Runner’s Itch

Runner’s Itch

What exactly happened at the 2006 N.E.S.C.A.C. cross-country championships?

Runner’s Itch
LØPE MAGAZINE – Issue No. 022, May 2020

Words and Illustrations by Liam Boylan-Pett
Photos courtesy of Tom Leonard and Amanda Ivey

On the morning of October 27, 2006, Abby Samuelson sat on the Bates College cross-country team’s bus, looked out the window at the wind and rain thrashing Harkness Memorial State Park, and laughed. On a clear day, one could glance out across the Atlantic Ocean from the Waterford, Connecticut, park to see Fishers Island. On this day, Samuelson could barely see the ground twenty feet ahead. She and her teammates were supposed to run the New England Small College Athletic Conference Championships, but rumors swirled that football games and other sporting events were being cancelled throughout New England that day. It was too windy to set up the team’s tent. It was too rainy to stand outside for more than a minute or two. It was too muddy to make one’s way to the park’s public restrooms. But it was cross-country, Samuelson thought. The only thing she could do was laugh.

Well, that and race.

Samuelson, a first-year running her first N.E.S.C.A.C. Championship race, bundled up and ran a shortened warm-up with her teammates. She rushed back onto the bus to change into her dry racing attire. She tied her spikes tight and wrapped athletic tape around her shoes and ankles to cinch them even tighter. Then, she raced. The wind smacked her face. Mud flew all around her. She slogged through puddles that went up to her hips. Her mom, Joan Benoit Samuelson, one of the greatest distance runners of all time, ran from spot to spot on the course cheering her on, but that was not a worry for Samuelson. She finished and got back onto the bus as soon as possible. Her and her teammates threw their gear into plastic bags and changed into whatever dry pieces of clothing they had left. If there was a facility for showers, the Bates runners did not find it. Instead, they did their best to stay dry until it was time to go, which took some time given the junior varsity and alumni races after the women’s competition. 

It was miserable. But finally, the bus roared to a start and the team began the four-hour trip back up to their Lewiston, Maine, campus. Samuelson thought about how it was one of the craziest races she had ever been a part of—one that she would always remember. 

Fourteen years later, Samuelson’s hunch proved true. She certainly remembers the race. The memory, however, is about more than slogging through the mud. For Samuelson and everyone else who ran the 2006 N.E.S.C.A.C. Cross-Country Championship, they remember the aftermath, too. 

Samuelson remembers the end of the bus ride back to campus on that October day in 2006. She remembers the Bates cross-country team was done complaining and laughing about how awful the race was. She remembers they were done hyping up that night’s post-conference Halloween party. She remembers that, mostly, they all looked forward to getting back to campus for a hot shower. 

Samuelson swears she remembers one more thing from the end of the bus ride, too. A few of her teammates, she says, complained about being itchy.  

Under certain conditions, cercariae, which are microscopic parasites that can live in fresh and salt water and look a lot like itsy bitsy tadpoles, infect certain mammals and birds, such as ducks. An infected duck can then pass the eggs of cercariae through its feces. The eggs hatch and liberate miracidia, which are free-swimming larvae of the parasite, that then search for a host. If the conditions remain optimal, these miracidia infect a molluscan host such as a snail. The parasite develops in the snail, which then produces the free-swimming cercariae. Those cercariae then penetrate the skin of birds and migrate to the fowl’s blood vessels. Then, the cycle starts up again once the bird defecates. 

Unless, that is, the parasite encounters a swimmer. 

Driving the lead cart during the men’s race, Ned Bishop could not see a thing. The coach of the women’s team at Connecticut College and meet director, he knew the course, but he relied on the survey flags he had posted earlier in the week thanks to the unrelenting wind and mist and rain. 

Bishop had spent the whole week prepping. He had kept an eye on the weather, and up to the day of the race was hoping for the best despite the forecast. The day before when a few teams were previewing the course, one coach approached Bishop and said, “It’s cross-country!” 

Still, the next morning the weather was worse than they could have imagined. Alison Wade, now the publisher of the Fast Women newsletter, was then an assistant coach for the women’s cross-country team at Tufts University. She remembers walking across a field to the coach’s meeting the morning of the race. “I was blown back,” she says, “and I remember thinking, ‘Oh my god, we’re walking over to this meeting so they can tell us the race isn’t happening.’”

That wasn’t the case. Bishop says a few of the coaches did think they should delay the race, but the coaches of the 11 teams in the N.E.S.C.A.C. voted to run. It was cross-country, after all. 

Which was why Bishop was riding along a spongy course, barely able to see in front of him as Trinity University’s Hunter Norte gapped the field in the men’s race, the first of the morning. Bishop stressed as he drove the Gator utility vehicle, praying that he would stay on course for Norte, who also could barely see. The tires squished and skidded along the grass as Bishop led the way, driving at about 5-minute-20-second pace. Norte and the men’s field would have to run one part of the course without the lead cart, though. Niering Walk—named after Dr. William Niering, a Connecticut College professor of botany—is an approximately 600-meter loop around a marshy area. The trail is too narrow for a four-wheeler. Plus, on that day, it was flooding. Norte sloshed through the loop, trudging through water that was knee-deep for what was reported to be about 200 meters. Bishop waited in the lead cart, then resumed leading the way once Norte reemerged. 

Norte held his lead, winning the 8-kilometer race in 26 minutes, 13 seconds. Brian Murtagh of Connecticut College finished in second, 13 seconds behind. Four Williams College runners finished in the top ten, leading to a dominant team victory with 30 points over Bowdoin with 81 points.

Bishop watched the runners pour into the finishing shoot and knew the conditions were not going to get any better for the women’s race. 

Wade, who was happy to see that the men actually could run in the conditions, told the Tufts team to be prepared, and to embrace it. She encouraged athletes to wear hats, hoping the bill might block at least some of the driving rain from the athlete’s face. “Everyone is going to be freaked out by this,” she and head coach Kristen Morwick told their athletes, “but we trained for this. We got this.”

Alison Leonard, Abby Samuelson, and the Bates women’s team, meanwhile, did not watch the men’s race. It was too cold to be running around cheering. Those who did see the carnage and slow pace (Norte was capable of running at least one minute faster), had plenty of advice to give. “We were all in the same boat,” Leonard says, “but literally everyone was giving us advice. Parents, coaches, everyone. But no one really knew.” 

One thing Leonard, Samuelson, and most of the rest of the field knew: They wanted to stay dry for as long as possible.

The start line was a cacophony of cheers, last minute instructions, howling winds, and wet rain gear being squished into trash bags. Leonard wore tights, and says the majority of the team did. She did not wear a hat, but just before the start put her hands together over her forehead to create a makeshift brim to peer out at where the heck she was supposed to run—it barely helped. Once the gun went off, it didn’t really matter what they wore. It was as insane as it seemed it would be. 

The Bates women stayed together through the first mile. Samuelson laughed in the middle of the pack. They ran with a forward lean, attempting to block at least some part of their bodies from the wind. When they reached Niering Walk, the water had taken hold. While the men ran through water that was knee deep at worst, much of the loop was hip-high for the women. They could wade through it, but Leonard watched as some of her competitors fell into the water, fully submerging like the best (or worst, depending on your point of view) kinds of steeple fails. 

Katy O’Brien of Tufts won the women’s 6-kilometer race in 22 minutes, 49 seconds, leading Tufts runners to a 1-2 finish. Before the race, Coach Morwick had told Wade she thought the conditions might be good for O’Brien, and the premonition was right. Tufts had three top-10 finishers, but Amherst put five in the top 18 to win, 64 to 69. 

For both the men’s and women’s races, a lead cart showed the runners the way. For the junior varsity and open races, however, there was worry it might get stuck along the course. And thanks to wind, high tide, and rain, Niering Walk was essentially a pool. Still, both races, filled with alumni and even Connecticut College men’s coach, Jim Butler, went on as scheduled. Like the men’s and women’s races, it was a slosh fest—pure cross-country. 

At one point in the day, women from the Colby team were spotted swimming in the marshy section of the course. Amanda Ivey, then a first-year, had fallen on one of the race’s first turns. She says before getting into dry clothes, she and three of her teammates, “decided to just jump in.” There wasn’t really much to do but embrace the chaos and conditions, Ivey says. 

Both Samuelson and Leonard would run the Boston Marathon in 2018, and both say the conditions were pretty much the same in New England in 2006, too. And while both runners have plenty of stories and memories from that Boston day, Leonard says the 2006 N.E.S.C.A.C. Championships are a little different. “Yes, we ran this race in epic conditions and it’s one of those races that, as a cross-country runner, I always brag about,” she says. 

“But in my mind it’s actually a two-part story.” 

Erin Archard, a Middlebury runner who took eighth place, wrote on Facebook a few days after the race: “How silly of us all to assume that everything would be better once we crossed the finish line.” 

In the case that parasitic cercariae come into contact with a swimmer rather than water fowl, the cercariae can burrow into a swimmer’s skin. This causes an allergic reaction and rash. It is more commonly known, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, as swimmer’s itch.

The conditions for cercariae to survive and reach a swimmer or a bird or mammal, mind you, must be right. 

Standing water next to the ocean in a park that was home to water fowl, for example, could provide a habitat for cercariae. 

The morning after the 2006 N.E.S.C.A.C. Cross-Country Championship, runners throughout New England met as a team or in small groups for their long run. Sure, they chatted about the race the day before and the races still to come like N.C.A.A. Regionals and—hopefully—the N.C.A.A. Championships. They chatted about their Halloween parties the night before, too. 

More than a few, oddly enough, thought about bringing up the itchy rash developing on their skin. 

Alison Leonard was in a Bates dining hall with a few of her teammates after her run. A group of guys came in after their long run, too. They had rented gorilla costumes from a local costume shop for the party the night before. Everyone who rented one complained of a rash that was pretty uncomfortable and itched like hell. That’s what they get for renting costumes, a few people on the team thought. 

But then, others started getting the rash, too. In fact, many on the team had it. Bumpy, itchy splotches popped up on the skin of many members of the Bates College cross-country team—the gorilla costume wasn’t to blame. 

Soon enough, the Bates team discovered they weren’t the only ones. Someone at Williams had the rash, too, they heard. Same went for Amherst and Tufts. The coach at Connecticut College had a rash. It was popping up everywhere. 

A group on Facebook called “Victims of the NESCAC rash” emerged. Hundreds of athletes went to the groups discussion section to complain and about the rash, which some gave the crude name of the NESClap. They traded treatment techniques (calamine and a prescribed prednisone cream were most commonly recommended) and horror stories. “Mine was originally all over my legs and on my right arm,” one poster wrote. “But now it has spread, covering my left foot (even between some toes), both hands, and, worst of all, my heels! Now whenever I walk, it makes it itch more and more. There has got to be something to get rid of this! I’m going insane here!”

The group was also a brainstorm for what could have happened. It wasn’t flesh-eating bacteria, they knew thanks to one runner’s dermatologist. It wasn’t poison ivy or poison oak, they decided—they ran over grass the entire time, never through any bushes that could have had ivy or oak. One rumor was that jellyfish had been the cause. They had been washed ashore and stung runners during the race, the theory went. If one thing was for sure, it was that nothing was. 

Bishop, the Connecticut College coach and meet director, was doing some research, too—and putting out as many fires as he could as theories about the rash picked up steam. Not only did most runners join the Facebook group, they also friended Bishop as a joke. That was the least of his concerns, although he was relieved that a Connecticut College coach got the rash, thus proving it wasn’t all some prank played by his school. 

On top of the rash, Bishop had to deal with the mess the runners had made of the flooded course. The mix of hundreds of runners and flooded fields led to damage in many corners of Harkness Memorial State Park—about $8,000 worth of repairs were needed. Connecticut College did not want to stop hosting meets there, so they offered to pay. Insurance, at first, hedged, claiming they would not cover the expenses. It was no small chunk of change for a small school athletic budget, but word got out, and each N.E.S.C.A.C. school offered to chip in. At the last second, however, the insurance company ended up covering the costs. Connecticut College still hosts meets at Harkness, they do skip the section of the course that looped around Niering Walk, however. 

That is because Niering Walk was deemed the culprit of the N.E.S.C.A.C. rash by Connecticut College officials—with the cercariae that had to have been present in the standing water, the smoking gun. On November 3, The Tufts Daily reported on the N.E.S.C.A.C. cross-country meet: “Many league runners have contracted a rash, which Connecticut College officials believe to be the non-contagious ‘swimmer’s itch.’” Bishop believed it, telling the Tufts student paper, “We don’t have anything else that seems like a stronger possibility.”

Connecticut College athletic director Francis Shields stated she believed cercariae had caused the rash. “The weather was so bad that water built up in the marsh area, and enabled some of the parasites to get into the water,” she told the Bowdoin Orient.

After that, the hoopla surrounding the rash somewhat died down. The Facebook group became very quiet by the time the end of November rolled around. No one was quite sure, but it seemed like swimmer’s itch made sense. Cercariae could have very plausibly been in the water adjacent to Niering Walk, and the parasites could have moved into the trail through the wind, rain, and high tide. Those parasites could have then burrowed into any host that would have had them, including the hundreds of runners who raced through the water they inhabited. 

It seemed crazy, but a bunch of runners had somehow gotten swimmer’s itch at a cross-country meet. 

Bishop, meanwhile, began working with the Ledge Light Health District (L.L.H.D.), the public health wing that served Waterford, Connecticut, to discover what exactly had happened. He sent out a survey to each of the competing schools to collect data. The records of that survey are no longer available, but according to one story in the Hartford Courant, about 60 percent of respondents reported getting at least some form of the rash. Bishop remembers that those who reported wearing tights were much less likely to get the rash. 

The L.L.H.D. workers assigned to the case pored over the data from the survey. They also examined photos of the rash that were sent in the “Victims of the NESCAC rash” Facebook group. Plus, they went to Harkness Memorial State Park to survey the scene of the crime. 

One of the environmental investigators for the L.L.H.D. told me that they went to Harkness expecting to find cercariae that cause swimmer’s itch or the parasitic worms that cause Schistosomiasis, which is similar to swimmer’s itch. 

There was one problem: the L.L.H.D. found no evidence that swimmer’s itch could have been possible. 

“Although it was initially suspected that Schistosomiasis may have contributed to the reaction in the runners,” the investigator wrote to me, “it was later debunked by the lack of mollusks that harbor the schistosomes found in the adjacent water body.” 

To this day, there is no definitive answer to what happened on October 27, 2006 in Harkness Memorial State Park. It was not swimmer’s itch. It was not a group of rogue jellyfish roaming Niering walk and biting runners. It was not a flesh-eating bacteria. 

In the end, there is only one theory that still remains—it really was poison ivy.  The environmental investigator for the L.L.H.D. hypothesized the following: 

The field was mowed the day before the race, including over heavy poison ivy growth. Then, when the flooding started, the water picked up the resin and oils associated with the heavy poison ivy growth. The runners then ran through that water. 

It was never proven, the investigator said. But it is the best guess they had. 

No, the runners did not race through a pool of parasitic water. Instead, it is believed, they ran through a poison ivy bath.  

It has been fourteen years, but for those involved with the 2006 N.E.S.C.A.C. Cross-Country Championship, the race still pops into their heads from time to time. In fact, Alison Wade tweeted about it from her Fast Women account not too long ago, and it led to an avalanche of memories for those who ran and those who heard about the race. 

Alison Leonard told me a friend had reached out to her about the race only a few days before I reached out to her. Her father, Tom, had coincidentally posted a photo from the race on Facebook that week, too. Tom sent along photos for this race. Looking back on the race, he told me had wrapped up his Canon camera in a plastic bag and shot with his back to the wind and rain—it didn’t stop a small section of the plastic bag from filling up with water. 

Wade and Bishop both remembered the women from the Colby team swimming. “I just hope they were O.K.” Wade said. They, it turns out, were just fine. Amanda Ivey lives in Saco, Maine, now and says she didn’t even get the rash. She also, she said, found the photo she shared of the post-race swim on her MySpace page—it was not shared on the Facebook group. As a Nordic skier, Ivey competed in cold and brutal conditions, but that N.E.S.C.A.C. race had the worst conditions she has ever run in. 

Many who ran that day felt the same. But, as a few of the people I spoke with for this story said, it was cross-country. It was the aftermath that didn’t quite fit. And yes, the aftermath is remembered, too. 

It has been almost 14 years, but Abby Samuelson still thinks about the race. She only got a mild case of the rash on her ankle, so she laughs about it now. She works for Nike and lives in Portland, where it drizzles often. That doesn’t worry her, Samuelson says. 

“But when it pours,” Samuelson says, “the first thing that comes to mind is, ‘Oh, I’m not gonna run through the park today. Because,’” she pauses, “‘no rashes.’”

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