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Rachel and Grant Northcutt medically retired from running, but they found purpose through their pain
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Rachel and Grant Northcutt medically retired from running, but they found purpose through their pain

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When Rachel Northcutt jumped out to an early lead at the Running of the Wolves cross country meet outside Lynchburg in 2018, it was a familiar position and sight.

Northcutt was in the middle of her senior season at Cosby with two previous All-Metro runner of the year selections already under her belt. Upon entering high school, she quickly became one of the best runners in the Richmond area as well as the state, thanks to commitment to her craft and a growth spurt that provided her a long, ideal running frame — characteristics shared by her older brother Grant, a cross country state champion and multitime All-Metro honoree.

But about a half-mile into that 2018 race, Rachel hit a wall.

“I remember they went over a hill back around where we couldn’t see anymore. And next things you knew, all these other girls come out, and Rachel’s not there and then you see her walking around the corner,” said her father, Gregg. “At that time, honestly, it was frustrating, like, ‘Why are you giving up? What’s going on?’

“But as we realized what was happening, it was like, ‘How did you even make it this far?’ ”

Rachel, Grant and the Northcutt family weren’t immune to roadblocks leading up to this point. Both runners dealt with recurring stress fractures in their femurs as they continued to grow and put more pressure on their bodies. They would take time off, rehabilitate and hope they would be ready for whatever season came next.

Pain was part of the equation on that disappointing fall day — an expected and often experienced hurdle when trying to run after a significant injury — but it was an overwhelming wave of fatigue that forced Rachel to walk off the course.

Her emotional frustration matched her body’s exhaustive state.

“That was really hard. I didn’t know what to say to my parents, my coaches,” Rachel said. “Nothing was proving that I was sick or injured. …

“I was so consumed by running at the time. I defined myself as a runner. I didn’t really know what I wanted to do with my life.”

There hasn’t been a lot of competitive running since for Rachel. Her journeys through winding trails and various tracks have been replaced by the pursuit of understanding her own body and acceptance of a future after running — another experience shared by her brother.

Rachel and Grant medically retired from running this year. Rachel made the decision toward the end of her sophomore year at East Carolina in April. Grant did just a couple of months later, following another season of being sidelined at N.C. State.

Grant hung up his running shoes after the recurring stress fractures and lower-body injuries proved to be too much. Rachel’s condition was more complicated.

Shortly after the race she wasn’t able to finish, Rachel and her family sought medical attention to figure out why her body was breaking down. In the months leading up to that moment, her fatigue had developed to the point where she struggled to walk up the stairs in her home without having to catch her breath.

A blood test revealed a worryingly low level of hemoglobin, enough for her to be immediately referred to an emergency room for a blood transfusion. Rachel then met with a local hematologist connected to the VCU Massey Cancer Center, summoning the worst fears of what kind of blood disorder she could be going through.

After multiple bone marrow biopsies and routine blood transfusions, she was told she was suffering from autoimmune hemolytic anemia, which means antibodies were attacking her red blood cells. It’s still unknown what triggered the condition, and it’s a mystery she and her family are trying to solve to this day.

“It’s not as bad as it was. We definitely have it more under control,” Rachel said. “I used to jump right out of bed, that’s the kind of energy I had. ... It’s taken me a while to get used to this new way of life.”

She tried to restart her running career with a better understanding of what was setting her back, but it was a struggle. She turned to her brother, who continued his battles with injuries throughout the start of his college career.

At N.C. State, the physical strain Grant was experiencing was seeping into his daily life.

“I kept wanting to be someone I wasn’t, whether that’s physically, emotionally, mentally,” Grant said. “In classes, I would feel like I didn’t want to do my schoolwork because I was so upset or depressed. I had no motivation. ... It was hard to open up with how I was feeling. As an athlete, it can be hard to be vulnerable.”

Grant and Rachel both said they had shaped their identities around the activity in which they were so naturally gifted to compete, making the hardships that much more overwhelming. Grant sought a sports psychologist in an attempt to cope with those perceived failures.

“The biggest thing I took away: I am more than a runner,” he said.

That mantra served as guidance for the siblings.

Rachel attempted to get herself to the point where she could run her first collegiate race for ECU, but that day never came. And she began to accept that reality.

“It had been like two years since I raced. I wasn’t really thinking about the competitive side anymore,” Rachel said. “I was trying to be more competitive in school. I was never the one doing the [400-meter] repeats, I was always timing them. ... If I don’t really miss the running aspect, I can have a big impact in a different way.”

The hours and days spent getting blood transfusions helped Rachel to realize the type of impact she could have away from running. She was inspired by her nurse, whom Rachel would look forward to seeing every week despite the illness, as well as the children she saw fighting other blood disorders and forms of cancer. She’s on a premed track in hopes of a career in nursing — preferably in hematology.

Through her own hardships, she found a purpose in life beyond running. What remained was officially giving up the competitive sport. Consultations with her family and coaches forced her hand, but relief quickly followed.

“This is probably the happiest I’ve ever been in my life,” Rachel said. “This was change I needed. My whole family needed it. ... I realized that you can’t have anything in life if you don’t have your health.”

Rachel and Grant are content with the challenges they had to go through to reach this point, and they were particularly glad to have had each other in those moments, when it felt neither could vocalize what they were going through. They think all young athletes should comfort in talking about such struggles and failures.

“We’ve always been competitive with each other, and that’s probably one reason why we got so good. And that still lives today, but it’s different,” said Grant, an accounting major with an internship set up after graduation. “It’s a lot more supportive, and just really wanting the best for each other — when I say that, I mean in any aspect.”

The Northcutt siblings are running toward brighter futures, even if their journeys took them off course.

“Now we just want to do great in life,” Grant said. “And just be successful and happy.”

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