Croatan twins Elliott and Cooper Kleckner bounce back after iron deficiency diagnoses
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"It's very important to get tested and know your levels. You do not want to crash and burn and get low in iron because it is not a fun thing to deal with."
-- Elliott Kleckner
By Ashley Tysiac - NC Runners
"That was a good race for me," Elliott said. "It was a good bounce back."
Elliott has consistently performed as one of the best distance runners in his class over his high school career, finishing third at the NCHSAA 2A state cross country meet in 2019 and second for 3,200 meters at the 1A/2A indoor track state championships.
Yet just three weeks prior to his race in Kernersville, Elliott didn't feel nearly as confident in his running performances as he has in the past.
He barely finished at the Hare and Hounds Invitational in Charlotte in late September and even dropped out of another race. When he found out low irons were to blame for his competition hiccups, the news came to him as a surprise.
"I thought I was fine," Elliott said. "I thought I was just running bad."
Not only did Elliott hit a wall, but so did his twin brother, Cooper, also a junior at Croatan.
Come to find out, he too was suffering from anemia, something that also had been silently affecting him for quite some time.
Now with a formulated supplementation and nutrition plan to aid in their iron intakes, Elliott and Cooper hope to continually improve on the strides he has made over the past month.
Though Elliott never suspected he had low iron levels, he knew something didn't seem right when he finished almost a minute off of his 5,000-meter personal record of 15:35 at the Hare and Hounds Invitational.
"I hit a brick wall," Elliott said. "I just fell back and I finished near last in my heat."
FINDING A SOLUTION
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After an instinctive visit to a doctor that same day to get some blood work complete, Elliott discovered he had shockingly low iron and ferritin levels, recorded at 29 and 12 nanograms per milliliter (npm).
Iron deficiency and anemia presents many challenges, especially for runners. Iron helps red blood cells carry oxygen to muscles and metabolizes fueling carbohydrates, yet runners can lose this crucial iron through footstriking, sweating, and the simple mechanics of exercising.
The condition also presents itself less frequently in male runners. According to a study published in Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, 50-percent of female endurance runners suffer from iron deficiency, compared to 17-percent of male endurance runners.
For those who haven't experienced symptoms of iron deficiency, Cooper explained that it's a weird combination of symptoms, including feeling physically exhausted and unable to withstand the demands of grueling races.
"You'll be prepared and go into a race and then you'll just feel like absolute crap," Cooper said. "It's kind of a weird feeling you don't expect when you're mentally prepared and everything is prepared, and then it just goes wrong."
Doctors said Elliott probably had been suffering from this issue for a long time, without even knowing it.
"My hematologist described that I've probably been running on the edge of the cliff for a long time because my body was used to having low iron levels," Elliott said. "But then I probably just fell off of that cliff recently, and that's when I discovered I have low iron."
His mother, Bobbi Kleckner, couldn't believe her son had been struggling with this issue for so long.
"I didn't know anything about iron deficiency anemia," Bobbi said.
With new knowledge after the diagnosis, Elliott, aided by the help of his family, took action. He originally planned on receiving an iron infusion to yield an immediate improvement in his iron levels, but decided to instead take the supplementation route. Three iron pills a day began to help do the trick.
"It was starting to get a little better each day, but it took a couple of weeks to start feeling good again and I started feeling significantly better," Elliott said.
Shortly after Elliott began his supplementation plan, Cooper began to experience symptoms similar to his brother. A week after posting a 5,000-meter time of 16:35.70 -- just a few seconds off of his personal best -- at the Hares and Hounds meet, Cooper dropped out of a cross country race and felt exhausted.
Sure enough, after the Kleckners made another trip to the doctor -- his time for Cooper -- tests showed signs of anemia, with a ferritin level of 20 npm.
"I was a little surprised," Cooper said.
Just like Elliott, doctors presumed Cooper had been dealing with iron level complications for a while. Ever since his freshman year indoor track season, Cooper said he has described himself as a one-and-done racer, able to successfully race one event but then produce a lackluster performance in following races later in the meet. That physical exhaustion most likely occurred due to lower iron levels.
"I think it's always been an underlying issue," Cooper said.
Cooper joined his brother on a supplementation plan just a couple of weeks after Elliott began. The two also started to fill their diets with foods high in iron, such as red meat and certain beans. Bobbi said previously, Elliott and Cooper hadn't been as aware of the importance of consuming iron-rich foods, but now they try to consume such meals.
"[An iron-rich diet] is the best way to get iron in you," Bobbi said.
Elliott said they saw a huge difference in their physical shapes once they started increasing their iron intakes, everything from his sleeping patterns to endurance.
"After taking iron every day, I definitely feel a lot more awake and alert," Elliott said. "I feel a lot better running now than I did then."
Cooper, too, also noticed similar drastic improvements soon after his iron levels increased.
"I feel a lot stronger in my legs," Cooper said. "I sleep a lot better and just running overall has been improved."
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Now a month after the twins discovered their iron deficiencies, they said they feel like even stronger runners than before.
When Elliott crossed the finish line in 16:01 at the NCRunners Elite XC Invitational on October 10 -- his first completed race since his anemia diagnosis -- he couldn't help but feel elated.
Finally, Elliott said running felt more normal again.
"I definitely felt a lot more happy and relieved that I was getting back to normal," Elliott said.
It has also helped that the brothers have had each other to give support and encouragement along the difficult road to treating the issue.
"We both know that after taking iron supplements, we'll continue to get to where we need to be," Cooper said. "Knowing that the times we're putting down will only get faster."
And both feel much more confident in the lofty goals they have set for themselves going into the high school cross country season in the winter and outdoor track in the spring. Elliott hopes to win the NCHSAA 2A cross country state championship, as well as the 3,200-meters at the 2A outdoor track state championships in May. Cooper plans to run close to 16:00 for the 5,000-meters in cross country and drop below 9:40 for the 3,200-meters and 4:25 in the 1,600-meters during track.
As of the beginning of the high school cross country season, the twins have already shown their improvements. Elliott holds a 5,000-meter personal best of 15:17.94 ran at the RunningLane National Cross Country Championships in late November and is fresh off a NCHSAA 2A East Regional victory, and Cooper set a new personal record of 16:17.00 at the WERC Invitational in early November.
"I feel a lot more confident that I can reach these goals than I did right after the Hare and Hounds race before I got tested and got my iron back," Elliott.
Now with an awareness of iron deficiency, Elliott and Cooper preach the importance of regularly getting iron levels checked, especially for runners like themselves.
"It's very important to get tested and know your levels," Elliott said. "You do not want to crash and burn and get low in iron because it is not a fun thing to deal with."