DeBues-Stafford aims to be 'smart, patient' with injury recovery ahead of track worlds

Middle-distance runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford nursed an injury instead of competing on the Diamond League circuit June 9 in Rome.

Runner skipped women's 1,500m race at Golden Gala Diamond League event in Rome

Gabriela DeBues-Stafford of Toronto was scratched from the women's 1,500-metre race at the Golden Gala Diamond League meet on June 9 in Rome after suffering an injury warming up for a women's 800 event three days earlier in the Netherlands. (Katharine Lotze/Getty Images/File)

Canadian middle-distance runner Gabriela DeBues-Stafford nursed an injury on June 9 instead of racing in Rome, where she hoped to build on an encouraging start to her outdoor season as the much-anticipated world championships near.

DeBues-Stafford said her sacroiliac (SI) joint, which is located in the pelvis and connects the hip bones to the lowest part of the spine above the tailbone, locked up during warmup and forced her to withdraw from an 800 race on June 6 at the FBK Games in Hengelo, Netherlands.

"It's nothing serious, knock on wood, but it's painful enough that racing didn't make sense," the Toronto native wrote in an Instagram post on Tuesday. "I made the tough call of pulling out of Rome too and coming home early to get [the injury] calmed down and sorted out.

"I have to be smart and patient to keep our eyes on the big prize."

The Continental Tour event in Hengelo was meant as a tune-up for the Golden Gala Diamond League meet in Italy, DeBues-Stafford's last scheduled race before the June 23-26 Canadian championships in Langley, B.C. She is also hopeful of competing at her third outdoor world championships July 15-24 in Eugene, Ore.

The severity of the injury won't be determined until DeBues-Stafford arrives home in Victoria and has it examined but her agent, Dan Lilot, told CBC Sports he doesn't believe she will miss the national competition.

Running jet-lagged

Thursday would have been her fourth appearance at Golden Gala and third in Rome as last year's event was relocated to Florence because the Stadio Olimpico was hosting European championship soccer games.

After finishing her 2017 Rome debut 11th in four minutes, 4.87 seconds, DeBues-Stafford was fifth in 2019 (4:01.28) and fourth last year (4:00.46). Her time last June 10 was impressive for an outdoor season opener, given the 26-year-old ran jet-lagged after incurring travel issues flying from the United States.

I felt overwhelmed and out of control of my race. ... I wasn't trusting my body and didn't feel I had a strong sense of what I wanted my race plan to be.— Gabriela DeBues-Stafford on last year's Golden Gala women's 1,500-metre race

DeBues-Stafford also put expectations and pressure on herself entering the race at a time she believed an Olympic medal was attainable if she could reach peak form less than a month later in Tokyo, where she finished fifth in the Olympic final in 3:58.93.

It was a lot to ask of an athlete who spent the 2021 season adapting to a new program after joining the Bowerman Track Club the previous September and worked her way back from a relapse of Graves' Disease — an autoimmune disorder that causes an overactive thyroid — in August 2020.

"It takes a lot to come back from that," DeBues-Stafford, who left Bowerman recently to work with Trent Stellingwerff in B.C., said on Sunday over the phone from Hengelo. "I lost a lot of weight and muscle. It was a lot to deal with the anxieties it brought. I had all this weight and burden [entering Golden Gala] but none of the fun and lightness of racing when most people race their best.

"Knowing I was going to be jet-lagged was in my head and I felt overwhelmed and out of control of my race. I was getting pushed back in the field, losing position and getting caught in that tornado where women are jostling for position. I wasn't trusting my body and didn't feel I had a strong sense of what I wanted my race plan to be. That was tough.

"You never want to finish a race feeling like you had more [to give] which is what happened," she continued. "Florence was the kick in the ass I needed before Tokyo because I didn't want that to happen again."

WATCH | Foot speed and a punishing kick make DeBues-Stafford an elite runner:

What makes Gabriela DeBues-Stafford Canada's best 1,500-metre runner?

1 year ago
Duration 2:44
Kate Van Buskirk explains what makes Gabriela DeBues-Stafford so lethal in the 1,500-metre race and how much better Canadians can expect her to get.

It was a performance in stark contrast to her most recent race leading up to this week's Golden Gala, a 3.58.62, third-place effort at the Prefontaine Classic on May 28 in Eugene, DeBues-Stafford's first top-three finish on the professional circuit since the Diamond League Final in August 2019.

DeBues-Stafford found a state of flow and connection on the Hayward Field track like she had in Tokyo, free of intrusive thoughts of self-doubt from a year ago that distracted her from executing her race plan.

"What I found in Tokyo and again at Pre was being present in the race … and not worrying about intrusive thoughts distracting me from my goal," said DeBues-Stafford, who noted being healthy for nearly two years and working on her mental health were other factors in feeling connected.

Once she realized the pace wasn't slowing in Eugene, DeBues-Stafford backed off the leaders — eventual winner Faith Kipyegon and runner-up Gudaf Tsegay — and raced the rest of the field. She will probably "take more risks with the pace" later in the season with the luxury of additional workouts and gaining more fitness.

"[At Prefontaine Classic] I ran what I did in Tokyo, so I'm pleased how my fitness has come back," DeBues-Stafford said. "With health and consistency this year … I'm excited to see what more we [Stellingwerff and I] can do and build off that."


Doug Harrison has covered the professional and amateur scene as a senior writer for CBC Sports since 2003. Previously, the Burlington, Ont., native covered the NHL and other leagues for Follow the award-winning journalist @harrisoncbc

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