When Stephanie Rothstein crossed the Chevron Houston Marathon finish line with a fist-pump and a time of 2:29:35, the eruption of joy wasn't just about how fast she ran, or her third-place finish or the major breakthrough in her career.
"It was five seconds of every emotion I could possibly feel and it justified every chance I took in the past three years," said Rothstein, three months later, as she is curled up on a wingchair in the Flagstaff, Ariz., home she rents.
Her time is currently the sixth fastest among American women competing for three spots on the U.S. team at the Olympic marathon trials next January. Observers may have been surprised by her performance as a relative unknown, but the outcome was just as the 27-year-old Rothstein had predicted -- and only she can fully appreciate what it took to get here.
Rothstein graduated from the University of California Santa Barbara in 2007 with an impressive list of track and cross country records, titles and All-American honors to her name, but she also spent much of collegiate career sidelined with injuries. She always felt like she had more to achieve and her father agreed, continually pushing his daughter to run to her potential, she said.
At the time, her dad was in the midst of a seven-year battle with prostate cancer, and by Rothstein's senior year, his prognosis was bleak. She planned to visit him in New York right before her final track season was to begin. The morning of her trip, she went out on a run.
I've always had a supreme belief that I can make a living at this sport and I will take 110 percent advantage of every opportunity that comes to me. I'm on that short list of contenders to make the team at the Olympic Trials. I have a shot to make my presence known.” -- Stephanie Rothstein
"I had the strangest feeling on that run and I couldn't explain it to anybody," Rothstein said. "I got back and found out he passed away while I was running. From then on running took on a totally different meaning for me -- he was always kind of with me while I was running. Whatever it was, I just started having more belief in myself."
After graduation, Rothstein heeded the instinct she shared with her father that she had more success ahead of her as a runner, if her body could catch up with her mind. She investigated the options for pursuing a professional running career, deciding the best option was to move to Eugene, Ore., where she eventually trained under coach Brad Hudson. After initial success in the half marathon, Rothstein returned to the track for the 2008 Olympic trials in the 10,000 meters, where she placed 12th, leaving her once again questioning what was holding her back.
In her search for answers, Rothstein began training harder -- this time in pursuit of her first marathon. It didn't take long for pains in the hamstrings and glutes to start, nagging injuries that no treatment would completely heal. Although she finished the Twin Cities Marathon in 2:40, her training was limited because her body was inexplicably fragile. Then in 2009, Rothstein suffered a stress fracture in the sacrum, requiring crutches for 15 weeks. She said the injury "came out of nowhere."
Being hurt and unable to exercise at all brought emotional damage. "It blindsided me. It ripped out all my insides and all the hope I had in myself -- I felt like I had no direction in life. I slipped into depression," Rothstein said.
On one of her darkest days that January, she decided taking charge of her health was a "now or never" situation. After getting the green light to finally start cross-training, she realized she didn't know exactly what she was cross-training for -- what was the end-goal? She didn't see the point in training again if she didn't know the root cause of all her health problems.
Rothstein resolved to set aside $5,000 for medical treatment to find solutions to all that plagued her. If she ran out of money and found no cure for her ailments, she'd quit running. Twice a week for the next two months she drove to Portland where she endured excruciating chiropractic treatment, MRIs, ultrasounds and a battery of other tests.
Then she saw a naturopathic doctor who ultimately diagnosed the source of her problems: celiac disease. The genetic autoimmune disorder was the reason her body couldn't recover from training or heal itself. When Rothstein ate food with gluten, her system couldn't absorb nutrients like fat, calcium, iron and folate.
"I owe my life to that doctor," Rothstein said. "In the first month after I found out I had celiac, my iron doubled and my mood completely changed. I was a happy person again. I just kept getting better and better."
The diagnosis opened the door for Rothstein to once again pursue her running dreams. She knew now how to manage her diet so that her body could process what it needed to repair itself. The hard choices weren't over, however.
She decided to start over, geographically. After two difficult years in Eugene, Rothstein believed her best shot at success was finding a fresh start with a new coach in a place where she didn't have the "stigma of being unhealthy."
But a move would bring difficulties, like a creating a long-distance relationship her boyfriend, Ben Bruce, a professional steeplechaser with the Oregon Track Club Elite team. It was a choice she didn't make easily. "Ben obviously supported me -- he thought if a move was going to make me be who I used to be, it was worth it," Rothstein said.
Rothstein had also started Picky Bars, a gluten- and dairy-free homemade energy bar business, with Lauren Fleshman, another pro runner in Eugene who was battling injuries at the time who wanted to create a bar that her husband, a gluten- and dairy-intolerant triathlete, could eat. Rothstein and Fleshman focused on the start-up as a way to find perspective and balance while healing their wounds.
While researching her training options, Rothstein connected with Greg McMillan, coach of Team USA Arizona in Flagstaff, who tried to recruit her three years earlier when she graduated from college.
With Rothstein's family living in nearby Phoenix, a training philosophy she believed in and an eagerness to give high-altitude running a try, she decided to join the Flagstaff team. McMillan agreed to help her create training cycles that included up to eight weeks at a time of altitude training in Flagstaff, followed by four weeks of sea-level training in Eugene, which doubled as quality time with her boyfriend.
Exactly one year to the day after changing her goals, location and training program, Rothstein says she's never looked back. From the time she moved to Flagstaff in April 2010 until the Houston Marathon in January, she had no interruptions in training due to injuries or illness.
After spending the summer adjusting to the altitude, her fall racing season yielded a second place at the U.S. 20K championships, securing a spot on the U.S. team for the World Half Marathon Championships. Rothstein has found a support system not only in McMillan, but the 10 other women on Team USA Arizona. Picky Bars -- now with a Flagstaff "office" -- continues to thrive.
The Houston Marathon was really the culmination of a seamless transition to an entirely new training environment.
"I joke that she's making me look like a genius," McMillan said. "She arrived after she got healthy and she has such a good head on her shoulders -- I think we have a long time to see how good she'll really be."
Rothstein now runs with a perspective that can only be gained by all she's weathered. At the end of the day when exhaustion sets in, Rothstein reminds herself, "I'm tired, but I'm finally training.
"I've always had a supreme belief that I can make a living at this sport and I will take 110 percent advantage of every opportunity that comes to me," she said. "I'm on that short list of contenders to make the team at the Olympic Trials. I have a shot to make my presence known."
A shot that her dad, no doubt, would push her to take.