High school runner breaks leg in meet, crawls to finish anyway

EDITOR'S NOTE: Please be advised that the video accompanying this story of Claire Markwardt's fall might be unsettling for some viewers.

It has been almost two weeks since Claire Markwardt's horrific fall in the final stretch of the Ohio state high school cross country championship, and yet, the Berkshire High School senior has seen the video only once.

Only once has she logged on to YouTube and watched herself fall to the ground as first her left tibia and then her fibula snap in half. Only once has she watched herself crawl the final 45 feet to the finish line, ensuring that she would complete the final race of her high school career.

And even that one time, she had to stop the video at the point where a race official picks her up and carries her to a doctor.

"There's a scene in 'Harry Potter' where Harry breaks his arm and it's really jiggly," Markwardt said by phone this week. "When [the official] picked me up, that's what I remember thinking my leg felt like. It felt like it was swinging around a lot. And I didn't want to see that, so I stopped watching."

What Markwardt saw in the video might not be visible to the rest of us. She saw a teenage girl who, a year earlier, watched the state meet from the stands and made a personal commitment to run in that race in her senior year. She saw a girl who fulfilled that commitment, and then, with a badly broken leg 45 feet from the finish line, had a choice: Finish, or don't finish.

To her, it was a no-brainer.

What the rest of the world sees in the video, though, is a high-school hero. Thanks to YouTube and Internet blogs such as The Big Lead, the rest of the world sees courage, determination and an off-the-charts tolerance for pain. Strangers who have watched it have filled Markwardt's MySpace and Facebook pages with congratulations, well-wishes and thank-yous. The encouragement has helped Markwardt, with two surgeries behind her and six months of physical therapy ahead, believe her ordeal has been a good thing.

"Honestly, I think it's a positive in my life," she said. "Obviously, I don't enjoy having a broken leg, but I've gotten so much amazing feedback out of it. And I've learned a lot about myself. I didn't think I could ever do something like that. But apparently, I could."

Ask Markwardt to tell you her memories from the meet, and the first thing she mentions is how perfect the entire day was supposed to be. She was to run the biggest race of her life in the morning. As soon as it finished, she was to drive with her dad from Columbus to Warren, where she would be the maid of honor in her big sister Anna's wedding that night.

At the 1- and 2-mile markers, Markwardt was on a personal-best pace. Then, as she entered the stadium at Columbus' Scioto Downs, with about 400 meters to go, she heard her left leg crack.

The leg had been sore on and off for the previous two weeks, prompting Berkshire coach Julie Cole to limit Markwardt in practice. When she heard the crack, Markwardt thought it was a muscle pull or tear. She thought she could gut it out to the finish line.

"There was a runner from one of our rival schools right in front of me," she said. "I kept staring at the back of her jersey and pushing myself to catch her."

But some 200 meters later, Markwardt heard the leg crack again. And again. Then there was a louder crack, and her entire leg gave out. She fell to the ground as onlookers winced at the sound and the sight of what happened.

One of Markwardt's teammates, unaware of what had happened, encouraged her to get up. She tried, using her right leg. But as soon as she shifted weight to the left, the loudest crack yet came. And her leg gave out again.

"At that point, I knew what had happened. I knew my leg was broken pretty badly. And I knew I couldn't get up again. So I started crawling," she said.

She said she thought not of her coach, nor her parents, nor anyone else who had encouraged her to never give up, to see things to the finish. Instead, she thought of the countless stories she had heard about runners who collapsed before a race's end and somehow found the courage to cross that last line. Even if her leg had given out at the 400-meter mark, she said, it wouldn't have mattered. She was going to finish.

"They may not have let me, and it might not have been pretty, but I would have tried," she said.

"I had come so far. Our team had come so far. All season, we had been working for state, and now we were there. I was almost done, and there was no way I was going to let the team down."

So, she finished the race in a time of 20:24.07, only 18 seconds slower than her personal best (20:06), despite crawling for the last 45 feet. The finish was good for 67th place, helping her school to a fourth-place finish in the Ohio High School Athletic Association Division III championship.

"When I saw her crawling, I wanted to cry," said Richard Markwardt, Claire's father. "I was just so incredibly proud -- as proud as any father could be."

After the race, there were no tears, no screams of horror. Instead, Markwardt sat patiently on a training table while doctors put a splint on her leg and then transferred her to a Columbus hospital. She had broken her tibia in multiple places, her fibula in just one. She needed surgery, in which a rod and a series of screws were placed in her leg to help piece it together.

Doctors told her they believed her original soreness was a stress fracture made worse by running in the state meet. They said she likely suffered a partial crack of her tibia at first, but when she pressed on, she shattered the bone in multiple places. And when she stood up to try to finish the race, doctors told her, that's when they believe she broke her fibula.

Although her maid-of-honor dress and a hairstylist awaited her, she didn't make it to her sister's wedding. She shed her first tears when she apologized to her sister on a cell phone from the hospital.

Anna, of course, told her how unnecessary her apology was. So did her father, who, after signing the hospital paperwork and making sure Claire was in good hands, raced to Warren to give away his middle daughter. Several representatives from the school stayed with Claire until her parents, after attending the wedding and greeting guests at the reception, drove back to Columbus and walked into Claire's hospital room at 2:30 in the morning.

"The entire day was just an incredible emotional roller coaster -- one that I hope I never have to experience again," Richard Markwardt said.

Claire's recovery won't be easy. Following the first surgery, on Nov. 3, doctors realized her left foot was turned outward further than it should have been. So on Nov. 13 -- 10 days after the accident -- she went back into the hospital for a day so doctors could straighten and slightly lengthen the rod in her leg.

Doctors tell her to expect to spend six to eight weeks on crutches. It will be three months until she will be able to walk normally and six months before she will be able to run again. She plans to study industrial design or architecture at a college near her home in Burton, Ohio, next fall. She's unsure if she will try to run competitively in college.

For all she's gone through and all that lies ahead, Markwardt said she has broken down only twice: once on the hospital phone call to her sister, and once when she told coach Cole that she will miss the spring track season.

This Wednesday, when doctors asked her to rate her pre-surgery anxiety before the second procedure on her leg, she said, "Two."

"She's always had a certain degree of maturity that's just unusual for kids her age," Richard Markwardt said. "Someone once told me she has an old soul. And they're right. There's this unique sense of wisdom and resolve. And that's helped her get through this."

In fact, it might be that the person who has struggled the most with the emotional aftermath of Claire's injury is Cole, Berkshire's cross country coach.

"It's been difficult," Cole said. "I felt kind of guilty. This is what I do. I'm a coach. You try to get the kids to work hard and sacrifice for each other. That's what we try to instill -- to go after it. But if I push kids to go to that extreme, is that a good thing? Is that right?"

Markwardt already has told her coach that she had nothing to do with the injury. Nor, she said, did her parents or anyone else. Markwardt alone made the decision to press on after she heard her leg crack 200 meters before the finish line and after she crumbled to the ground 45 feet from the finish. Nearly two weeks later, she said she wouldn't do things any differently, even if she could.

Now, she's focused on her next hurdle -- returning to school. Doctors have cleared her to start classes Monday. Her mom wants her to do so in a wheelchair. Markwardt, the competitor, won't have it.

"I haven't used the wheelchair since I was in the hospital that day," Markwardt said. "I'm fine on crutches. I'm not going to school in a wheelchair. I'm fighting that wheelchair off."

Wayne Drehs is a senior writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com. Learn more about Wayne at his ESPN fan page.