Derek Bolser thought he was having an “especially bad year” of allergies at the beginning of his senior cross country season.
“During the first race of cross country season, I knew that something wasn’t quite right. I’d been having poor performances during training,” the eighteen-year-old said. “I usually have a lot of problems with allergies and I thought it had something to do with that.”
The P.K. Yonge graduate realized that the final year of his high school running career was off to a dreadful start when he began experiencing severe weakness in his legs.
“I was feeling fatigued on distance runs, and workouts were going well,” Bolser said, "I put in a lot of work over the summer. Something had to be wrong.”
Bolser’s coach tailored a training schedule specifically designed for the runner’s needs in order for him to run the cross country state meet. The effort seemed futile, however, and Bolser found himself growing weaker and weaker as the season progressed.
Already on a downward slope, Bolser’s medical mystery took a turn for the worst while on a run the day after the cross country regional meet, when he discovered he couldn’t walk.
Said Bolser: “I finally made it back to the car and my dad took me to the hospital, but even that wasn’t reassuring. I was receiving so many different medical opinions that weren’t going anywhere.”
Bolser eventually recovered enough to go about most of his daily activities and walk around, but spent a period of more than two months where he could not run at all.
Josh Horn -- P.K. Yonge’s newest head coach for track and field and one of Bolser’s biggest supporters – kept in contact with his runner throughout the course of his mystery disease, keeping track of any physical changes Bolser had, and any progress made in his diagnosis. At a sit-down meeting with Horn in mid-January, Bolser told his coach he hoped to return to the team in mid-February to embark on an intense training period to get him back into shape.
“[However], as the season wore on, we [believed] that there was no way he could reach that level in the time remaining, and he gradually accepted that he may not run again in a P.K. Yonge jersey,” Horn said.
It was mid-April before any progress was made with Bolser’s diagnosis. Bolser’s symptoms were similar to those of Lyme disease, a tick-born infectious disease that can cause extreme fatigue and joint pain.
Bolser had already taken the blood test for Lyme disease – which had come up negative -- when a physician told Bolser that the strain of Lyme borreliosis found in Florida may not be detected through an examination. She started him on a clinical diagnosis with antibiotics, which would prove to her if Bolser had the disease or not if his condition improved.
“His first race back was a “B” 1600, and his goal was just to pace himself off of one of our middle-school JV runners, with no regard for time,” said Horn. “He ended up running [5:17], which was probably slower than any mile he’s raced since middle school, but he was ecstatic just to have been able to push himself around the track.”
This convinced Bolser to try for a spot on the 4 x 800 team, but in the week before districts one of P.K. Yonge’s 4 x 400 runners had a surgical procedure, and Bolser was chosen as his replacement. Both the 4x400 and the 4x800 team went on to a 6th place finish at the state meet., which impressed Coach Spangler at the University of Florida enough to let Bolser walk on the team next year and continue his running career as a Florida Gator.
“One of my biggest goals as a coach is to open my athletes’ eyes to potential running careers ahead of them; Derek sensed this and recognized that if he is willing to drive his body for the next ten years, he will reach goals that were unimaginable to him in high school,” said Horn.
“He has a tremendous understanding of the expectations Coach Spangler has of him, and an uncanny maturity in his view of the future.”
In spite of his torrid experience with Lyme disease this past year, Bolser would not have wanted a different experience.
“The day I stepped on the track to run the B 1600, I was at a point where I didn’t know if I’d ever be able to run again… but I love it here. I love stepping out on the track,” Bolser said. “I was never satisfied with how I’d finished a race, and think of all the things I could have done to get better. I was never truly happy with how I performed, and it was very rare if I did. You get so focused on being good and getting better and this forced me to take a step back and see how far I came.”
“This has taught me to be happy, no matter what the outcome. It’s helped me find a balance between looking to improve myself after every race, and walking away happy.”