Training used to always come easy for Anna Hostetler. It was soothing, this feeling she would always seem to get from running.
She could find a nice pair of shorts, lace up her shoes and head out the door. Stride after stride, she would pound the asphalt in Wellman, a small community in Iowa, passing familiar sights like the local church, the local farm or the local grocery store, all the while cranking out 6-minute mile splits.
Almost always, her younger sister Marie would be there, too, running side-by-side. They’d talk about life, school, hobbies, God.
Being teenagers, they also ran for Mid-Prairie High School, Anna becoming one of the best in the state and winning championship after championship, first in cross country and then three more in track as a junior.
Marie was never far behind, though. Inevitably, there she would be, finishing second to Anna at state in cross country as a freshman, then second in nearly every other race in track, too. At one point, Marie finished 10 straight outings in second to Anna last fall.
So the potential for more success only became greater this cross country season, until things hit a standstill just weeks before the start of Anna’s senior season.
It happened in early September. Oddly, though, it was nothing she could see. It wasn’t an injury, a pop, or a pain. She just couldn’t finish races. Couldn’t muster those impressive kicks.
“It kind of showed up at the second meet of the year,” said Mark, the daughter’s father and coach at Mid-Prairie. “We weren’t sure what it was.”
What followed were multiple hospital visits, a trip to the Mayo Clinic, scans and hundreds of questions before the family finally figured out what was plaguing Anna.
The 18-year-old, who still holds hopes of qualifying for Foot Locker Nationals in November, had been diagnosed with Hashimoto Thyroiditis, an autoimmune disorder that led to chronic inflammation of the thyroid and produced droughts of fatigue, ultimately leading to declines in running.
“She would have more energy for a short race, but less energy for a longer race,” Mark said. “
Doctors told the family the diagnosis could eventually balance out, lowering hormone levels and allowing Anna the chance to run better than ever in college. But no one quite has an answer on when that may happen. Or if it will.
“It might take six months, it might take a year,” Mark said. “Some people are able to run well again, and some aren’t.”
And for most athletes, that fear would be enough to shut down a season.
But Anna didn’t. She continued.
“It’s definitely made me tired and my times have shown that,” Anna said. “It’s been rough. But I’ve realized some good things can come of it. Running isn’t who I am, it’s what I do. Sports aren’t everything. My identity is in Jesus Christ.”
At her peak a season ago, Anna had posted a PB of 17:42.02 in the 5K at the River Valley Conference Championships, which was part of four efforts under 18 minutes in 2016, not to mention bests of 4:33.41 and 9:47.52 in the 1500m and 3000m over the outdoor season.
She claimed a memorable title in April at the Drake Relays -- a rite of passage for track athletes in Iowa -- in the 3000m, too, and it’s a moment she’ll lever lose.
But she hasn’t been able to touch those times this fall, hitting her best in September at the meet where it all fell apart — 18:00 minutes at the Pella Dutch Invitational.
It was there where fatigue hit for the first time, pulling back her legs, her lungs and her fearlessness.
“It’s hard for Anna,” Mark said. “It used to be easier for her to run. It was easier for her to run 18 minutes than it is to run 19 now. But mentally, too. And especially, this being her senior year and being offered full rides to big schools around here like Iowa State and Missouri.”
The uncertain future does spell a weird mix of unknown for a runner who believes she’s going to run at the Division I level next year. Will she be the same? And will she have the same impact as coaches first believed?
There’s no answer.
“There have been a number of times I’ve finished and I’ve cried,” she said, “just knowing where I was in the beginning. It’s not easy and I’m not perfect, but my parents continually remind me what’s important and how to work on getting better.”
Oddly enough, it’s opened the door for Marie, who’s helped take the lead out front.
She finished first at the Pella Dutch Invitational in 17:59.00, then followed with five straight first-place outings over the next two months. Anna followed in second in every meet.
Still, winning isn’t the same without her big sis.
“It seems to me like Marie feels bad for Anna, and she feels bad that she wins,” Mark said. “She knows Anna isn’t running her best and she can’t enjoy how well she’s doing as much as she should.”
Just a sophomore, Marie has a bright future ahead of her, too, possibly state championships just like her sister.
But right now, she’s looking out for her sibling. Pulling back, in some ways, is how she’ll help her sister get back to 100-percent.
“It’s definitely hard running out front,” Marie said. “Anna is really good about it. But I guess the thing is we’re just trying to stay together. She’s pushed me for so long and now we’re trying to get past the wall of letting go.”
Which is why the connection between the sisters has been as important as ever. It’s not who finishes first or second, they say, but how they get there that matters.
Anna won’t give up, either.
Her deep vows to faith continue to drive her through this period of uncertainty. She prays daily. And she follows the word of God with a passion.
To be fair, it motivated her through all of her successes, too. In interviews and in talking with reporters after her races, Anna relays her dedication to faith first, racing second.
God, she says, has always been near the top of her life.
“I can learn things through this and become a better person,” she said. “I know this can change you, but it can change you in a bad way or a good way. I’m trying to stay strong, strong and positive.”
She tries to remember a verse from Colossians 3:23 before every meet, “Whatever you do, work at it with all your might.”
And now Mark sees his daughter as more of a leader than ever. She’s vocal with her teammates, encouraging them at practices even when she’s having trouble. She leads warms-up, cool downs, mid-level and long runs. She vocalizes how this team can do what no other team has done before at Mid-Prairie.
The Golden Hawks can still win a state title in Class 2A, even as Anna continues to battle through the condition.
“The other girls have rallied around Anna and supported her, including Marie,” Mark said. “So that’s pretty special to see.”
Maybe a glimpse of promise is already starting to peak through the clouds.
Anna finished first in 18:42.30 at the District 2A meet at Pella, Iowa, on Oct. 19, Marie following in second and the team scoring a winning mark of 25 points. It’s the penultimate meet before states.
Next up are the state championships on Oct. 28 at Fort Dodge at Lakeside Golf Course.
“The way I’ve seen it is that winning is pretty short lived,” Mark said. “I think Anna is realizing as she looks back, she enjoys the memories of doing well, but it’s also about being a Christian and it’s how you reach out to others and how you help them at the same time. I think this has really helped her get stronger.”
“I just want to finish as hard as I can, run as hard as I can and have our team place as high as we can,” Anna said. “That’s the goal.”
It may not come as easy as it’s been in the past, but however it shakes out, support isn’t far behind.