It wasn’t long after Rachel Kastama had run her first 4A state cross country meet that she sensed something wasn’t right.
The Puyallup High School sophomore placed 42nd in that first appearance, completing the five-kilometer course in Pasco in 19 minutes, 22.67 seconds.
But still, something wasn’t right.
Rachel lacked energy and would become fatigued quickly. Fearing something was wrong, her father took her to the doctor where blood tests eventually revealed she had iron deficiency anemia, which causes lower than normal healthy red blood cells due to too little iron in the body.
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The diagnosis meant that Rachel’s twin sister Sarah, who also runs for Puyallup, probably suffered from the same condition. Tests later confirmed it.
Anemia is not uncommon in female athletes, especially cross country runners, but if left untreated it can lead to major health problems.
The Kastama twins were prescribed iron supplements in the summer between their sophomore and junior years to combat the condition. Within six weeks, Rachel noticed a change.
“I felt faster, it felt easier and I wasn’t tired,” she said. “If you look at my times from sophomore year and junior year, they’re vastly different.”
Rachel, who plans to run in college but has yet to pick a school, once again advanced to the state meet as a junior, but this time she placed 14th with a time of 18:32.30 — more than 50 seconds and nearly 30 places better than she did the year before.
“Some of them just get hungry for it after they’ve gone to state,” Puyallup cross country coach Sandy Monaghan said. “Her sophomore year was her first year of running in high school and getting to that level. I think that motivated her to do better — and I think also getting her anemia under control made her want to be better.”
Having more energy allowed Rachel to change the way she trained.
“Sophomore year, I didn’t run with the top guys, I ran with one of the seniors who graduated,” she said. “I ran with her and we worked really hard. But junior year I worked even harder and I ran with the guys because the iron helped me, I could run with them.
“I would try running with them at the start of the season and eventually I would get strong enough to run with them and eventually their pace became my pace,” she added. “That was really good training for me.”
Monaghan was the one who pushed Rachel to train with the boys. She saw results almost immediately.
“That was a really quick improvement,” Monaghan said. “The intensity level of what the boys do on our team compared to what the girls do, the boys are just more competitive within themselves. The girls are more, ‘We’re friends.’ The boys are like, ‘Yeah, you’re not beating me today.’ ”
While Rachel runs with the boys, Sarah tries to run with her.
“We try to run together in practice, she’s faster than me though,” Sarah said. “When I say I try to run with her, I try, but I usually fall back 100 meters or so.”
Sarah has never qualified for the state meet as an individual, although she did compete with her team as a sophomore, placing 105th with a time of 20:34.44. Sarah’s goal for her senior season is to place in the top 30 at the district meet, which would earn her a trip to state as an individual.
Just like her sister, Sarah started to notice a difference shortly after she starting taking the iron supplements.
“I felt like I had a lot of energy when I woke up in the morning,” Sarah said. “When I woke up, I wasn’t just immediately tired. I can do a lot more stuff and just power through things more easily.”
While Sarah would like to make her first trip to state as an individual, Rachel hopes to conclude her high-school cross country career by improving on her finish from a year ago.
“My goal is to get into the top 10 at state for cross country and to get to under 18:15,” Rachel said.
According to Monaghan, who has been the cross country coach at Puyallup for nine years, that goal would be more difficult to attain if it weren’t for Sarah’s presence on the team.
“Sarah has a calming effect on Rachel,” Monaghan said. “Everybody gets nervous. A lot of athletes think, ‘Oh, she’s the fastest runner on the team, of course she’s not nervous.’ No, she gets nervous at races just like everyone else does. Having her twin there really kind of has a calming effect on her, knowing that her sister is there and that she has her back and she supports her.”