The Remarkable Athletic Transformation of Ceci Davis-Hayes ’11

Ceci Davis-Hayes '11 winning the 2015 Brooklyn Duathlon
Ceci Davis-Hayes '11 winning the 2015 Brooklyn Duathlon

EDITOR's NOTE: Ceci Davis-Hayes competed for the Ephs in cross-country and track and field when healthy. A Biology major, Davis-Hayes graduated Phi Beta Kappa, earned Academic All-NESCAC honors five times, wrote for Eph Sports Information, was a member of the Discipline Committee, and the Cycling Club.

NEW YORK, N.Y. – In high school Philadelphian Ceci Davis Hayes '11 played soccer, ran in an occasional cross-country race, and ran long distance events in track & field. Running was her passion.

Arriving on the Williams College campus in the autumn of 2007, Davis-Hayes had big plans for her future as an Eph runner. Of course, academic success was her first priority, but she had always been able to juggle sports and extra-curricular activities without sacrificing her GPA, so she hoped college would be no different.

"Running had always come easily to me, from the first 5k that my dad took my sister and me to when we were in grade school," noted Davis-Hayes. "By high school, I'd run a 5:09 mile and knew I could go faster. I figured that by devoting myself full time to distance running—both cross-country in the fall and track & field in the winter and spring— I would be setting PRs left and right, and have no problem making the varsity team. The more, the better, right? To some extent distance running is about miles under the belt, but I was soon to learn that the recipe for success is much more nuanced than that."

After training all summer, Davis-Hayes participated in the WOOLF trip her first days at Williams, which took her group into the Berkshire Hills for some bonding in the wilderness. She signed up for the "advanced" WOOLF trip, which covered up to 12 miles per day with big packs to tote. Some days she even tacked on an extra run, since it was pre-season for cross-country after all. "I was high on life throughout orientation: I loved the campus, and it felt like home instantly—my fellow Ephs were the nerdy jocks, carpe diem, kindred spirits who had been hard to come by in high school," Davis-Hayes stated. "There was only one thing cramping my style—I wasn't feeling great at cross-country practice. I remember a run the day before classes started up to Hopkins Forest. It was supposed to be a moderate-effort endurance run, but keeping up with the girls felt like a lactic threshold workout to me."

In the season-opening event where some runners wear costumes, the annual Co-Ed Relays with Middlebury College Davis-Hayes felt sluggish and heavy. She chalked up the poor performance to the blue dye that was painted on every square inch of her body—her team was the Blue Man Group.

By the next weekend when the Ephs competed at McGill University in Montreal in an invitational meet Davis-Hayes was forced to do something she never imagined doing in a race. "After the gun sounded, I ran with a group of Williams runners for the first mile, and then I tanked, falling to the back of the race, barely able to keep my legs turning over," she recalled. "By mile 2, I felt so weak that I faced two options: walk or drop out. I chose the later, as I was too embarrassed to walk. I was distraught."

Unfortunately this sluggish state stuck with her throughout the next two races and she found herself running times that were 3-4 minutes slower than her 5k times in high school.

She was convinced that something was wrong and at the recommendation of Eph head cross country coach Pete Farwell, she visited the student health center, where a blood draw revealed she was suffering from anemia. "I had never even heard of anemia, so this was a shock, but at least I had an answer and a plan—take iron pills and eat more red meat," she said.

With her iron levels back to normal Davis-Hayes ran a few decent races indoors and then started off well outdoors until the Little Three Meet.

Competing in the steeplechase with its barriers and a water pit to clear each lap Davis-Hayes was injured going over the last barrier at the water pit. Her technique into the hurdle was textbook, but she landed awkwardly and broke the calcaneus bone in her right foot.

Unfortunately the athletic saga of her freshman year was just a preview for the similarly frustrating course of the next three years.

Injured again in the fall of her sophomore year Davis-Hayes had the good fortune to get involved with the club cycling team at Williams, which was a thrilling new sport for her. "I met Anouk Dey '09 who was an injured skier sidelined as well after multiple ACL tears, but she had found an outlet in cycling and taught me the tricks of the trade and showed me the best loops in the area." In her third cycling race a crash-landed Davis-Hayes in the hospital with a broken collarbone.

Davis-Hayes went back to running her junior and senior years, but various injuries riddled her seasons and she was never able to stay healthy for long. "Ceci ran slow as first year, three to six minutes better as a junior and her senior year she made the team that ran in ECAC Cross-Country Championship and finished in 16th place in 23:17," said Eph head cross country coach Pete Farwell. "She then ran a swift 18:10.37 in a December meet, got injured, ran a 4:40.47 in the 1500 at the beginning of outdoors at UMass Amherst and was injured yet again. She definitely had made a breakthrough after junior and into senior year."

Davis-Hayes enjoyed running with her inspiring and fun-loving teammates and being a part of successful teams, but it was, "the failure to come even remotely close to completing my personal athletic goals that left me with a disappointing, sinking feeling," she said. "My four years at Williams had been the best of my life, but I graduated feeling unsatisfied athletically. I knew I had not reached my potential and I wanted a second shot. My plan was the hang up the running shoes and see what I could do on two wheels instead."

Moving to Lorraine, France for a teaching job in fall of 2011, Davis-Hayes quickly got involved with the local cycling club and borrowed a bike from a friend who owned the bike shop in town. Soon she was logging hundreds of miles per week and felt unstoppable on the bike.

Davis-Hayes even jumped in a few men's races (the sport is not popular for women in France) and "while I got my butt kicked, I had a ball," she reported.

Ceci barreling through the cycling portion of a recent race

Stateside that summer, she joined the Quaker City Wheelmen in her hometown of Philadelphia and raced up the hills of the Northeast every weekend, with much success.

Moving to England that fall for a teaching job at Winchester College, she quickly located the local cycling club to show her the Hampshire countryside. "That spring I stole the Southern England Cycling Championship title from the British racers," Davis-Hayes said.

After posting a few top 10 finishes in the U.K. women's national series, she attracted the attention of an elite women's team, who offered her a spot on their team for the weeklong Tour of Brittany in France. Unfortunately injury struck again.

Leading a mountain biking trip for her students one week before the race in France Davis-Hayes broke her collarbone again, so she couldn't participate. She was, however, back racing later that summer.

One would have thought that Davis-Hayes' competitive athletics career would have ended when she returned to the States to begin medical school in the fall of 2013.

"I started medical school at Columbia University College of Physicians & Surgeons, but I still had a fire in my belly for racing bikes and I wasn't about to let school get in my way," Davis-Hayes noted. "That winter, I decided to enter a half-marathon just for fun, even though I hadn't run more than once per month since college. Unexpectedly, cycling seemed to have been exactly what my body required to run fast, and I surprised myself by winning the race in Central Park and logging a time of 1:24:58. I entered a few more running races that winter (and qualified for guaranteed entry into the NYC marathon) but my sights were set on cycling."

Davis-Hayes' 2014 cycling season was a whirlwind of success— earning her a category 1 license, winning the East Coast Cycling Conference Championship, competing in the prestigious Tour of California, and coming in second in the young rider competition at the Philly Parx Casino Classic.

And there was more. "I was thrilled to qualify for the Collegiate All-Star Team, earning me the chance to race a week-long stage race in Minnesota with the best young riders in the country," she stated.

And wouldn't you know it after all this success, injury struck again when she least expected it. Hint: collarbone. "I was in a breakaway in a Central Park race, when my wheel rubbed against the rider in front of me, and I was thwacked hard to the ground," she said. "I knew immediately I'd broken my collarbone, but that was old news by now, and when I tried to stand, my legs buckled beneath me and I realized I was in severe pain." More than her collarbone was broken.

Being immobilized with five pelvic fractures leaves one with little to do but think. After 24 hours in her hospital bed at St. Luke's Roosevelt, Davis-Hayes had convinced herself that she had a plan: she would stop bike racing and just be a normal medical student, become a great doctor, and be a recreational athlete.

However, that plan was short lived, because Davis-Hayes knew deep down that she wasn't capable of giving up competitive athletics. There had to be some sort of compromise.

By the time she rolled out of St. Luke's, in her wheelchair, she had a new plan: she would be a triathlete! "I would still get to ride my bike, but the racing would be much safer, as it is individual rather than pack riding," Davis-Hayes pointed out. "Triathlon would also allow me to take up running again, a sport that had previously rejected me, but now my body now seemed ready to tackle it."

By October, having rested and completed physical therapy Davis-Hayes was able to swim, bike, and run. After her last crash she approached cycling differently. "I now had a zero tolerance policy for riding after dark, a preference for neon vests and blinking lights, and a reluctance to ride on wet roads. "Control the variables you can control" my dad always tells me."

As a self-coached, busy, medical student her "triathlon training" was less than ideal. She squeezed in workouts when and where she could—running laps under the lights of the George Washington Bridge when it was well after sunset and studying lecture slides while sweating her tail off on the bike trainer.

Her medical rotation at the Indian Health Service in Arizona during the months of February and March served, to an extent, as a warm weather winter training camp. "I continued to train primarily like a cyclist, with a few runs and swims thrown in for good measure," she stated. "For some reason, I was not troubled at all by the fact that I have never had any formal swim training, apart from basic lessons as a kid. I was only swimming twice per week when I toed the line for my first Triathlon in May, and I had never even done a real open water swim. I showed up without a wetsuit and the water was 58 degrees in the Pine Barrens of New Jersey after a stubborn winter transitioned into a very late spring."

On that day even a flat tire could not put a kink in her plans and she pulled off her first win! A week later, Davis-Hayes traveled to Asheville, NC for the Collegiate Cycling National Championships, where she snagged her first Stars and Stripes jersey, with the fastest time over the 20k course.

There's a lot more to competing in a Triathlon than just the running, swimming, and biking. Learning on the job was the theme of the 2015 season for Davis-Hayes. "Triathlon is different from other endurance sports in that it has lots of technical aspects— unzipping your wetsuit while running, slipping your feet into your shoes on a moving bike, and the art of swimming for that matter," Davis-Hayes said.

Incredible as it may seem, Davis-Hayes' cycling and running background were enough to carry her to the top of the podium in all five 2015 Triathlon races she entered. Not to be overlooked were her two Duathlon (running & cycling) wins.

Her transformation from a less than fulfilling collegiate running career to a successful Triathlon career is most remarkable. In her first complete Triathlon season, she won titles as the 25-29 age group national champion (3rd woman overall), Northeast Regional champion, and Northeast Collegiate Conference Regional champion.

"Though my training was scattered and unscientific, my body seemed able to do no wrong," said Davis-Hayes. "I jumped into Tour of the Catskills cycling stage race, winning the time trial stage and taking second in the general classification, only losing to a Canadian National Team rider."

Ceci fuels up after the swimming event

"Ceci has certainly caught fire since leaving Williams with all of her success running, cycling, and in triathlons, which is wonderful to see," Farwell said. "It's hard to imagine how she handles med school and all of the training needed to maintain and improve in three different events. The cross training with cycling, running, and swimming and managing the volume of work needed in each of those events along with her med school obligations is really impressive. Still it is tricky to manage to get enough training in without over doing it."

Davis-Hayes' running has also improved dramatically. At the end of the season, she switched gears and focused on running for 10 weeks before the New York City Marathon, and with only three runs per week, broke the 3-hour mark, and made the Top 10 Williams alumnae list. "I worked hard, but the effort was no different than my struggles freshman year at Williams, where nothing was going my way; it just took some time for my body to be ready to do what my mind always knew it could."

"Most distance runners are thought to reach their peak in their late 20s, around 28-29 so Ceci is right on target there so, there may be more great performances for her in the near future," Farwell said. "Ceci had more than her share of injuries and illnesses while she was here, but I'm very excited to see how well she is doing now."

At the end of this term at Columbia Medical School Davis-Hayes will be engaging in a research year in New York City, which will offer greater flexibility with her medical education schedule and will allow her more opportunities to train.

Davis-Hayes will do her Triathlon training in New York City; cycling at The Palisades, running in Central Park, and swimming in many of the nearby pools.

Her end goal is to cut minutes off her swimming time by getting in a lot of training in the water this winter. Davis-Hayes has her sights set on winning the Amateur World Triathlon Championship in Cozumel, Mexico in September of 2016.

You can follow Ceci's progress towards Cozumel in 2016 by visiting her website.

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