Grace Forbes comes to terms with losing her sport
Grace Forbes has a sweatshirt that she would wear before every race. Her grandfather, who died when she was young, bought it as a souvenir at the 1998 Rose Bowl, before it was passed on to her.
“He grew up from nothing. He managed to become a steelworker, he provided for his family … I take inspiration from the hardships that he’s been through, and that he’s pushed through them as well,“ Forbes said. “I haven’t worn it since, what, [September 30].”
That day, Forbes, who took second place in the 10,000-meters at last year’s NCAA outdoor track championships, set a new personal-best in the 6k at the Paul Short Run in her native Pennsylvania.
“I didn’t know it was going to be my last race ever, but it was a good race to end at because I grew up racing that course in high school,” Forbes said. “So it was a full circle moment.”
Nine days later, Forbes, an aspiring doctor, began to feel sick.
“I was observing a surgery, an artificial heart implant, and then I just started feeling terrible,” Forbes said. “And then it never went away.”
Since then, Forbes said she’s battled muscle soreness, migraines and inability to move her joints.
“This is the hardest time of anything I’ve ever had to deal with,” Forbes said.
For months, Forbes struggled to simply get out of bed.
“I would wake up after sleeping 12 hours, and how I would describe it is I’d wake up feeling like I had run a marathon the day before and then also gotten hit by a truck,” Forbes said. “[To] take a shower or brush your teeth, that was like a monumental thing that I did that day.”
Forbes went to several doctors, but her tests kept coming back normal. By process of elimination, she was diagnosed with long COVID, resulting from a severe bout of the virus she had in late July while on vacation with friends and family in Colorado.
“I got slapped in the face so hard,” Forbes said. “I had a fever. For the first time in my life, I really couldn’t move, like it was a new sensation. Everything hurt. My vision was gone, not completely gone … but I’d have a searing migraine all day.”
Those initial symptoms went away after three weeks. Forbes resumed training and even competed in the first three races of the fall cross-country season with no issues. But her symptoms returned in early October.
Forbes had been in a similar situation before — last year, she was diagnosed with Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, a chronic autoimmune disorder that left her struggling to make it to class, before recovering to take silver at the NCAAs just months later.
“It was the best feeling ever,” Forbes said. “I was bedridden for two months, and I never really felt like myself. But something happened that day and I just got in another gear. I felt like I finally proved myself.”
However, this time would be different. No matter how hard Forbes has worked to recover, she said she’s seen little progress.
“I’ve worked so hard to get better,” Forbes said. “And nothing really makes sense … I’ve had to live with the fact that you can’t question things anymore. It doesn’t make sense, and that’s okay.”
Doctors estimate a two-year recovery, which means her collegiate career is over. Forbes, an academic senior but junior in terms of NCAA eligibility, had planned to compete next year. She now intends to return to Pennsylvania after graduating in May and take two years before starting medical school in 2025.
Forbes said she’s leaned on her family and coaches to support her through her recovery.
“[Rice head] coach [Jim] Bevan was there [by] my side every single day,” Forbes said. “He would send me a text asking how I’m doing. Unfortunately, the answers were usually ‘terrible,’ but he would always ask … and he would always be contacting professionals asking if there’s anything they can do to fix me.”
To fill some of the void left by running, Forbes adopted a dog, a golden retriever named Murphy. She even fought through her illness to go on a medical mission to Ecuador in December, assisting a team that performed vision alignment surgeries.
“I pushed myself to go, and I think that was the best decision I could have made,” Forbes said. “I was so tired the whole time, but seeing the look in the eyes of the parents and the kids after surgery was so fulfilling. And it gave me a little bit of energy.”
But after so much of her life had been defined by her sport, Forbes said she struggled to adjust to life without it.
“While running was so important to me, it isn’t just me,” Forbes said. “I’m more than that. And it took a long time to figure that out.”
Forbes hopes to compete again someday, just not in the near future or collegiately. But she also knows she may never race again, and she’s forced herself to come to terms with that.
“I have the privilege of living a great life, with not many obstacles,” Forbes said. “[But] having my greatest passion taken away from me has been really hard. It took a lot of time to accept, but I’m finally at the acceptance point.”
Forbes still keeps her grandfather’s sweatshirt around, even if she doesn’t get much use out of it these days.
“I still have that sweatshirt,” Forbes said. “It’s right above my bed. And every night I look at it, and I say, ‘Hey, Gramps,’ and I ask him to look over me.”
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