After running through thigh-deep water, torrential rain, and 50 mph winds at Connecticut College's NESCAC championship race, cross-country runners would never have guessed as they crossed the finish line that their worst problem was yet to come.
Twenty-four hours later, many of Bowdoin's men and women cross-country runners, as well as runners from all the other schools attending the October 27 meet, came down with a severe and painful rash, now notoriously known as the "NESCAC rash."
Though initially some theories proposed that the rash was caused by jellyfish, Connecticut College has determined that the rash was caused by a parasite in a swamp on the course. When these parasites, called cercariae, are present in water, they can cause a skin reaction that is commonly known as "swimmer's itch."
According to the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the rash is an immune reaction to the parasite, which cannot grow inside humans.
Though Connecticut College has been using the same cross-country course for about 20 years, this is the first time that students have acquired swimmer's itch, according to Francis Shields, director of athletics at Connecticut College. The conditions of the NESCAC race, however, may have been the cause of the problem, she said.
"The weather was so bad that water built up in the marsh area, and enabled some of the parasites to get into the water," Shields said.
Normally, if exposed skin is dried off immediately after contact, cercariae do not have time to penetrate the skin. However, none of the NESCAC runners were aware that they had been running in infested waters.
"I guess we got it so bad because we couldn't shower afterward and sat on the bus in damp clothing for five hours," said Alex Knapp '07, co-captain of the women's team.
The allergic reaction caused by cercariae can be severe. Characterized by intensely itchy red bumps, many runners commented that for the first few days after the race, it was hard to focus on anything else.
"It was probably at its worst [the following] Monday night, and I pretty much couldn't do anything, it was driving me crazy," said Knapp. "It was all over both of my legs and really burning and itchy. It wasn't painful, but extremely irritating and prevented me from concentrating on anything or sleeping."
So far, Dudley Coe Health Center has seen eight runners with symptoms. Afflicted students were prescribed anti-itch cream, as well as the steroid prednisone.
According to Jonas Crimm '10, who had a bad case, the cream did not seem to work on his rash, but others have had more success with the steroid treatments.
Claudia Hartley '10, who only started Prednisone when her case showed up later on, said that "the people on steroids are looking a lot better."
"Overall, it's just like poison ivy as far as clinical course, treatment, and prognosis are concerned," College Physician and Director of Health Services Jeff Benson said.
According to the CDC, symptoms are supposed to clear up in one to two weeks.
The women's team fared worse than the men's team, possibly due to the fact that the men's race was first. By the time the women started, the marshy section of the course was even more of a morass than before, due to the continuing storm and the men's race.
Runners have created a Facebook group, "Victims of the NESCAC rash," with total of 214 members. Students have posted pictures of particularly bad cases, and also have been sharing treatment methods, providing support, and distracting each other from what the profile calls "the incessant itching of the NESCAC rash."
Shields, the athletic director at Connecticut College, said that there was little that the college could have done.
"We held a cross-country meet on a really tough day. Everyone was already there...there was no real chance to use the park on the next day. The show had to go on, and the race was great," he said.
Shields also mentioned that Connecticut College's cross-country coach contracted the rash, joking that his staff was punished, too.
"It's cool. It's an epic race because we ran through 50 mph winds, standing water, and terrible conditions, and we felt all accomplished, but wasn't that enough?" asked Hartley.
"I can't wear a skirt," she said. "What am I going to wear to the Wedding Crashers party?"