In the fall of 2014, Madison Hays was on pace to run a personal record in the semistate cross-country meet at Brown County’s Eagle Park.

However, part way through the race, the Seymour High School runner felt excruciating pains in her foot. Hays collapsed and had to be carried off the course.

“My junior year, I had pretty much been having pain in my foot all season,” Hays said. “At semistate, my foot completely gave out.”

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Following the heart-wrenching finish, Hays saw some doctors in hopes of resolving the pain.

“Over the winter, I did a lot of therapy on my own, and then went up and saw Dr. David Porter at Methodist Sports Medicine, who told me I had a nerve entrapment,” Hays said. “Basically, the nerves were holding down tissues and creating pain, so I had to have a nerve release surgery in the spring.”

The surgery cut Hays’ track season in half, as she put in countless hours of therapy.

Following a month of rehab, Hays was able to return to the course. Hays said this was the first major injury she had ever sustained, and it took a lot of mental toughness to overcome the setback.

“I spent all summer trying to get back to where I could run again,” Hays said. “I started running again in mid-July, which is really late for cross-country. We usually start two weeks after school ends.”

However, she couldn’t run without feeling exhausted.

“I was really nervous, but once I started running, my foot felt fine,” Hays said. “But I started feeling really exhausted all the time, so we went to a doctor at St. Vincent’s Sports Performance, and they gave me some blood tests. They found that I had a really low iron deficiency. They got me on supplements, changed my diet and told me what sleep schedule I should be on.”

The battle back to running normalcy wasn’t easy for Hays at the beginning of the season.

Hays, who has run since the seventh grade, was worried she wouldn’t run on what would be a historic season for the Owls.

“I was really behind on conditioning, and I was really afraid I wouldn’t be up there in the top seven my senior year,” Hays said. “My first race, I finished in eighth on the team. It really freaked me out. I hadn’t finished outside varsity since before my freshman year. It was pretty scary at first. I had never had to overcome something like this before.”

Hays put the time in throughout the season, and she saw her times slowly improve.

“My iron level was still really low at the beginning of the season,” Hays said. “My first race of the season, I was running my freshman year times. It was really hard mentally. I had to keep hoping I would be back where I was by the end of the season.”

It wasn’t until sectional at Brown County where she felt back to normal.

“I want to say sectional is when I felt back to where I was from last season,” Hays said. “I ran a really strong race. I ran from the beginning to the end all out. It was probably one of the strongest races I’ve ever had. I was able to push through it, which is something I haven’t been able to do the past couple of years. I had been so exhausted that it was hard to mentally break through.”

All of Hays’ efforts to come back stronger on the course didn’t go unrewarded.

At the very end of the season, Hays was a consistent top-seven runner for the Owls.

The senior achieved her dream of running in the state meet — the first time Seymour sent an entire girls cross-country team to state in school history.

“I trusted myself and my coaches and had to believe my training would get me where I wanted to be at the end of the year,” Hays said.

St. Vincent Sports Performance recently honored Hays as the December Spirit of Sport Award honoree.

The annual Spirit of Sport Award honors “student-athletes, managers, athletic trainers, coaches, administrators and industry leaders off the field who embody SVSP’s core values: Service of the poor, reverence, integrity, wisdom, creativity and dedication.”

The senior plans to run track this spring and hopes to run in college.

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“I trusted myself and my coaches and had to believe my training would get me where I wanted to be at the end of the year,” Madison Hays said.

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Jordan Morey is sports editor at The (Seymour) Tribune. He can be reached at jmorey@tribtown.com or 812-523-7069.