While running the anchor leg of the sprint medley relay in the Red Edwards Golden Eagle Relays last month, Hanna Merklin felt intense pain in her lower legs over the final 100 meters and collapsed as she crossed the finish line.
Unfortunately for the senior captain of the Watterson High School girls track and field team, the pain that she experienced during that meet April 12 at Big Walnut is all too familiar.
Merklin has learned to cope with pain and numbness in her legs since being diagnosed with exertional compartment syndrome more than two years ago. The exercise-induced condition decreases blood flow to muscles and nerves in the legs or arms, leading to a build-up of pressure that causes pain and swelling.
"When I'm running fast, it feels like I have ski boots over my calf muscles squeezing and twisting them, which causes a stabbing pain," Merklin said. "Sometimes my legs will quit responding or they just give out on me, and I collapse at the end of the race almost every time.
"But this is the happiest I've ever been running with this team. We've had a great start to our season, winning four of our first five invitationals, and I'm just so glad that I'm still able to run and be a part of it."
Coach Sherry Yoakam said Merklin inspires her teammates to do their best through her leadership and perseverance.
"Hanna has been an asset to our team since she joined us her freshman year," Yoakam said. "She works so hard and it is very difficult to see her in pain and having setbacks, but she works through them and moves ahead with such a positive attitude.
"We have watched her legs shut down in the middle of a race on several occasions and she would still finish in an amazing time just on sheer will. I can't imagine how well she would have done in track and cross country had she been able to fully participate. She is an amazing athlete and I have been blessed to coach her for the last four years."
Merklin began running track in fourth grade and cross country in seventh grade after watching her parents, Chris and Angie, compete in the Boston Marathon. She emerged as one of the Eagles' top cross country runners as a freshman, but began to feel an increasing amount of pain in her legs over the course of that season. The pain reached a peak when she was unable to finish the CCL meet.
"That was the low point for me," Merklin said. "I kept pushing myself, but my legs were in so much pain and they wouldn't respond the way they were supposed to.
"When I couldn't finish at (the) CCL (meet), I was so embarrassed and I felt like I let our whole team down."
The pain persisted and, in the fall of her sophomore year, Merklin was diagnosed with exertional compartment syndrome.
"Watching Hanna get tested for compartment syndrome was the most painful thing I've ever seen," Chris Merklin said. "They put six three-inch needles in the back of each of her legs to measure the excessive pressure in each compartment of her calf muscles. Then she ran on a treadmill for seven minutes until the pain was at a high before they hustled her back to reinsert the 12 needles.
"It was heartbreaking to see my daughter in so much pain, and if I could have traded positions with her, I would have done it in a heartbeat."
In fall 2011, Merklin underwent surgery on both legs to open the fascia -- a layer of fibrous tissue -- surrounding her muscles so that there is more room for her muscles to expand without causing pain.
"The first surgeon we met with told me that I would never run again in a high school race, but I refused to believe him and I found someone else to do my surgery," she said. "I never gave up and I made an extremely quick recovery in time for my sophomore track season. It felt so great to able to run pain-free that season."
However, her legs began hurting again during her junior cross country season. That led her to switch from running distance events to sprint events in track last season.
Merklin was voted captain of the cross country team last fall, but the pain in her legs caused her season to come to a premature end.
"A lot of other athletes who have been diagnosed with compartment syndrome have never run again, so you have to marvel at Hanna's pain threshold and determination to fight through her pain to finish races," assistant track coach Steve Taliaferro said. "Hanna's had to reinvent herself from a distance runner into a sprinter, and she's doing a great job for us. She's really an amazing story."
Merklin helped Watterson win the 15-team Braves Invitational on April 30 at Whetstone. She teamed with Kelly Kimble, Becca Gallagher and J'Niah Johnston-Reynolds to win the sprint medley relay in 1 minute, 57.08 seconds, as the Eagles scored 76.5 points to edge runner-up Whetstone (72) and third-place Eastmoor Academy (70.5).
Merklin is savoring what she expects to be her final season competing in track.
"I'm not going to run for a college team, but what I've been through has inspired me to pursue a career in nursing or physical therapy so I can help other people the way people helped me when I needed it," she said. "Before I graduate, I want to help our team win the CCL championship, and my No. 1 goal is to someday run the Boston Marathon. I'm not the fastest runner, but I hope I can inspire people to never give up, even when they are facing tough obstacles in life."
Girls lacrosse team returns to action
After a two-week break, the girls lacrosse team returned to action April 28 with a 15-6 victory over Wellington in a Central Independent League game.
Ellie Wood and Torie Sullivan each had four goals, Mackenzie James scored three and Amy Buening scored two to lead Watterson, which was 6-7 overall before playing Westerville Central on May 6 and 1-5 in the CIL before playing Columbus School for Girls on May 7.
The Eagles lost two league games last week, falling to Granville 18-17 on April 29 and to Columbus Academy 17-7 on May 1.
They conclude their regular season Thursday, May 8, at Gahanna.
Winning streak ends for boys lacrosse team
The boys lacrosse team had a five-game winning streak end with a 10-7 loss to Delaware on May 3.
Watterson, which was 6-4 before playing Granville on May 6, defeated Gahanna 15-5 on April 30 and Wellington 15-0 on May 2.
Against Wellington, Eli Kirk and Henry McCann both had three goals, Tommy Hatem, Andrew McQuade and Pat Pirrmann each scored two and Austin Schlosser had two saves and Josh Rhodes made one.