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East Ridge senior Bailey Ness has won two races and placed second in another to help lead the Raptors girls cross country team to three straight first place finishes to open the 2013 season. (Submitted photo)

Back in front: Iron deficiency discovery aids Bailey Ness' reemergence

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A dietary discovery has made a world of difference for East Ridge senior Bailey Ness. 

This offseason, Ness — who has qualified for four straight state cross country meets — learned she had low iron levels. After taking somewhat of a step back as a junior, the fortunate medical finding has re-established her as one of the best runners in the state of Minnesota.

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“She is without a doubt running better than she ever has,” said Lloyd Ness, Bailey’s father and the co-head coach of the East Ridge boys and girls cross country teams. “We didn’t realize her iron level was very, very low. She’s been on an iron supplement and you can see the difference it’s making.”

The East Ridge girls team has won all three of its meets this season and has shot up to second in the Class AA state rankings, one spot back of top-ranked Wayzata. Individually, Ness has earned first place in two of the meets and was second in one. She entered last week ranked fifth in the state — the highest ranking she’s ever garnered.

“I’m very excited about the start of the season,” Bailey Ness said. “It’s been really fun to win the first two and have the team win the first three. It’s not bad at all.”

After bursting onto the scene as an eighth-grader in 2009, taking 37th in her first-ever state meet, Ness earned all-state honors as a freshman, placing 13th at the 2010 state cross country meet. The following two seasons saw a bit of decline for Ness, however. As a sophomore, she placed 20th in the state meet (about 10 seconds slower than her time as a freshman). She was 33rd in the state as a junior. Last fall, too, Ness — the Raptors frontrunner the previous three years — was beaten by a teammate in a race for the first time ever.

East Ridge co-head coach Chad Cronin has worked with Ness for the past five years — since East Ridge opened its doors in Woodbury.

He said Ness is a team-first student athlete who has been a good mentor.

“She was happy to go to state as an eighth grader, but she was 10 times more excited to bring the team with the next year,” Cronin said. “She’s a team player. She really encourages her teammates and leads by example. It’s really been a pleasure to coach her for five years, to get to know her and see her accomplish these things on and off the race course.”

However, Ness said she felt like she wasn’t fulfilling her potential and it bothered her.

“I’ve always started out pretty well, but would seem to get worse and worse slowly throughout the season,” Ness, 17, said. “I was confused because you’re supposed to get better as the season goes on.”

Lloyd Ness said as a dad and coach, Bailey’s struggles hit him hard.

“You really, really experience the highs and lows,” Lloyd Ness said. “Last year she started out ranked 12th and finished 33rd at the state meet. At that point in time I’m trying to figure out what I did as a coach to screw that up. With the iron issue coming up it made us feel a lot better, because we had a reason that made some sense.”

‘Pounding the iron out of her body’

According to an article in Runner’s World, iron is used for production of hemoglobin in your red blood cells, myoglobin in your muscle fibers, and enzymes for aerobic energy production. Runners tend to lose more iron than non-runners due to foot strike hemolysis (breakdown of red blood cells when your foot strikes the ground) and iron loss through sweat and the gastrointestinal system.

Running is affected by iron levels, because a person’s red blood cells contain hemoglobin. Oxygen attaches to hemoglobin in the lungs and is carried to muscles and other tissues where it is used to produce energy aerobically. If a runner has low iron levels, they’ll produce fewer red blood cells, and their hemoglobin level decreases. Therefore, less oxygen is transported to the muscles and their running performance deteriorates.

“As the season was going on Bailey was basically pounding the iron out of her and losing the ability to run really good times at the end of the year,” Lloyd Ness said.

Last spring, after the high school track and field season was finished, Ness had her iron level tested. Her dad said a ferritin (the protein in the body that stores iron) level of roughly 50 or 60 is ideal and anything under 30 is deemed deficient. At the time of her test, Ness’s ferritin level was 17. However, after taking a slow-release iron pill throughout the summer, she’s now up to a 46.

“Low iron is pretty common with runners,” Bailey Ness said. “My iron level was very low at the end of the track season. I don’t eat much meat, but I started taking iron pills and eating more meat and other foods with iron and it’s helped so much. I feel like I have more energy.”

Lloyd Ness said he credits Bailey’s increased iron levels with her improved performance.

“It was hard for us to detect this, because for the most part she was still one of the best runners in the state,” he said. “But, for her to take this new level that we all can see, she just needed to have that ferritin level at a normal mark.”

Lloyd Ness said at last year’s section track meet, Bailey led a race with five laps remaining, but that “three girls just literally ran away from her.”

“She still had a pretty good time, but it just didn’t make any sense that those girls should be able to run away from her,” he said. “She just couldn’t make it happen.”

Ness on Big Ten radar again

To start the season this fall, the Raptors held a two-mile time trial on the East Ridge High School track. Lloyd Ness said Bailey ran a personal two-mile record while wearing running shoes and in hot, humid conditions with 100 other runners on the track.

“Right there we realized how important it was for Bailey to have some type of iron level that was normal,” he said.

Distance running for girls is unique because, on numerous occasions, as girls get older they get bigger and their times can actually worsen, because of that development. Some assumed this was the case with Ness, but it seems like there was something else slowing her down.

“I’m very happy we figured it out,” Bailey Ness said. “Some girls just get worse as they get older. But, for me, it didn’t seem right. It feels really good to figure it out.”

To kick off 2013, the East Ridge girls took first place out of 26 teams at the season-opening St. Olaf High School Showcase at St. Olaf College in Northfield — the site of the state meet. Ness won the race with a time of 14 minutes, 52.4 seconds — roughly two seconds faster than her All-State time at the state meet as a freshman.

Cronin says he likes to tab Bailey Ness as “a mature runner.”

“She has great race and pace awareness,” Cronin said. “She doesn’t get flustered off her pace. She knows the plan and where she needs to be and won’t get taken off her plan. It works out. She reels them in at the right time.”

Ness’s re-emergence has her back on the radar of Division I cross country programs, including some Big Ten schools like Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“Last year she didn’t really have the times to run in the Big Ten, but now her times are really suggesting that she can,” Lloyd Ness said. “It’ll be interesting to see how she responds to another month of training.”

The East Ridge girls cross country team has qualified for the state meet the past three straight seasons. The Raptors have been the Suburban East Conference champion the last three years, the Section 4AA champion in 2010 and 2012 and the Section 4AA runner-up in 2011. East Ridge finished fifth in the state last year, sixth in the state in 2012 and in eighth place in 2011.

Bailey Ness said her goal is for the Raptors team to “reach the podium” at the state meet, which would take a top-three finish, but would garner a team trophy and individual medals.

“I’m just so excited to see how this season goes for the girls and our entire team,” Bailey Ness said. “I love this team. It’s sad thinking about next year, but I still have this season left and I’m going to make the best of it.”

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Patrick Johnson
Patrick Johnson has been the South Washington County Bulletin’s sports editor since 2008. He reports on and oversees coverage of high school and amateur sports in south Washington County and Woodbury. Prior to joining the Bulletin, Johnson worked for other Twin Cities suburban newspapers. He is a University of Minnesota graduate.
(651) 319-4505
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