Written by Natasha Leland
"Eating endless breadsticks at team dinner, the early morning bus rides where all is quiet, the fun moments after races watching [her] teammates run their hearts out to the line, the pre-workout music sessions, along with the snowy cold runs, and crazy hot indoor workouts" are just a few of Zoe Duffus' favorite memories made while running in high school.
While some of the best memories are fun, some stressful ones can serve as some of the most important. From season-ending stress fractures to competing in the Nike Cross Nationals, this Penn State commit has had quite a run.
Milesplit Indiana talked with the Fort Wayne Carroll senior over Zoom to talk about her goals and expectations for her final track season, as well as the college recruitment process. But her story is more than just winning races.
Duffus came into her freshman year with a very promising start. She was coming in third, then second, then first place at big invitationals. At the 2017 Marion Invitational, she finished in second place with a time of 17:45. Then when sectionals came along, she gave a first place performance. It was around this time Duffus got news that left her completely blindsided.
"As my freshmen year continued I would begin to get many aches and pains that I thought were normal, but little did I know they were in fact not normal."
Low bone density and fluctuating hormones plagued Duffus during her freshman year. When she started high school cross country, she was about 5'0". By the time her sophomore year came, she was 5'8". Growing pains were real for her through this time as injuries became easy to come by.
In 2017, doctors diagnosed her with grade four stress fractures in both femurs which would prevent her from running starting from the end of her freshman cross country season to the beginning of indoor track season. She still competed in the 2017 IHSAA State Finals where she finished in 51st place with a time of 19:05.
By the time track season rolled around, her injuries kept her from competing. "Despite this my teammates were truly the people that carried me along the way. Being able to watch my teammates set PRs and contend for championships truly kept my fire for running alive."
Passion brought by teammates and support from others made her cross-training easier. After months of biking, swimming, using the elliptical and cheering from the sidelines, Duffus was finally able to run again the summer before her sophomore year. That was before the aches and pains started again just three weeks later. Another stress fracture.
"This pill was probably the hardest to swallow for me as I thought the thick of my time away from running had been over", she said.
Cross-training was once again implemented, but this time her wait to run was shorter. With the help of her doctors and support system, she was able to start adding small bits of running to her cross-training and was eventually able to compete in the 2018 Cross Country State Tournament.
Jumping back in after months away from competing isn't always easy. "Throughout this time, I struggled most with comparing myself to my past performances along with dealing with the ever-present outside assessments of others."
In the 2018 Fort Wayne Northrop Sectional, Duffus finished in eighth place with a time of 19:52. She continued to advance through the tournament ending her season at the 2018 IHSAA State Finals in 80th place with a time of 19:43. While her times may not have been what they were her freshman year, she was still able to push herself through.
"In these hard-hitting situations, I have learned that in times of tribulations the only thing you can do is lean into your friends and family and do what you do best, which in my case was working hard and having fun."
Music also contributed to Duffus' healing process. The girl group Fifth Harmony's song "Work" helped the then-sophomore take her mind off what she lost from running and work on other aspects of her life.
After much patience, she was able to compete in a full track season. She earned first place finishes in both the mile and 800 m at Sectionals with times of 5:00 and 2:17, respectively. Then she advanced through the tournament ending at the State Finals in both races.
By her junior cross country season, Duffus was back on track. She once again placed first in the Fort Wayne Northrop Sectional with a time of 18:08. At the New Haven Semi-State Duffus ran 17:27 earning her a second place finish. Finally, she was able to have a healthy competition at the 2019 IHSAA State Finals where she finished sixth place with a time of 18:32.
The success of the season earned her a spot in the Team Cross Nationals Midwest Regional where she ran a PR of 17:27 and earned a seventh-place finish. From there, she was able to compete in the Team Cross Nationals last December.
After a successful junior year of cross country, the 2020 track season was looking to be even more so. Indoor season came with many first place finishes and PRs. In the 3200, Duffus ran a 10:46 at the IWU HSR Qualifier #1. At the Indiana Runner Indoor Invitational, she ran the 1600 m in a time of 4:55. Then in the 800 m run, she ran a 2:14 at the Trine Thunder Open.
Even as everything was looking up, another unexpected obstacle snatched yet another season away from Duffus. The COVID-19 pandemic caused the IHSAA to cancel track and field. Despite another chance at running track lost, Duffus was able to use her philosophy made from the song "Work" to focus on other things like choosing colleges and preparing for a senior year.
Over the summer, she committed to Penn State University meeting her future coaches over Zoom.
Duffus had a stellar senior cross country season. Some notable performances were 17:35.70 at the Marion Invitational, 17:35.60 at the New Haven Invitational and her runner-up finish at the IHSAA Cross Country State Championships with a time of 18:02.20
Photo by Jacob Musselman
Now as she continues to compete for one last run at the track state finals this fall, she looks back on her high school career with gratitude despite her injuries. The injuries helped teach her many lessons and has many things she would tell herself if she could go back in time.
"I would tell my younger self to...
Lose any plan she had in her head and to truly take running and even life a day at a time as you truly never know when it could be your last
Ride the waves of each season of life and enjoy every moment in between as the greatest moments she will experience are those where she is not able to compete
Keep picking her head up and never give into the feeling of her dreams slipping away
She is not defined by how fast she can run around in circles or the PRs she has accomplished
It is okay to be upset about circumstances in life, but it's not okay to stop trying even when quitting seems like the easiest way out
Open her eyes to the people God has blessed her with and lean into the wisdom they have for her
It's really "not that deep" so laugh a little bit more and cry a little less!"
For Zoe Duffus, injuries didn't keep her from chasing a dream. Instead they taught her valuable lessons like never give up, live each day full of gratitude and not to compare herself to others. With a strong support system behind her and healed legs guiding her, she's ready to cross the next finish line.