Fighting For Every Step: 5 Questions With Shelby Houlihan

A cross-country All American last fall, Houlihan has big goals for her 2014 track campaign. Photo: PhotoRun.net

The Arizona State junior is on her way to becoming one of the most versatile runners in NCAA history. 

Arizona State’s distance star and All-American Shelby Houlihan has established herself in both cross country and track as a stand-out, versatile performer. The 2011-12 Pac-12 Newcomer of the Year in cross country and track was the first athlete in conference history to be honored for her efforts in both sports. The junior from Sioux City, Iowa was an All-American in cross country in 2012 (she placed 31st at nationals), was seventh in the 1500 at the 2013 NCAA Outdoor Track and Field Championships, and earned her third All-American honor with an eighth place finish at the 2013 NCAA Cross Country Championships.

While Houlihan is known for being a serious threat on the track, a less known fact is that she was diagnosed with spherocytosis, a rare hereditary blood disorder characterized by defects within red blood cells. From the time Houlihan was an infant, she endured periodic injections, surgery to remove her gallbladder and spleen, and a weaker immune system. Despite the obstacles, Houlihan is well on her way to becoming one of the most versatile athletes in NCAA history, proving she is a fighter in more ways than one.

Can you walk me through what it was like growing up with spherocytosis? How did it effect your day-to-day life? 

From what I can remember, I had to go to the hospital every few months to get blood transfusions. I would get fatigued easily when I was little and was often anemic. I was also allowed to eat snacks in elementary school during the day because my blood sugar would get low. My spleen was four-times the normal size so my mom had to watch me and be careful that I didn’t do anything to cause it to rupture. I played soccer and did gymnastics when I was five, but my mom had to watch me because I would get tired really easily. She tried to make sure that I had a normal childhood.

How did you decide to pursue track and field after going through all of that? 

My mom was a runner and so I’ve grown up around running. She would put me in one mile fun runs starting when I was about five years old so I’ve always liked cross country. I was OK when I was little but I would get fatigued fairly easily so when I had my spleen and gallbladder removed when I was 8, I was able to run a lot easier. I started running track in seventh grade and really started to love it my sophomore year of high school.

How are you managing the disorder now? How has this experience shaped you as an athlete?

I don’t have to do much to manage it now. My red blood cells will always be sphere shaped so I can’t give blood or anything like that. When I get sick, I have to make sure that I get better quickly, especially if it’s a virus because my body can’t fight it as well without my spleen. The trainers are aware of it too so we all have to monitor it.

I’m actually thankful that I was born with this blood disease because I think it has made me stronger as a runner and has helped me learn to endure.

Let’s talk about your 2013 cross country season. You earned your second cross country All-America honor, you were fourth at conference and second at regionals. What made the difference this season?

I think my summer made the biggest difference. I had a really good summer of training with running, lifting and swimming. I trained at our lake cabin in Iowa by myself for awhile and also bumped up my mileage from 50 to 55-60 miles a week, which made a huge difference. I think I came into the season being the most fit that I’ve ever been. I also think the improvements we were making as a team really made a difference in how I raced as well. We kept getting better and realized what we could do. I raced for my team throughout the season instead of myself because I knew that every point counted so it pushed me that much more.

Lastly, what are your goals for the 2014 track season?

I have a lot of goals for myself but my main goal is that I want to be a national champion. I don’t have a preference for event, but I have times I would like to hit — 2:00 for the 800 and 4:05 for the 1,500. I’d have to PR by a bit, but I think I’m capable of it.

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