Kelly Bernd knew something wasn’t right. One runner after the next was passing her by on the same 3.1-mile course at Guajome Park where a year earlier she won the Avocado League finals.
“I just kept dropping back, “ Bernd said. “I was like jogging.”
The Canyon Crest Academy standout could hear other runners whispering, “Is that Kelly?”
This was the same Kelly Bernd who’d already qualified for the state championship meets in cross country and track and field every year since she was a freshman. She’d already accepted a track scholarship from UCLA.
“What’s going on,” Bernd thought to herself. “I’m giving it my hardest and I have no idea what the problem is.”
It wasn’t until she visited doctors shortly afterward that Bernd learned that she was suffering from a severe iron deficiency.
The normal serum ferritin range for a female is 15 to 150 nanograms per millilter, and should be higher for a competitive female runner. Her ferritin level was 6 ng/mL.
“Once I figured out the problem it was a relief to know what it was,” Bernd said. “It’s so common in (high school) girls’ running. It’s important that people get blood tests.”
With the help of doctors and nutritionists, Bernd has figured out a solution. She now takes liquid iron supplements daily and has reached healthy ferritin levels. She is readying for her freshman year at UCLA.
Ravens track and cross country coach Andy Corman believes that Bernd may have just scratched the surface of her potential during a distinguished prep career. It wasn’t until her senior year that she became aware of the condition.
“I have no idea of her potential because she could have absolutely amazing times,” Corman said. “She had some of the fastest times in every event on the track. Once you can figure out this iron deficiency and once you can figure out how she can train, her potential’s unlimited.”
Bernd said she is now healthy. She joined her UCLA teammates recently for a training camp in Mammoth.
But she admits there were moments when doubts crept into her mind. She wasn’t sure she’d ever be able to continue running competitively, let alone at the elite collegiate level at UCLA.
“I just didn’t know what was going on but I thought it would work out,” she said.
Bernd credits a supportive team atmosphere at CCA with helping her get through some tough times. Her teammates included her younger sister Claire, an incoming junior who emerged as a standout last season, qualifying for the state meet in track and cross country.
“Honestly, even with all this happening I had this great team to run with every day,” Kelly said.
Kelly served was the team’s captain her junior and senior years.
Claire said her older sister led the team by example.
“I remember doing workouts with her when she had her iron deficiency, we’d be running and I could hear her struggling so hard because it affects her breathing. I would tell her to stop the workout, and coaches would come over and be like ‘Are you OK?’ She would always get back in and do it.”
Kelly competed as a senior despite the iron deficiency, helping the cross country team qualify for the state meet.
“We realistically should have been having the conversation ‘You shouldn’t run, you shouldn’t even get out of bed,’” Corman said.
That Kelly found a way to summon the energy to compete when her teammates depended on her is a big part of her legacy.
“You could easily argue that she’s the best runner to go through CCA, I know that,” Corman said. “Even with this (iron) deficiency.”
But Kelly’s iron deficiency exacted a toll on her during her senior year, when for the first time in her career she didn’t qualify for the state meet in track.
That coincided with Claire qualifying for the state meet for the first time. Kelly had mentored her sister’s running career since she started high school, steering her away from field hockey, which Claire intended to pursue.
“It was absolutely remarkable just to see how proud Kelly was that Claire had qualified and that Claire had made it,” Corman said.
Claire acknowledged that concerns about her sister’s health were difficult for everyone.
After races, runners from other teams congratulate each other on their efforts.
“The first thing they’d say is ‘Great job girls, Kelly great job’ … they’d say how hard it is and how it must be so hard,” Claire said. “It was hard to watch that because she’d be so disappointed every time but she took it so well.
“Every time after a race it would be hard for me to hear people talk to her because they wouldn’t say ‘Good job’ as much, they’d go straight to the ‘iron talk’ and how it must be so hard. I could tell that she just really wanted to have some good races and have people just recognize her for who she really is, and get back to where she was.
“It’s really hard [having that happen during] the last season leading up to college, you want to do your best and just not be able to.”
Kelly’s iron deficiency never stopped her from giving her all.
“We were inspired by her because even with her iron (deficiency) she’d blow us all away anyway,” Claire said.
Kelly brings her pursuit of excellence to the classroom too. She had a 4.2 GPA at CCA and plans to study business and economics at UCLA
“I’m very competitive, I’m a driven person and I want to do the best that I can, always,” Kelly said. “I don’t know where that comes from, it’s just always there. I just like to give 100 percent always and see where it goes.”