When we spoke on the phone last week, Traci Falbo was a few hours gone from home in southern Indiana and rolling through Columbus, Ohio. In her Subaru Crosstrek, she pauses her play list, a mix she calls “eclectic” but that her husband sometimes says is more “angry chick music.” Akron, Ohio is two hours away, and the Canal Corridor 100 Mile start is less than a day away, but Falbo’s road to this start line has been a lot longer than this five-hour drive.
“I’m nervous and scared,” the 48-year-old confided. “I haven’t ‘race’ raced for a long time.”
Falbo remembers the day well. It happened on a vacation in Maine in September of 2018. Earlier in the trip she ran 26 miles over the Acadia National Park carriage roads, on a link-up of the park’s 16 majestic stone bridges. Her husband biked beside her. “We had a picnic lunch, it was lovely,” she recalled with a pleasant tone. “And then a couple of days later, I was on Appalachian Trail-type trails in Maine and that’s just not my wheelhouse at all. I ran down some boulders that I shouldn’t have, and sort of fell, my left leg planted, I was against a tree, and my right knee was bloody.” She focused her immediate attention on that right knee, but the next day she couldn’t bend or straighten her left leg, and it was swollen. She nursed it for a month and started a 50-mile race in October of 2018 but dropped after 20 miles due to the pain.
She endured a few different doctor’s visits, hearing about arthritis, or meniscus tears, or both depending on the doctor. Around Thanksgiving of that year she had meniscus surgery, followed orders for a four-week rehabilitation, and tried to run again. “Just horrible pain,” Falbo grew weak at the memory. “Well maybe we should give it 12 weeks then,” she echoed her then doctor’s advice, “but after that, within a week and a half it just wasn’t going to happen.” She moved on to a different doctor, and a different diagnosis.
On July 2, 2019–she knows the date by heart–she had another surgery. The complex procedure included an osteochondral allograft on her femur and a tibial microfracture. Falbo dumbs it down for me, explaining that her femur did have arthritis and a defect. “They core out the bad part and shore it up with donor bone,” and that in her tibia, “they drilled a bunch of holes, like lawn aeration, but it’s microfracture.” And then she was on her way with an eight-month rehab.
That work included traditional physical therapy, running on an AlterG treadmill, and riding an ElliptiGO bike. “Pay to play,” she said of the Alter-G access, and three times a week she went across the river to Louisville, Kentucky to run on it. “The first day I ran 15 minutes. I tried 20% weight bearing and I just felt suspended,” she laughed. “So I started at 30% and kept increasing, slowly.” She eventually was running up to 60 minutes at a time on the AlterG. That wasn’t all though. “The ElliptiGO kept me as fit as anything could. Mentally that thing kept me totally happy. I just wanted to be outside and around friends, and I swam and biked at the gym, but I’m not a gym person. The ElliptiGO was the best workout, I would sing their praises left and right,” she gushed. “Hell of a workout. I built up on it and was close to 50 miles several times.”
That work got Falbo to March 1 of this year and she was cleared to run. With 40 minutes of approval, Falbo went hard to start trying to stretch that time to the longest distance. “I almost puked, five miles, not quite 4.9,” she exhaled. She got up to 10 to 12 miles at a time, and then ran the Antelope Canyon 50 Mile on March 14. I gasp at the jump in distance, and she explains. She’d twice deferred her entry and was eager for the bucket-list race. “My physical therapist was really leery. I’d run seven or eight miles on the AlterG. I promised I’d run-walk. It was an adventure run, I wanted to take pictures. And the rehab had gone really well. I did what I was supposed to and nothing that I wasn’t supposed to.”
“It was gorgeous,” she said of the postcard-filled Arizona course. Falbo finished in 11:44. “It was phenomenal. I was excited I couldn’t race it [so she could instead take pictures, and I was thankful I could run again. March 1, I was so scared to run outside. ‘What if it doesn’t work’?” She wondered out loud. “I’m not going to die if I don’t run, but was so thankful that I could.”
She loves the U.S. Southwest, but has traveled well otherwise too. She calls out trips to Yosemite, the Grand Tetons, and the Bahamas as other favorites. She expands on the Bahamas, letting slip that she and her husband fly on his private plane. “It sounds cool, but it’s not. It’s a small 1979 Piper Archer, some people have cars that cost more,” she said. “We put a life raft on, just in case,” she chuckled, just a little, of the over-water flight.
And now Falbo’s just a half day away from starting the Canal Corridor 100 Mile. It’s something of a replacement race for her since the Six Days in the Dome contest was canceled due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Falbo was signed up for the 24-hour race there. She has a kittens-and-hearts mask packed, and will start alongside two others targeting a 17-hour run. Runners will start in one-minute waves. Her entry was last minute, but she secured a crew too and, a veteran of such adventures, plans to not use the aid stations. It sounds like she’s got it together, but confessed, “I feel like a newbie. I’m not as fit as I used to be. My knee’s solid, but I don’t know. I feel like a nervous new runner.”
This time, in our second phone call a day post-race, Falbo is back on I-71, heading south. “A bunch of ketchup,” she says as I shush and she finishes her order. “I never eat McDonald’s, I just got a Happy Meal. I never get McDonald’s,” she repeats, as if needing to apologize for the treat. “Their fries are delicious.”
She won the Canal Corridor 100 Mile and finished 10th overall in 18:44. She’s happy, but concedes that the effort wasn’t without significant strain. “My knee started bugging me at mile 37 and I thought, Oh man, I may not get this done.” With some triage, mostly Tiger Balm and Voltaren, “my knee hung in there,” she said. “My fitness just wasn’t there, it was a year and a week [since surgery]. Shit, I just ran 100 miles.”
Falbo’s full of fatigue and emotion and is not sure what’s next. I wish her well and hang up to let her enjoy those fries.
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