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Marshall High track athlete trying to overcome anxiety attacks while running

April 19, 2008
By Andy Rennecke
Breathing is something you don’t think about.

It’s like a reflex — it’s just what your body does.

When a person runs, their breathing patterns are important. If you breathe too much, you’ll probably slow down. If you breathe too little, you’ll probably faint from a lack of oxygen.

Marshall High senior distance runner Brooke Wyffels has encountered these types of problems.

Wyffels, who has fainted or fallen down at the conclusion of several cross country and track races over the past year, said she has anxiety attacks while she’s running. The problem could be related to her asthma, or from the sheer fact that stress has taken too much of a toll on her.

“I get anxiety attacks and it just makes me short of breath basically,” Wyffels said Friday prior to track practice at the Marshall Middle School. “It started happening last year in cross country. I don’t know exactly how they started. I put too much pressure on myself and I think that’s it. Right now, I’m working on a new racing strategy with the coaches.”

Those coaches are MHS girls head coach Sarah Svenningsen and MHS boys head coach Mike Jacobs. Jacobs coaches the distance runners and is also the MHS cross country head coach. He’s coached Wyffels since she was in eighth grade.

Jacobs said he’s never seen an athlete he’s coached deal with the stress and breathing problems Wyffels has encountered.

“I believe it’s stress,” he said. “It’s like a panic attack. She gets herself worked up so much. She can’t really relax. I’ve talked to Brooke about it. The way she describes it, her throat closes up. It’s continued to get worse over time. It happened once, and then it kept happening.”

At the state cross country meet this year, which Wyffels had qualified for five years in a row, she had to be brought to the medical tent and was treated there for more than half an hour after the race.

Wyffels also collapsed after racing the 3,200-meter race (two-mile) at a meet Tuesday in Marshall.

“She’s been in a medical tent more times than you want to think about,” Jacobs said. “It’s gotten habitual. It’s extremely scary. I don’t think she’s going to make it sometimes. She can’t catch her breath. She can’t control it and it’s extremely frustrating for her.”

Jacobs said Wyffels continues to race the 3,200 because she wants to.

“We’re not forcing her to do it,” he said. “She’s made the choice. I sometimes wonder why. If she ran the mile, it would be a lot shorter for her.”

Wyffels has gone to a breathing specialist in Sioux Falls, S.D., to figure out different ways to help her breathe better and calm down. So far, those haven’t helped much.

“I want to win and improve every time,” Wyffels said. “I just get worried that I can’t breathe. It’s never happened at practice before. It’s really scary. Usually my parents and coaches are there to help calm me down.”

Wyffels is finishing out her senior year at Marshall despite not having her parents around. They moved to Litchfield this past year. Wyffels is living with her grandmother and wanted to stay in Marshall to finish out high school.

Dealing with stress is one thing, but not having your parents around could be hard on any kid. Svenningsen said Wyffels hasn’t seemed fazed not having her parents close.

“She handles it really well,” Svenningsen said. “She always shows up to practice and is just happy. She has some close friends here in town and I think that helps. I think it would’ve been harder on her had she gone somewhere else to run. It’s harder to try and connect with new people sometimes.”

Wyffels said she talks with her parents every day. At the end of the 3,200-meter race Thursday in Willmar, her parents were there to help calm her down after.

“They try and make it to all the track meets I’m in,” Wyffels said. “It’s different. But, I talk to them every day. It’s not like they’re not around. I just wanted to stay in Marshall because I’m comfortable here.”

Wyffels admits she’s worn down from running so much over the past five years. She has a scholarship offer for cross country and track from South Dakota State, and St. Ben’s in St. Joseph is also interested, but Wyffels is contemplating on giving up running.

“I’m getting run down,” Wyffels said. “It’s getting to be a lot.”

To help break things up this year, Wyffels is running in the 4x800-meter relay for the Tigers along with the 3,200. Svenningsen said Wyffels’ versatility has helped her ease into the relay well.

“She’s very valuable to us,” Svenningsen said. “She’s consistent in all of her performances. Whatever she’s competing in, she’ll run hard for you. That’s what track is all about.”

Wyffels said this year’s state cross country experience still lingers with her. She finished in 65th place. She’s hoping to make up for that by making it back to state in the 3,200. She took eighth place in the event last year.

“State cross country was not a good experience,” Wyffels said. “After the first mile, everything went downhill. I was disappointed. My goal is to make it back to state for track and to do better. I’m trying to work as hard as I can.”

All she has to do is breathe.

Article Photos

Photo by David Griswold
Marshall High distance runner Brooke Wyffels runs during a triangular earlier this week in Marshall. Wyffels, a senior for the Tigers, has battled breathing problems related to anxiety issues while running. On several occasions, she has had to be treated medically following a long race.



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