Traci Falbo continues to overcome, inspire
By Henry Howard
There’s no holding Traci Falbo back. Her journey from an overweight, sedentary young mom to a world champion ultra runner is well documented and known throughout the sport.
But more recently, a relentless injury had pushed her to the sideline and prompted thoughts of calling it a career for Falbo, who has won 43 marathons/ultras, holds the world indoor track record for 48-hour run with 242 miles and completed the ultra running Grand Slam in 2013.
Her determination and love for the trails overcame that obstacle, as she returned to racing and has been competitive including her victory in late October at the Palo Duro Trail Run in Texas. Even though her knee injury flared up days before the race, Falbo took first place and is looking ahead once again to competing and exploring new adventures.
But to truly understand where Falbo is now, one must also be familiar with her past.
Shedding pounds and returning to running
After running throughout middle school through college, Falbo got married between receiving her bachelor's and master's degrees. Children soon followed, as well as the accompanying weight gain, while she stopped running for about eight years.
Depression soon set in.
“My coping mechanism was to eat. I just got bigger and bigger and bigger.”
Upon returning from a family trip to Hawaii, Falbo saw pictures of herself in a swimsuit. She knew immediately she needed to change and return to running.
“I think you have to have that a-ha moment, that straw that broke the camel's back, just to make you do it,” she says. “It's really easy to do it for a couple of weeks then quit. That was enough for me. I needed to get this done. I ended up starting running again at that point just for fitness and to try to lose weight.”
That was in the early 2000s when Falbo’s kids were in elementary school and she worked full time. She went to the gym early, met with a friend and started running on the treadmill.
“Initially, it didn't go very well. It's not like I just hopped on the treadmill and, boom, lost all this weight. It was six months and I'd only lost 15 pounds and I was really frustrated.”
Falbo turned her attention to her diet and realized her portion sizes were way out of control. Once she adjusted her portions, she cut 65 more pounds in about eight months. She didn’t cut out any foods. She still loves her desserts and snacks but aims to choose healthier options.
“Veggie Straws were great because you get 38 for a portion. That seems like a ton of chips. Animal Crackers, you could get 16 for 120 calories. That seemed like a bonus. It seemed like a lot of food versus one small brownie.”
Falbo also ended up separating and later divorcing from her first husband. Without the couples they used to do things with, she focused on running and joined a run group to find friends. She soon met a friend who was training for the Rocket City Marathon. She joined him and qualified for the Boston Marathon on her first try at the 26.2-mile distance.
“I was thrilled. It was a really kind of crappy weather day. I just remember feeling good for the most part, getting tired toward the end but pushing through. That first marathon, there's nothing like it really in terms of the feeling
Falbo went from being overweight in March 2003 to a “thinner, healthier and happier” Boston qualifier in December 2004.
“It all kind of just started from there. I started marathoning and then eventually I found the 50 States Club,” Falbo says, explaining that to save money she would target nearby states that had marathons on the same weekend. "Then people told me, ‘If you can do a marathon on Saturday and a marathon on Sunday, you can do a 50-miler.’ It just sort of fell in that way.”
‘You have to find a new sport’
Falbo admits being “a little obsessed about it,” running 20 to 25 marathons a year for three years straight. She says it was a natural progression to jump into ultras.
“I wasn't ever fast,” she claims. “I was a decent marathoner but I wasn't great. But I could keep that pace for a long time. Then I realized that talent, to be able to go long. That was exciting then, to actually be good at something.”
Falbo excelled at the longer distances, competing at a high level for Team USA and winning various ultras. In the past three years, she has struggled with injuries. In September 2018, she was running technical trails during a vacation in Maine while her husband was at the hotel.
“I found out he was awake and ready to go,” she recalls. “I'm not much of a trail runner, especially technical trails. I tried to motor on some big boulders and ended up starting to fall and I caught myself with my left hand and planted with my left leg and then just banged the tar out of my right leg on a rock but never did go ker-splat. I stayed upright.”
Her right knee was bloodied. No big deal, she thought initially.
The next day she realized she had a lot of swelling in the left knee and it hurt. “I assumed at that point I had just strained something, maybe I had a slight muscle tear or something, I didn't know.”
Falbo tried to take it easy but maintain her fitness. After all, she was signed up for a 50-miler the next month.
“I was struggling,” she recalls. “At the race, I got about 20 miles in and I was just in so much pain that I stopped and DNF’d. For a couple days, I literally just hobbled. It hurt to put weight through my knee. My knee also felt unstable, like it wanted to give out. I ended up seeing an orthopedist and he basically said, ‘You have a meniscal tear but you have arthritis. You need to find a new sport.’"
Falbo rejected this advice and sought out another orthopedist. He confirmed the arthritis and the tear but made an offer she couldn’t refuse. “We can try to fix it and see if that improves it."
Falbo underwent meniscal surgery. The surgeons couldn't repair so they trimmed and cleaned it, then sent Falbo off to rehab.
Even after rehab, Falbo could not run without knee pain. More rehab. More running pain. It seemed like an endless cycle.
Up next were PRP and HA injections, a series of three weekly injections, followed by a month to see if it would decrease the pain and allow her to run. Those did not work either. In July 2019, it was time for surgery, an osteochondral allograft of the left femur.
“I had a cadaver graft put in my knee,” she explains. “Like coring an apple, they just cored out my bad spot and made a graft from this cadaver graft that looked exactly the same. They basically replaced it. There's no pins. There's no staples. There's no nothing. It's just like they pulled out a core and they put in a core the exact same size.”
Then came microfracture on her tibia. Falbo likens this to lawn aeration, “where you drill down a bunch of plugs. They do that to get the bone to bleed so that it sort of forms a faux cartilage on top. Basically, those are the two main things I had done with my knee. But then I wasn't allowed to have any type of compressive movement, no jumping, no running for eight months.”
Falbo’s long rehab went from using crutches to partial weight bearing to riding a bike to doing an elliptical. It wasn’t until March 2020 when Falbo could run. And, of course, there would be limited races once she got back into race shape.
‘It was traumatic and depressing’
There are physical challenges to running injuries. But for such long-term ones, there are also significant mental challenges for athletes.
“It was traumatic and depressing. At that point I had pain even hiking. I love the outdoors.”
While Falbo was enjoying her life, one key element was missing.
“At this point, my kids are grown and doing well so they're on their own,” she says. “I have my job. My husband and I have a great relationship. I love him. But everything else is tied up in running. I've lost all this weight. Now I'm not running, and I'm freaking out that I'm going to get heavy again. If you're ever heavy and you lose weight, you still have this body dysmorphia where you still feel heavy. I had the weight off for so many years. I didn't want to go back to that. So now I'm stressed about my weight and eating and I'm getting all crazy about that.”
She wasn’t able to exercise, see her running friends or relieve the stress through running.
“It was isolating. Your favorite thing just gets pulled out from under you. Then it's really scary. The surgery only had a 60% chance that I could still run ultras the same. I hadn't run since October of '18, and you wonder, ‘Can I run? Is this going to work or not?’ It's awful.”
Falbo credits her ElliptiGO for saving her. She progressed from 20 to 30 to 50 miles. “It felt like I was doing ultras again. I would go out for hours and I'd get to be out in the world. I hate the gym. You could be outside and go on your running routes and stuff. That helped immensely.”
As a physical therapist, Falbo has helped kids for over 20 years now. Some will never walk. That empathy was on her mind throughout her long recovery and rehab.
“I think having that significant of an injury and thinking, ‘Maybe this is going to get taken away,’ then going and treating kids, it gives you another step to put yourself in other shoes again. I don't want to say I was ever selfish. I don't feel like I have been as a person but at some point it's good to have something, to have a setback, and to appreciate where you've been and what you've had.
“Don't get me wrong, I wish it had never happened but I think from a personal growth standpoint, at this point, I look at running in a whole different way than I used to.”
Gratitude for the ability to run
Falbo doesn’t take any run for granted anymore. “I just thought that I could run as long as I wanted to do. I don't feel that way anymore. I feel like I'm privileged to be able to do it and I hope to be able to do it as long as I can.”
While she doesn’t feel that her fitness is all the way back, she’s interested in testing herself at races once again.
She picked the Palo Duro Trail Run in Texas because of its scenic nature. “I'm looking for things now that I want to do. If there's a race I've always wanted to do, I'm going to sign up for it because who knows? Do I get another year of this? Do I get 10 years? Do I get 20? I don't know but I'm going to make the best of what I have left.”
A week before the race, Falbo – who says she hadn’t even thought about her knee in a long time — ran a 10-miler with friends. About halfway through, the knee pain returned.
“It was just killing me. I stopped to go to the bathroom and then when I went to go start again it was atrocious but I ended up finishing the run and then literally for two days was hobbling and thought, ‘Oh no, what did I do?’ I wasn't sleeping for two nights. My mind was spinning. Again, at times that addictive personality in my head's just spinning at night. What did I do? Did I take something? I started a new supplement, could that have done it? What did I do? What did I change? Did I step wrong in the run? I'm analyzing and I don't remember anything.”
She saw her physical therapist the Tuesday before the race.
“As a physical therapist, I should have had some idea of what happened but I'm just so irrational, thinking that I did something that I wasn't thinking straight as far as from an orthopedic standpoint,” she says.
Her PT explained it was likely a loose body, compressing bone against bone like with a pebble in between.
Worried about racing, Falbo flashed back to her long rehab. "I had this trauma back from severe knee pain like I did prior to surgery. I'm thinking I'm back to square one. I'm never going to run again. That's just sort of where my mind went, to the worst thing.”
The PT calmed her anxiety, saying, "Well, my husband gets these in his ankle joint from time to time. It usually inflames you because you've done damage at the time you were running and then all your leg muscles around your joint get mad." She explained that she could mobilize his joint to get the loose body to move out of the way and he’d be fine, suggesting that Falbo could try running the next day and decide whether to race.
Falbo ran three painless miles. “It still was a little swollen and it still didn't feel quite right but it was fine,” she says. “I texted my husband and I said, ‘We're on, let's go.’"
Back on the start line
And, indeed, Falbo went. Her race was two 15.5-mile loops.
“I was thrilled. I ran the race just hoping I could run and it would not hurt. I ran the first loop and told my husband, ‘Can you tell me how far the second girl is behind me maybe at the next aid station?’ I had no thoughts of winning at all but at that point I was in the lead for the women. So he texted my running partner who was concerned about my knee and said, ‘I guess her knee's fine because she didn't say anything about it and she wants to know where the second girl is.’”
Falbo did win, placing fifth overall and finishing more than a half hour ahead of the second-place woman.
“I just ran happy all day. The course was insanely beautiful. I highly recommend this race if anybody's looking for a scenic one. It's gorgeous.”
Falbo has worked through significant weight loss and a very challenging injury. She knows what it takes to get back out and enjoy the sport we cherish.
“If you're dealing with rehab, do your exercises and listen to your therapist,” she counsels. “I think my knee turned out well because I was super compliant which is not typically my personality. But when you may never get to do what you love again, it sort of increases the importance of that.”
When it comes to weight loss, Falbo recommends being relentless, like an ultra runner.
“If you're making a change it's probably because you've been doing something that's not good for a long time so it's really hard to flip the switch to have a lifelong change. I think if you're wanting to lose weight, I think 80% of it probably is diet and 20% is exercise. I think you just have to be consistent.”
Thirdly, Falbo suggests finding a partner.
“The best thing you can do is find somebody to be accountable to, whether it be a spouse, a running partner. Somebody that mentally you can talk to you when you are down. If it's a alcohol, cigarette, weight thing and you want to be bad, somebody to talk you down off of a ledge. If it's just depressing in the situation you're in, somebody to be able to talk to.”
Try something new
If Traci 2.0 was the version of her after she lost 80 pounds long ago, then she is on Traci 4.0.
“I'd like to think I'm a little bit smarter and more responsible, which may be not as fun,” she says. “But I still feel like I am having plenty of fun but not as insane as I was before. I'm running responsible amounts in order to ensure my knee is happy and I can walk and hike and work and live and whatnot.”
Falbo’s story resonates with anyone who has dealt with weight issues or long-term injuries. She knows that time for running, hiking and other pursuits is not endless.
“The best thing I can tell someone is just to be brave and try something new,” she advises. “I didn't know anything about ultras and I tried it. If somebody had said, ‘Go run a 100 miler,’ I would've thought they were insane. You never know until you try. I would encourage people to play around with different race distances or different sports or whatever they want to do.
“I think the worst thing in life is to have regrets. I certainly don't have any with my running. I'm happy to have done everything I've tried. I never expected to find success in running and have been thrilled. It's been a great ride. I would just say be brave and try something different and new.”
Name: Traci Falbo
Hometown: Sellersburg, Ind.
Number of years running: 25 years
How many miles a week do you typically run: Currently 45-55, when I am training for longer races. 75-80
Point of pride: Participating for Team USA at four world championships over the years and setting an
American and world record in the 48-hour race.
Favorite race distance: 100 miles
Favorite pre-race or training food/drink: Bagels with peanut butter and honey pre-race. Hammer Nutrition Apple Cinnamon Gels.
Favorite piece of gear: Drymax Maximum Protection Trail Socks and Squirrel’s Nut Butter keep me from blisters and chafing.
Who inspires you: My Mom. She’s a strong woman who has changed our family history and been a role model.
Favorite or inspirational song to run to: Fight Song-Rachel Platten, Rise Up-Andra Day, Stronger Than I’ve Ever Been-Kaleena Zanders
Favorite or inspirational mantra/phrase: I am strong, I can do this is a mantra I will say to myself when things get hard.
Where can other runners connect or follow you:
• Traci Falbo on Facebook
• tracifalbo on Instagram
• @FALBOTRACI on Twitter