Ill Fly Away

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This past December, Riley was coming off a hurdle when she felt her hamstring grab -- as if someone had reached into her leg and was turning the muscle around. "Before I got injured, I was really rolling. I kind of felt like I was overtraining. I could smell success, and my hamstring was like, 'You're trippin'."

Before her injury, Riley was squatting 505 pounds, and she points out that "there are guys up at CU who can't do that." Today she can powerclean -- the first move a professional weightlifter uses to pick a bar up off the ground and raise it to his chest -- 185 pounds, but she's hoping to get that up to 200. She can lunge 305 pounds. And though she's tall, she's not bulky.

Riley hasn't run in a meet since June, and she's not scheduled to compete until March. To get her edge back, she must continue training aggressively, which means she risks getting hurt again. At a recent workout in the Lowry gym's weight room, which is not much bigger than a closet, she prepares to do a pliametric exercise called a step-up -- stepping onto a platform to lift the entire body with one foot, then doing the same with the other foot -- with two weight belts cinched across her waist and 585 pounds straddled across her shoulders. She and Wells look like they're in a painful dance as he spots her; when she's inadvertently pulled back by the weight, she almost smashes him into a wall.

And right afterward, she says she's having back pains. She lays down to stretch it out. "It doesn't hurt," she says. "It's just a figment of my imagination."

Riley doesn't spend much time thinking about how risky her training can get. "I'm training on the edge, and it's like, well, if I bite the dust or hurt myself, I knew I gave it my all."

She started running at age nine behind the Skyland rec center. She used to run with her babysitter, Andrea Bush, a former Flyer and once one of the best sprinters in the nation. When she began to beat Bush, Wells invited her to join the club. Riley says she was terrible at first, but she was tall and long-limbed and "thrashed" the girls she ran against.

When she outgrew the dash, Riley switched to the hurdles. To run the hurdles, a runner can't be afraid to eat dirt. At first Riley sailed over them. Then Wells told her to stop trying to pole-vault, so she settled down and began putting as little space between her and the hurdles as possible. "Now if I bite the dust, I bite it," she says.

Just last year, at a practice the week before the Indoor National Championships, Riley caught her toe on one of the hurdles and crashed to the track, putting a twelve-inch gouge down her right leg. Blood was everywhere -- on the track, all over her leg and shoes. While Burkett ran to get some towels, Wells approached Riley and looked her over.

"You ready?" he asked.

She didn't understand what he meant. "To go home?" she asked, dazed.

"To get on the line." In other words, to get back up and finish, since it wasn't exactly a good time to develop any mental hesitation around the hurdles. Dripping blood behind her, her tights sticking to her shins, Riley ran the drill. A week later she placed fifth at nationals.

At another meet, Riley hit a hurdle and finished poorly. Agitated, she came over to the sidelines and began pacing about Wells, her lips white and shaking. Finally she screamed, "Aren't you gonna coach me?"

"What do you want me to say?" Wells replied. "Don't hit the hurdle?"

On Super Bowl weekend, the Flyers take part in a meet at the University of Colorado, their fourth meet of the new year.

Again Burkett and Joyce race against each other. Joyce is tough, unpolished. Before races, Wells says, she'll tell him to get out of her space.

"People will take her as callous," Wells says. "Her people skills aren't where I like them, but she's getting there." Whatever Joyce lacks in exchanging pleasantries, though, she makes up for in fearlessness. She started running when she was eight. She went to Flyers practices to watch her cousins run, and before long, she made a bet with Wells that she could outrun all of the young girls in his program. She beat them at 50 yards, 100 yards, 200 yards.

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T.R. Witcher