POLLY : Plumer Looks Terrific, but Don’t Tell Her That It’s Better to Look Good Than It Is to Feel Good

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Polly Plumer looks good. She sounds great. After missing most of this past track season at UCLA, she’s back doing light workouts at school, running about four miles a day, lifting weights, feeling fine.

Next week, she could feel lousy.

The former University High School star, who set a national prep record of 4:35.24 in the mile during her senior year (1982), could be gasping for breath after 50 yards. She could feel light-headed, dizzy, lethargic. She could suffer painful headaches.

That’s how this past school year has gone for Plumer, who is finishing her sophomore year at UCLA.


One week, she feels fine. The next week, she’s in the hospital.

A long list of injuries has thwarted what was once a very promising running career--Plumer has not been able to improve on her best high school times in the mile or 1,500 meters at UCLA--but her recent problems have been the most frustrating and puzzling of her setbacks.

Plumer wasn’t feeling well in May, 1984, and a blood test revealed that she was anemic. She took some time off, increased her iron intake to get her blood count up and then resumed training during the summer until she fractured her left tibia.

That injury forced her to miss the cross-country season last fall, but she was back training by November. Around Thanksgiving, she was feeling listless again.


A week later, doctors discovered that Plumer’s red blood cell count had dropped drastically. Her hemoglobin level of 15, considered normal, was 8. Her hematocrit level, normally 45, was as low as 27. The hematocrit level is the proportion of blood cells to the volume of blood.

She had three blood transfusions in one weekend. Doctors were amazed that Plumer was even walking, let alone running.

The next week, doctors found several lesions on Plumer’s colon that were bleeding, but after two months rest, they healed. Although doctors told Plumer that they could have been caused by a poor diet, there was no definitive explanation for the lesions.

Plumer returned to her training regimen in preparation for the 1985 spring track season and ran a 4:38 mile in March to qualify for the NCAA meet, which concluded June 1 at Austin, Tex. But in late April, just before the Mt. San Antonio College meet, Plumer was sick again.


Her blood count was way down, and this time, doctors found three angiomas, tumors consisting of dilated or newly formed blood vessels or lymph vessels, in her stomach. They catheterized two of the angiomas, but the third, which was bleeding, was too close to the pancreas to treat.

Plumer may need surgery to remove the third tumor, but nothing is definite. The angioma isn’t bleeding currently, so surgery may not be necessary.

Furthermore, doctors aren’t even sure if the bleeding in the stomach was caused by the angiomas, or if the bleeding was related to Plumer’s anemia.

No one knows exactly what’s wrong with Polly Plumer.


“That’s the most frustrating thing,” Plumer, 20, said. “You know, if you have shin splints, you ice them. If you’ve got a sore Achilles, you rest until it gets better and then you come back. Me? It doesn’t matter what I do.

“I don’t know if this is going to happen again. My condition could be caused by dieting, it could be from this, it could be from that. I could do this to try to prevent it, but I don’t know if it will work.”

Through it all, Plumer remains incredibly optimistic. She may be hurting inside, but she puts on a happy face. She could sulk about missing much of the track season and the NCAAs, but she instead remains thankful that she was able to compete at all this year.

She’s determined that she’ll compete again.


“I won’t give up. I’m too stubborn,” Plumer said. “People tell me I’m crazy. They ask me why I keep doing this to myself. Either I come home in tears because my foot hurts, or I’m in a hospital bed.

“But that feeling of being out there when you’re on--that makes all the work worth it. I don’t want to step off the track until I’m totally defeated, or they lock me up forever.”

Plumer had her share of injuries in high school, but none prevented her from winning three consecutive CIF state championships in the 1,600 meters.

A heel injury, later diagnosed as Plantar Faciitis, caused her to miss 90% of her junior track season, but she came back that spring to win the Southern Section 3-A title, the CIF Masters Meet and her second state title at 1,600 meters.


She pulled a thigh muscle during her senior year but was still healthy enough to win her third state title. But her problems would continue at UCLA, where a bad arch hampered her progress as a freshman in 1982-83, and a bad back slowed her during her second cross-country season in the fall of 1983.

After her first quarter in 1983, Plumer, who wasn’t happy with her coaching at UCLA, left the school to train with her former high school coach, Bob Messina, who had moved to Cal State Fullerton. She took some classes at Saddleback College but returned to UCLA after Messina was hired as the women’s cross-country coach and a track assistant last fall.

A new coach couldn’t change old fortunes, though.

Plumer could not recover from the fractured tibia in time for the cross-country season, and then her stomach problems worsened, forcing her to miss more than half the Bruins’ meets this spring.


“A lot of people would have quit a long time ago,” Messina said. “I’d get more depressed about it than she did. She would have to cheer me up. She doesn’t show the hurt very much, and as long as she doesn’t lose her desire to do well, some day her body will cooperate with her. There are few people better than Polly when she’s healthy.”

Messina said that a healthy Plumer would have made a difference in the NCAA meet, where UCLA finished fourth, seven points shy of champion Oregon. Instead of running for the Bruins, Plumer spent the week socializing and concentrating on her schoolwork.

“I tried to block running out of my mind for a while,” she said. “But it was tough. It might have been easier to accept if I didn’t qualify for nationals or run a 4:38 mile. It would have been a lot easier if I wasn’t running well. But I was.”

Plumer, whose sister, PattiSue, ran at Stanford and once held the NCAA 5,000-meter record, has learned to accept the good with the bad. She figures she was lucky to win three state championships in high school and that this recent ordeal is a natural flip side to her success--that what goes around comes around.


But she’s stronger because of it.

“I’ve gone through so much this year,” she said. “If I could just tell you some of the (medical) tests I’ve had this year . . . I’d rather not tell you . . . If I can go through that, I can certainly run four times around the track.”

Still, there are those who are wondering what the heck is wrong with Plumer. What ever happened to Polly Plumer?

“Every time I’m at a meet and not running, people come up to me and say, ‘What’s wrong with you this time? I heard you’re anemic. Are you taking iron? Have they done this test?’ ” Plumer said. “They don’t understand. I can’t tell every person my life story. I just smile, nod my head and go on.


“But they won’t forget me for long. I’ll be back.”

“Every time I’m at a meet and not running, people come up to me and say, ‘What’s wrong with you this time? I heard you’re anemic. Are you taking iron? Have they done this test?’ ” Plumer said. “They don’t understand. I can’t tell every person my life story. I just smile, nod my head and go on.

“But they won’t forget me for long. I’ll be back.”