Columbia med student proves historic force in triathlon event

To put it in thoroughbred racing terms, Cecilia Davis-Hayes’ win in last month’s Olympic-distance collegiate club triathlon national championship was akin to Secretariat’s historic romp at the 1973 Belmont Stakes.

One year after finishing sixth in the women’s division, Davis-Hayes ran away from the field at the 2017 competition, held in Tuscaloosa, Ala., and finished a full seven minutes — but really, nine minutes — ahead of the second-place finisher, completing the course in a time of 2:11:19.83 that was inflated by a two-minute penalty incurred before the race even began.

But what makes Davis-Hayes’ monumental finish so noteworthy isn’t just her historic margin of victory, the largest since USA Triathlon took ownership of the event in 2003 — though that, alone, is certainly worthy of recognition.

It’s that the 28-year-old has risen to the top of the ranks at an astounding pace after participating in her first triathlon in May 2015. And she’s done so as a Columbia medical school student, juggling a rigorous Ivy League course load and an intensive concussion research project while dedicating the time and effort required to become the country’s top amateur triathlete.

“It’s a priorities and time-management thing,” Davis-Hayes told FOX Sports in a phone interview this week. “I did multitasking stuff like riding my bike while I was working on my laptop, studying at the same time when I was (riding) indoors. Or when I was swimming I would repeat stuff in my head that I was trying to learn.

“Sometimes maybe I could have spent more hours studying for tests, but I decided that I would go do my workouts instead,” Davis-Hayes continued. “And I’m sure I would have done better on my big boards exam if I hadn’t spent a few hours a day training, but it’s a balance.”

The daughter of a former Division I athlete, Davis-Hayes began running in third grade and has barely stopped since. After focusing on distance races at Philadelphia’s Germantown Friends School, Davis-Hayes ran cross-country during her undergraduate studies at Williams College in Massachusetts, then took up cycling when she moved to Europe following her graduation in 2011.

Upon her return to the U.S. in 2013, Davis-Hayes started med school at Columbia and also earned her Category 1 cycling license, but a summer 2014 crash in which Davis-Hayes broke her pelvis nearly led her to walk away from competition altogether.

“Cycling, as a sport, is way more dangerous than triathlon because you’re riding in a pack,” Davis-Hayes explained. “So I kind of decided to hang up the bike as far as bike racing (after the accident), and thought I might just hang up all racing altogether. But then I kind of realized that I wouldn’t be able to do that.

“I really still wanted to be competitive,” she continued, “and I’d just been getting better and better at cycling over the past year, so I said, ‘Well, what else can I do?’”

Soon after, Davis-Hayes landed on triathlon. In early 2015 she began training and was stunned by how quickly she progressed.

“I was surprised when I started running again that I was way faster than I’d been before,” Davis-Hayes said. “And I was also surprised, even though I wasn’t a great swimmer, how swimming sort of came natural to me. A few people commented that I just had naturally good swimming form. So that was a really pleasant surprise.”

Over the two years since, Davis-Hayes’ star has rapidly risen, and in 2016 she won the Philadelphia and New York City triathlons by margins of 5:29 and 8:19, respectively. That made her the favorite going into collegiate nationals on April 22, but after the pre-race penalty — for riding her bike in the staging area to test a repair — even a convincing win would no longer be enough.

“It was a silly mistake, but I’m not sure I would have done anything differently,” Davis-Hayes said, noting that she wasn’t allowed to leave the staging area to test the repair. “I knew I was a lot stronger this year due to my training, so I kind of went in thinking it was still a possibility to win by over two minutes. But I was certainly pretty distraught about it and was upset at myself and the situation.”

Any despair was washed away, however, by a strong, 22:59 showing in the 1.5-kilometer swim, which left Davis-Hayes in the lead pack. She then caught the eventual second-place finisher, UCLA’s Hannah Grubbs, during the 40-kilometer bike ride, and the remainder of the competition was little more than a race against herself.

“It’s a strange feeling to be up there all alone,” Davis-Hayes said. “It’s kind of quiet, and when you enter the transition zone and it’s totally deserted, it’s eerie. Then I go out on the run and there’s nobody around, nobody to be seen, and it’s harder to push yourself when you don’t have folks right around you to race against, so to speak. You’re kind of in your own head.”

Ultimately, Davis-Hayes finished the course with plenty of time to spare, and she acknowledges that her age and experience likely gave her an edge against the younger competitors on the amateur circuit.

 

“I think the endurance required to race over a two-hour event is something where you have to have a lot of miles in your legs and beats in your heart to really accumulate enough endurance to go hard for over two hours,” Davis-Hayes said.

With that in mind, Davis-Hayes says she doesn’t expect the same level of success as she advances to the professional level — at least not right out of the blocks.

“It’s not like the best amateurs can go in and just straight away compete with the pros,” Davis-Hayes said. “There’s kind of this gap in between, and I kind of feel like I’m bridging that gap.

“I got my professional license this year so in some upcoming races, I’ll be competing against the best women in the world, and probably getting my butt kicked,” continued Davis-Hayes, whose next race will be this weekend at the North American Ironman 70.3 Championships in Utah. “I’m hoping to be top-10 or top-five in some races, but I’m certainly not going to be the favorite to win.”

That doesn’t mean Davis-Hayes won’t soon top those ranks too — it may even be a likelihood, given her recent history — but in either case, her academic pursuits have her poised for success in the medical field, as well.

In March 2016, Davis-Hayes began a research project with Columbia neurologist Dr. James Noble, exploring the epidemiology of concussions and chronic traumatic encephalopathy. In addition to allowing her to focus more intently on triathlon training, the experience has also opened Davis-Hayes’ eyes to a corner of medicine with plenty left to be discovered.

“The number of angles that people are coming at concussions from is really fascinating,” Davis-Hayes said. “On one end you have people looking for blood biomarker proteins that might show up in the blood after a concussion. Then you also have the people on the clinical side who are coming up with an app that a concussed player could hold in their hand while balancing on one foot and it could tell them if they were concussed. My boss is working on an EEG-mounted helmet to do real-time diagnosis of a concussion.

“There’s people coming from every direction possible to try to tackle this mysterious condition,” she continued. “And as we learn more about it, we learn how we can help prevent it and treat it.”

And as satisfying as any one triathlon win might be, a potential breakthrough in the quest to limit concussions and CTE may someday be her most important victory of all.

“We know so little about this condition,” Davis-Hayes said. “We almost don’t even know how to define it. So it’s a pretty exciting field to be involved because there’s really only movement upwards.”

You can follow Sam Gardner on Twitter or email him at samgardnerfox@gmail.com.