Rarely does a 40-minute jog turn into a medical crisis for an elite runner.

But on the afternoon of Sept. 3, 2010, it did.

Hassan Mead, recovering from an inflamed right Achilles' tendon, stayed in Minneapolis to train while the Gophers cross-country team competed in Utah. The injury cost him the previous track season, and he was trying to make a comeback.

Early that Friday afternoon, Mead ran by himself from the Bierman Athletic Building to East River Road. As he ran along the Mississippi River, under the Lake Street bridge, he experienced a sudden sharp pain in his back.

He assumed it was a muscle cramp. But the pain increased until it virtually crippled him.

His right lung collapsed. 

He needed help.

Coming to America

Mead, 21, is a tough young man.

"He loves training," said former teammate Chris Rombough, a first-year Gophers assistant in cross-country. "Probably the time I see him smile the most is after a hard workout."

Said Gophers cross-country and track coach Steve Plasencia: "To be good, you have to train hard. You call it riding the red line between health and injury to get the most out of yourself. Lots of people ride that line."

Like Mead. Much of his life has been a struggle.

He grew up in rural Somalia, near the border with Ethiopia. His job as a young boy was to shoo the goats, sheep and cows-- and the wild animals -- away from the corn and other crops on his family's farm.

For sports, kids played soccer, usually with a ball made of rags.

His father emigrated to America in 1996. Four years later Hassan, then 11, followed with his mother and younger sister, Hana.

Mead was maybe 5-1, 60 pounds then and it was January in Minnesota. He had rarely experienced temperatures below 50 degrees.

His family decided the best place for Hassan was with an uncle in Ontario, Calif., not far from Los Angeles.

There he went to school for the first time. He was put in a sixth-grade class with other youngsters learning English. But he was lost. The teacher spoke Spanish, not Somali. The only subject that made much sense to him was math.

A cousin named Nasia, two years younger than Hassan, helped him with his homework and English. His friends corrected him, too, when he forgot to finish sentences.

"I never took it as a insult," Mead said.

And Mead, who grew taller than his peers by junior high, started playing sports besides soccer; basketball was his favorite.

He showed how much on cardio days when everyone had to run a mile or a cross-country course and then had free time.

"[Hassan] told us, he would run as fast as he could because he wanted to play basketball," said Jeff Nelson, one of his track coaches at Grace Yokley Middle School.

"I thought at one point, I can play basketball in college," Mead said. "But then I figured out I was not going to get any bigger than 6-2, 145."

He hasn't. So running turned out to be Mead's path to college.

"I didn't take it seriously until about midway through high school," he said.

As a junior, Mead was still living with his uncle, who had moved to the state of Washington. That fall, Mead was 10th in the big-school cross country state meet there.

Shortly afterward, he was reunited with his family. And the following fall, Mead won the Class 2A cross-country state title running for Minneapolis South. He had earned his athletic scholarship to the University of Minnesota.

The good Samaritan

By the time of his fateful September workout, Mead was a seven-time Big Ten champion and six-time All-America.

"I have had [muscle cramps] before," Mead said. "Out running you just get cramped up. But what was so odd was that it came quicker. Usually you see it building up.

"I pulled over and stretched and took a deep breath ... and, as I did that, it seemed like someone jerked my ribs toward my chest."

Mead turned back toward the university.

"Jogging was impossible and walking got more difficult," he said.

He walked about 1 1/2 miles to Franklin Avenue. By then, he was struggling. His upper body was tilted sideways, trying to minimize the pain. He had to keep stopping to catch his breath.

"By the time that it got really painful, I was looking for anyone, even somebody on a bike," Mead said. "But it was a good 35 minutes when no one came. Not even cars came by. It was silent, which is rare on the River Road. People are usually walking their dogs, jogging. There is always somebody moving. It was like 2:30 in the afternoon."

Then a car drove by, stopped and backed up. A young nurse was on her way to work at the University of Minnesota Medical Center Fairview, still two-thirds of a mile away. She asked if he needed assistance.

"I was very appreciative of that," said Mead, hurting too much to ask her name.

She took him back to Bierman. Mead, by then suspecting his pain was from muscle spasms, put several ice bags on his ribs. A concerned athletic trainer asked a doctor to examine Mead.

Soon Mead was getting X-rays at a university emergency room, then getting tubes inserted into his chest cavity to remove the air building up outside his collapsed lung.

About 9,000 Americans a year have a spontaneous pneumothorax, the medical term for a collapsed lung; tall and skinny men like Mead, ages 20 to 40, are especially at risk.

Mead was hospitalized for 17 days. To get his right lung to stay up properly he needed surgery; the lining of that lung was irritated so it would scar up against his chest wall.

After being released, one of the top college runners in the country took a month off while the three small holes in his chest from the tubes and surgery healed.

Back on the track

About three weeks ago, Mead was back in California, running for the Gophers in the Mount SAC Relays not far from where he once lived. Nelson and Robert Quezada, his junior high track coaches, met him to reminisce before Mead took eighth place in the 5,000-meter run. His time was the third-best of his career.

"He's still the same," Quezada said. "Big smile. Tall and lanky. And he is such a level-headed young man even with his exposure."

For 15 months, Mead stepped out of the limelight. He couldn't compete. His rocky return came Feb. 12 in the Washington Husky Classic in Seattle, where he was 38th of 123 finishers in the 3,000.

"It is not going to be that bad. I am fit. I can race again," Mead told himself beforehand.

"That was the surprising thing when I got into the race, it just felt different," he remembered. "I felt like everyone else was running on the track and I was running on a mattress. I wasn't even tired. I just couldn't get my legs to do what I wanted."

He's made progress since. In late April, Mead ran two 1,600 legs in relays at the Drake Relays in Des Moines. Mead anchored the distance medley relay team, which took first by three-tenths of a second over Wisconsin. He also was on the 4x1,600 relay team, which placed third.

A much bigger weekend for Mead is coming. The three-day Big Ten championships start Friday at the University of Iowa. And on Sunday, he graduates with a communications major, although he won't be able to attend the ceremonies.

"[That degree] is exciting not only to myself," Mead said, "but to everybody that has been involved -- everybody that knows the kind of steps I took. I'm about to graduate college is just ..."

Sometimes he still doesn't finish a sentence. Should the final word be ... amazing?

Mead, because of a medical hardship waiver, has one full school year left of athletic eligibility. He plans to keep running for the Gophers as a graduate student in sports management.

The Big Ten meet, of course, comes before that. Two years ago Mead swept the 5,000 and 10,000 titles and was named the best track athlete of the meet.

This time he is not concerned about more titles and acclaim.

"We are just worried about what we should do without taking any steps back," said Mead. "[It's] a puzzle that I got going."

So far, so good for Mead back riding the red line.