Thalia Charalambous started 2020 as an Under Armour sponsored athlete after she became one of four runners to earn a spot in the UA Elite running squad at the end of last year. Yet just a year before, Thalia had been wondering if she would ever run again. She was undergoing invasive treatment for a condition that initially seemed like regular fatigue, but would ultimately see Thalia having four major surgeries. And the condition is frustratingly easy to misdiagnose.
Toward the end of 2016, Thalia had decided to start taking running — which up until then had been a hobby — more seriously. She hired a coach and for three months things were going well. Then Thalia started experiencing extreme fatigue in her quads (the large muscles at the front of your thighs) and pain in her calves when she tried to run faster or up hills. Sometimes her lower legs would feel numb.
Diagnosing The Condition
Thalia went to get her legs checked out, expecting a simple solution like rest and rehab. Instead, she would spend the next six months visiting one health professional after another before she finally received a diagnosis. “I went to see a sports physician in Johannesburg who diagnosed it,” she recalls. “I had an ultrasound duplex Doppler [a special type of ultrasound that looks at both blood vessels and moving blood] and an angiogram done to confirm diagnosis.” The verdict: iliac artery endofibrosis (EIAE). According to the Aspetar Sports Medicine Journal, doctors still don’t fully understand why some athletes develop EIAE, although they do know what happens in the body. Very simply, it’s a condition where a ligament in the groin (the inguinal ligament) compresses an artery in the area, as you move your leg while running or cycling. Over time, the artery becomes thicker from the repetitive damage so it can’t expand properly to accommodate the increased blood flow your body needs for exercise. This, in turn, restricts blood flow to your legs. Yikes.
The National Center for Biotechnology Information says EIAE is a condition that affects young, healthy people, but it’s most commonly seen in male cyclists. Even then, the condition often gets misdiagnosed because doctors don’t expect young, active people to have problems with their blood vessels. So it’s no surprise that it was misdiagnosed in Thalia’s case.
A Long Road To Recovery
Diagnosing the condition was just the start for Thalia, as the only way to treat EIAE is with surgery. “Over two years I underwent four operations,” she says. “The surgeon at first decided to treat the condition conservatively by performing a minor surgery that involves releasing the inguinal ligament which would give the artery the ability to heal in time. Unfortunately it wasn’t that simple for me as too much damage had been done.” Next, the surgeon tried an angioplasty, in which a small balloon is inserted into a blood vessel and then inflated in order to widen the vessel. It also didn’t work.
“The final, more invasive operation was a procedure called saphenous vein patch graft, using my own veins harvested from my inner thighs to reconstruct the arteries,” explains Thalia. The operation can only be performed on one leg at a time, with eight to twelve weeks between them. Thalia needed operations on both legs, which meant two major surgeries in the space of a few months — and all the downtime for recovery that came with them.
Back In Action
“I was very, very nervous to start this journey of competitive running after the operations but at the same time I felt more motivated than ever to get back on the road and see how far I could go in this sport,” Thalia says. “I felt that God had given me back my legs and not just my old ones but new and improved ones.” Having beaten her EIAE condition and made it through the invasive surgeries, she’s treating her new, improved legs with respect. “I invested most of the year conditioning in the gym and doing controlled speed work. I still have not run further than a half marathon in training or racing as I want to ensure that my body is strong enough to handle the load of marathon training in the future.”
Scars That Tell A Story
Thalia had a unique reason for entering the Under Armour Elite Runners search. Her operations left her with two long scars, extending all the way from her lower abdomen to her thighs. Friends remarked that they looked a little like the Under Armour logo.
“I felt that I could personally relate to the brand as I have my own Under Armour in the form of scars that remind me everyday to be grateful for the gift of running and pushing myself to be the best runner that I can be,” says Thalia. And having won the competition, she’s ready to start challenging herself. “I feel more motivated than ever to continue working hard in this sport now that I have Under Armour as a sponsor,” she says. “I feel that I am on the right track as I can see tremendous improvements in my performance in a short space of time. I know that I want a long career in running as I have just entered into my 30s and would like to run competitively, God willing, for another 10 years. Consistency is key.”