fall on a scholarship.
Montgomery is closing out a high school career that is consistently improving.
“I make myself do it,” she said. “I tell myself, ‘I know you’re tired and you can’t feel anything and it’s hard but you’re going to finish this.’ And then I do.”