Two years ago, Minnetonka runner Maggie Carruth felt the thrill of winning a state championship despite a condition that left her unable to feel her feet.
Popliteal entrapment syndrome, which restricts blood flow through the popliteal artery to the legs and feet, threatened to derail Carruth's promising career. Six months after winning the Class 2A state 800-meter title as an eighth-grader in 2010, Carruth endured major surgery on both legs for a condition that is rare for young women.
She spent most of her freshman season struggling to reconcile her high expectations with the long, slow reality of coming back. The journey strengthened her resolve to capture a second 800 title, but this spring Carruth is relishing a pain-free journey.
"I feel like I'm running more freely," Carruth said. "It's amazing. I thought it was normal to feel like I did."
Carruth's normal would be a typical runner's nightmare.
"I couldn't feel my feet," she said, adding that her "calves felt tight and restricted" during the late stages of cross-country races and track meets.
Intense pain during her freshman cross-country season forced her to seek medical relief. Parts of each calf muscle were removed as doctors corrected the condition in December 2010, resulting in scars on the back of both knees.
Within 2 1/2 weeks, Carruth could walk with only a slight limp.
She was jogging by the start of track and field season in March 2011 and ran a leg of the 4x400 relay in the season's first meet. But incremental progress challenged her patience. She competed in the 800 at the Section 6 meet knowing a state qualifying mark was not a realistic option. Almost.
"In the back of my mind I really wanted to," Carruth said.
"She had high expectations of herself," Skippers coach Jane Reimer Morgan said. "I'd keep saying, 'You're only three of four months removed from major surgery.'"
Carruth did run at the state meet in the 4x400 and helped the group clock the third-fastest time in school history. She returned to Hamline University in St. Paul for the Elite Meet last month and anchored Minnetonka's meet record-setting 4x800 relay.
The stadium public address announcer credited Carruth for "looking smooth" and encouraged the crowd for support on her final lap. While Carruth heard Reimer Morgan exhorting her to "go for the record," she did not see her coach's emotions.
"It brought tears to my eyes," Reimer Morgan said. "I think she's always been a real competitor with high character. But all this has made it that much sweeter to get back."
Reimer Morgan said Carruth "is on target or faster than she was at this point two years ago" when she ran down defending 800 champion Haylie Zenner of Fergus Falls in the final 60 meters of the state meet.
But healthier legs, Carruth said, are not the only place she has discovered new strength.
"I'm becoming more positive," she said. "I feel like I'm more mentally tough."
Her mother, Jeanne Carruth, said her daughter looked strong while running three events at last week's Lake Conference meet.
"I don't know if I could do what she is doing," Jeanne said. "This is a life lesson she will carry with her. She's inspiring."
David La Vaque • 612-673-7574