Guinness World Record holder is not a title Michigan Tech cross country and track and field student-athlete Ella Merklein thought she would claim — especially just a few months after a season-ending injury early in her first collegiate outdoor track season.
"The injury happened at this time last year. It was my second race and after the steeplechase," said Merklein. "I wasn't really able to run quite right after that without experiencing pain."
After getting an MRI, the biomedical engineering major was put in a boot for a short period of time before crutches were prescribed to help relieve irritation to her heel. It wasn't long after she was placed on crutches that a new journey would start for the Hartford, Wisconsin, native.
"I was walking around campus on crutches, and my friends and I had decided to go on a hike prior to me breaking my foot and I didn't want to back out of the hike. We went hiking at night, me and my crutches and the rest of the gang,” Merklein said. “Then we started to make jokes about running and seeing how fast I could go on the crutches."
The jokes continued through the rest of spring semester.
"As people started moving out, we found another pair of crutches in the general area of the dorms and one of my friends was like, 'I bet I can beat you on the crutches,'" she said. "So we raced down the McNair hallway on crutches and that was the first opportunity to really go faster with crutches."
Returning home for the summer break, Merklein started to seriously consider running on crutches.
"I had just kind of been thinking, 'What if I did start running on crutches?' I ended up joining a team workout and doing 800-meter repeats to see how it would work. I did three of them and it was a little difficult," she said.
Merklein poured more investment into running with crutches. She researched the most effective form for crutch running and how fast people have previously run with crutches.
During the course of her research she found a record holder with a foot injury similar to hers. Andreas Fruhmann set the record in the “Fastest mile on crutches (one leg) – male” category in Parsberg, Germany, on Jan. 2, 2021. "And I'm like, ‘Huh, all right, somebody has already done this. I wonder if I can do it better or see what I could do in comparison,'" Merklein said.
Kayaking and swimming were Merklein's only opportunities to cross-train while recovering from her foot injury. Neither option was very accessible — or nearly as enjoyable as her favorite hobbies: hiking and running.
"So I decided to officially start working toward a world record. I looked it up, applied for it and I'm like, 'I'm going to do this this summer because I need something to work toward," Merklein said.
The injury had brought some uncertainty with it. But within a few weeks of being on crutches and finding a new goal to focus on, Merklein's worries started to fade away. "I think it was a lot of my frustration at what had happened and the fact that there wasn't much that I felt like I could do, and all of the sudden I realized: I can do this. I can change my mindset about this — and it doesn't have to be something bad, it can be something good,” she said.
"I woke up the next morning and I felt a thousand times better once I made that decision to start working toward something new — because I had a goal, I had a purpose, and I wasn't just sitting around waiting for things to happen."
A month into summer break, Merklein began her journey to a Guinness World Record in the category of “Fastest mile on crutches (one leg) female.” The next step in the process was a big one: crutch-running around her neighborhood.
"I went out for a mile to gauge what I had (to start), because I figured after a little bit of training it'll get faster,” she said. “But just to give myself a baseline, I think it was a 12:30 mile that I ran at that point."
Husky Family Helped With the Challenge
Merklein brought her researched and calculated goal to her coaches, who recently got together to reflect on the world record.
"My first reaction was, 'She wants to do what'?" assistant head coach Robert Young remembered, as everyone in the room laughed.
"I remember we were concerned," added head coach Kristina Owen. "But it was great — she set a goal, she did her research and trained hard for it."
Merklein used her knowledge about running training plans to create a crutches running plan to help prepare. When she returned to the Upper Peninsula later in the summer, she began to consider setting a day to go for the Guinness World Record.
"My coaches were pretty supportive when I came back to campus, and we talked about actually doing the crutches world record. At this point, I wasn't sure if I was going to go for the recording," she said, referring to one of the many validation requirements that go into verifying a Guinness World Record.
Since Young had set his own competitive goal around the same time — to break the five-minute-mile barrier for the 22nd consecutive year — Owen decided to make a track meet out of the events.
"The fact that people were there to cheer me on and having Coach Young's race go before got me into the whole race mentality,” Merklein said. “But it was a little bit nerve-racking because it was about a week to a week and a half since I'd stopped using the crutches as often.”
On a July morning in Houghton, following Young's successful sub-five-minute mile, Merklein lined up for her record attempt.
"I finished up and my first thought was that it was really fun but really difficult. The slowest time you could have was a 12:30 mile, which must have been the last record time. So I realized that I hit it, and I'm like, 'Oh my gosh, I did it. It's there.' And then it was just a matter of getting all the information in to Guinness,” she said.
On the morning of Thursday, March 23, it became official. Ella Merklein is the Guinness World Record holder in the “Fastest mile on crutches (one leg) – female” category. "It can be up to a 10-week wait to figure out if the documentation is accepted," she said. "I opened my emails in the morning (on March 23), and I'm like, 'I did it. Here it is.'"
The coaching staff was very pleased with the veteran move that Merklein made: to not get discouraged by her injury, but instead find a way to channel her drive and motivation into something special. "It's finding a way to make something really awesome out of what is an otherwise challenging situation and it's something to be proud of," said Young.
"We have wonderfully driven student-athletes and Ella is chief amongst them," Owen said. "I am very proud to get to work with a team that is full of these wonderful human beings. It's an honor."
Merklin said she’s learned more than how to run fast on crutches. "It feels really great to know that I can push through any situation or obstacle. It's like the steeplechase, which is the event I ended up breaking my heel in. It's a great way to continue working toward the goals even when things don't seem like they're going your way."
"I remember Coach Owen saying to me, 'Sometimes the goals aren't going to be the same.'"
Oddly enough, Merklein has been reluctant to return the crutches. "Every time I tried returning them I would end up with some sort of injury, so I just haven't returned the crutches,” she said. “I haven't gone for an official run since I've been off them, but I would occasionally mess with them."
Merklein isn’t sure she’ll defend her world record. "I want to focus solely on running and being a student-athlete,” she said. However, if any of her teammates have the misfortune to end up on crutches, they can count on her support if they decide to challenge the record. “I think it would be cool to help them with that."
Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.