Thousands of Northeast Ohio high school runners will compete in district meets this weekend with hopes of qualifying for regionals and eventually the state race.
One of those athletes will show up at the starting line with metal rods and screws in his back and a determination to overcome the odds.
Cory Fetterhoff, 18, is a senior at Field High School in Mogadore and the fastest runner on his team, but his race to the top has been far from easy due to a struggle with scoliosis.
"I just didn't want to be one of those people that was making excuses for myself," Fetterhoff said. "It was more mental for me believing that I didn't want to have limitations."
In eighth grade, Fetterhoff was diagnosed with scoliosis. He had a 32 percent curvature of his spine. By 10th grade, an x-ray revealed the curvature had changed to 61 percent.
The condition was crowding one of his lungs and causing Fetterhoff to run crooked.
"I had to adjust for that with my hips and that threw my hips off placement, so that was slowing me down," he said.
The teen was allowed to finish his sophomore season but was told he needed a spinal fusion, or face the risk of more serious health problems as he got older.
"I finished out the year at the district meet and I didn't make it out (to regionals). I ran my worst time ever. 20 minutes," Fetterhoff recalled. "And I remember crossing the line and crying because I never knew if I was going to be able to run again or not."
The runner, who had been motivated to run faster each week, was suddenly facing an uncertain future in the sport he loves.
"They just said this is to make your back better. This is not to make your running better and there's always complications to surgery."
Dr. Todd Ritzman, a pediatric orthopedic surgeon at Akron Children's Hospital, performed the operation in November of 2016. Ritzman told the boy's family that untreated curves can affect breathing and pulmonary function.
"We correct these curves by placing screws in the bones," Dr. Ritzman explained. "Then use those screws to pull the crooked spine to a pair of rods that go in the spine."
The surgery was a success and a side-by-side x-rays show a dramatic change from the curved spine to a mostly straight one.
Still, Fetterhoff had a long road to recovery. He said it took him two days to re-learn how to walk and three months before he could run again.
But this fall, he's racing faster than ever. He is ranked third in his division two district and has a goal of breaking 17 minutes at Saturday's race in Madison. He hopes to advance to the regional meet and then to the state competition.
"I feel great now. It doesn't affect me at all. I don't feel it at all and I feel like I'm at the top of my game right now," he said.
Dr. Ritzman said the realigned spine has helped with breathing function, which partly explains the teen's extra speed, but the doctor added the improvement is more about Fetterhoff's character.
"He's just a great young man who worked hard and we're excited to see him doing so well," Dr. Ritzman said.
Fetterhoff said his cousin, Clark Bookman, was instrumental with training advice and encouragement. Bookman competed at the state level in high school and now runs for Kent State.
The runner's comeback has inspired his teammates, coaches, and doctors. His message to anyone, runner or not, is very meaningful.
"You can do anything you put your mind to, no matter how bad things are. You can do anything you put your mind to."