The Highest Hurdle
July 08, 2016
From gold-medal race to kidney failure, the world-record 110-meter hurdler opens up about his harrowing journey and what it took to get back on the track.
They told me I would never run again, that I wouldn’t be able to eat regular food again. They told me I would never be able to do anything that I loved doing again. But I am. I'm running again, I'm doing everything that I wanted to do, plus some. The whole purpose of telling my story is to give inspiration to kids who have problems — whatever the case may be — to let them know that you can get through it if you fight.
But let’s go back a few years. 2012 was a dream season: I got a world record, a gold medal; I won every major championship. Then, 2013 was injury, injury, injury. However, I was able to put together a really strong performance and win an international meet in Paris, so I thought I was well on my way to being back on top. But when I got to the World Championships in Moscow, I just felt that something wasn’t right. After the fifth hurdle in training, I was getting tired. My coach and I chalked it up to me being injured, pulling my hamstring three times and not having the training needed to sustain my rhythm. But that was impossible because even if I had no training, I would still run the race the way I normally run it, which is building into it and being really, really great in the latter half. So I went to Moscow and I failed to medal. I knew that something was wrong when I went to make my move in the final and it wasn’t there.
Then my stomach started bothering me and I was so tired I was falling asleep on the floor. I started throwing up and went to the hospital. At that point my limbs had swollen up like a balloon. I was like Play-doh; it’s called edema. My urine test showed that I was leaking massive amounts of protein, which let them know that I had a kidney issue right off the bat. And my blood test said that my creatinine was through the roof. The higher your creatinine is the worse your kidney function is, so I went in for an emergency kidney biopsy. One of the questions the doctor asked me was if I took steroids, because I had a collapsing FSGS (Focal segmental glomerulosclerosis) and that’s a side effect of steroid use. He later found out that it was a genetic disorder that’s predominant in African-Americans, period. So, no, I'm not on drugs.
After the biopsy, the doctors came in and told me: “Your kidneys have failed, you have no kidney function remaining.” The main doctor basically said, ”Well, you’re dying, and that’s the end of it.” He was a good guy, just a realist. He told me I’d need to start dialysis immediately and whatever life I had before was over. I was given four days to digest the information before starting dialysis.
I was boo-hooin’, bawlin’, cryin’, wondering why this was happening to me. I was angry and in despair. I stayed in my room and didn’t want to talk to anyone. I didn’t eat anything. I probably lost like 20 pounds. But my mom wasn’t having any of that. She said, “You gotta get out of this slump. You have to believe that you’ll be better.” She was so hopeful and I was so not because I was just listening to what the doctors were saying.
When I went back to the doctor after that four-day span, he told me, “We’re gonna run labs real quick to see how fast you’re disintegrating.” Then he got my lab work back and said, “Something’s not right. Your body has started to regenerate kidney function, which is impossible with this kidney disorder.” And immediately I had hope again.
At that point, I became a lab rat. The doctor tested me for everything under the sun. Come to find out, I had parvovirus B19. Dogs get parvo but there’s a human strain also, which is nasty. It goes straight for the kidney and destroys it, or whatever is left of it. It also gets into your bone marrow, so that prevents you from making red blood cells, which means you can’t really process oxygen fast so you’re tired and weak.
To treat it, I underwent about eight months of IVIG (immunoglobulin intravenous) to boost my immunity, because the only way to defeat parvo is to beat it with your own immune system. Once that settled off, my kidneys restored themselves to 60%. I still had lots of scarring and damage, and I still had kidney disorder, but I resumed normal training because roughly 60% kidney function is normal; under 25% function is kidney failure.
My first meet of 2014, I ran like the sixth or seventh fastest time in the world. That wasn’t great for me, but it was a start. I ran about six more races and they weren’t fast at all, but I was just happy to travel and have a normal life again. So I ended my season pretty early and said, “OK, I’ll really hit this next year hard; it’s a World Championship year and I really wanna win Worlds.”
Once I made the team, I decided: I’m going to go public with this info because I just can’t live like this anymore.
Everything was going great. I had a great indoor season and outdoor season leading into the Prefontaine Classic, where I ran the second fastest time in the world. I thought everything was all systems go. I needed a little bit more training and then I’d be back to number one. But after Pre, I had a voicemail from my doctor saying, “We need to talk.” My kidney function was steadily dropping so a transplant was my only option. I remember calling my sister after I left the clinic that day and telling her, “I need to find a donor.” She was like, “OK, I'm gonna call you back.” She went to get tested that day and it took some time but she ended up being a match.
So I had until March 2016 before complete failure and I knew training was gonna kill the rest of my kidneys, but I was gonna train really hard for the 2015 World Championships. I still had the mentality of: I'm going in to win and that’s that. So I went into the national trials and I made the USA team by the skin of my teeth. Once I made the team, I decided: I'm going to go public with this info because I just can’t live like this anymore.
It was starting to beat me up on the inside ’cause I had kept quiet about it for so long. There was speculation that I was on drugs, because I wasn’t running the times I was running in London. I didn’t wanna be labeled as a druggie anymore and I didn’t wanna be labeled as this guy who just randomly won gold and that was all he was good for. There was a piece of me that thought that the World Championships was gonna be my swansong. So I was like, “I gotta show people that I'm the best that there ever was, and I'm gonna have to do it in the worst possible state that you can be in.” And I almost pulled it off; I barely missed winning Worlds.
Eight weeks after the transplant, I started training again, but about two days after my first session my incision was so sore I started getting headaches. It got so sore that my stomach started to hurt — a hematoma had developed around the kidney so they had to do another surgery. So actually December 19, 2015, was my first training session for this year. I trained for about a month and a half before my first indoor race. I ran like the third-fastest time in the world at that point, which made me think: Maybe the surgery was a good thing. Maybe I needed a lot of rest.
Now I'm able to recover in minutes, as opposed to days. I'm able to do volume. I'm able to do repeat 200 meters with two minutes’ rest, repeat 30-second runs with one minute’s rest, 30 seconds’ rest, as opposed to doing one 150 meters and taking 10 to 20 minutes to recover. My cadence between hurdles is quicker than it has been in the past because I have power. I have energy. My body is doing great. I can have food and I can gain. I can pack on muscle so I'm strong. Now I just need to hit it and get it done, to try to get that race rhythm. It’s just a matter of when it comes, but when it comes I know it’s gonna stay.
One could say that I’ve already reached the pinnacle of athleticism: I won gold medals and I broke the world record. I have everything you could have. However, I feel like in order to solidify my name as legendary, I need to do a few more things — one of those is to win a world outdoor title; I wanna have all the golds in my collection. And I still want to hold the world record when I retire. This summer’s competitions are more of a-show-them-you-can-do-it-even-after-surgery kinda thing. Whether I win, make the podium or if I'm in the final, it’s all a win in my book, but of course I wanna defend my titles. And I’ve already told people that if I do, it’s gonna be the act of a century, but it’s not gonna be an act. It’s gonna be 100% legit because it will pay of all the pain, all the suffering, all the heartbreak, all the despair… Everything will have paid off.