Born to Run
After years of pain, doctors, and doubt, Unger returns to the top.
For the last five years, pain has been Emma Unger’s constant companion when the Worthington Christian senior laced up her sneakers and went out for a run.
Unger’s first run without her training “partner” on Sept. 2 was a revelation. Competing at the Westerville North XC Classic, Unger placed first out of 131 runners in 18 minutes, 57.84 seconds.
“It was a surreal experience to go from having five years never being able to run without pain to actually being able to go out there and run,” said Unger, who has been battling a tumor in her hip since seventh grade that made it nearly impossible to compete.
“It was such an amazing experience to feel all my hard work was starting to come together, and the payoff was really great.”
Unger’s time broke a 31-year-old school record of 19:04 set by Michelle Burson (WC ’93) when Burson placed eighth at the 1992 Division II state cross country meet. Unger’s time would have placed her inside the top 20 in last year’s Division III state meet.
The Warriors placed tenth overall with 275 points behind champion Jonathan Alder (75) thanks to Unger’s performance.
“Talk about perseverance. This is a journey she’s endured for years, and she’s never lost sight of her goals,” Warriors coach Michael Schaefer said. “She has unmatched determination and couldn’t be more deserving of her new position atop the record board.”
Unger’s mother, Amy, struggled to keep her composure when her daughter crossed the finish line.
“It’s been extremely emotional,” Amy Unger said. “Things finally look promising, hopeful, and exciting; that’s not always been the story.”
“It’s been five years of so many questions and so many different seasons. I thought she was going to quit 100 times during track season.”
Chapter One of Emma’s love story with running can be traced back to when she was in fifth grade. Her older sisters, Hannah and Grace, began distance running, so naturally, she chased after them. Before long, the three ran for the Fellowship of Christian Athletes running club.
“I fell in love with running right when I started,” the Worthington Christian senior said. “God gave me a gift, and I wanted to do whatever it took to use it to the best of my ability.”
Long-distance runners often endure a certain amount of pain associated with their sport. Stress fractures, pulled muscles, and shin splits are all part of the repetition of training.
However, the pain Emma felt on April 14, 2019, was unlike anything she had experienced. After running 5:19 in the mile in her first track meet of the spring, she was pushing herself through a training session when suddenly, a shooting pain went through her hips, and she couldn’t move.
“It felt like I had been in a car accident,” she said. “My right leg was numb, and I had no mobility.
“I have a high pain tolerance, so my coach was concerned when I came down with this. He knows that even if I’m having an extremely bad day in training, I’ll still push through the workout.”
Her parents took Emma in for an MRI, and doctors discovered she had fractured the front part of her hip and the femoral neck of her hip. Emma spent five months on crutches until she was given the all-clear to start running again.
“When she started to try to run again, she told us, ‘I have the exact same pain,’” Amy Unger said. “We did another MRI, and it showed nothing had changed. I was like, ‘how did that not heal?’”
The second MRI led to a third, fourth, and fifth before the doctors discovered an abnormality that made them think they saw a bone tumor. A CAT scan revealed a posterior chondroma tumor, meaning it was benign but located in the sacroiliac joint, an inoperable location of the body.
“You’re happy it’s benign, but at the same time, there’s no medical literature on a bone tumor in this area, and due to the location of it, surgery was off the table,” Amy Unger said. “Her doctor suggested, why don’t we see what happens as she goes through puberty? Maybe it will grow with her body, and the pain will disappear just like it came.”
When the pain didn’t subside, the Ungers consulted an orthopedic oncology surgeon who injected the site with lidocaine, a numbing agent, three times during track season. The treatment reduced the pain by 40 to 50 percent, and the effects of the treatment only lasted two weeks. The treatment caused Emma to run awkwardly.
Amy Unger recalls her daughter saying, “I don’t understand why God gave me this ability to run, just to take it away?”
“There were many times when it was hard, and I didn’t know what to do,” Emma added. “I wanted my prayers answered right then and the pain to go away. But it didn’t. God doesn’t always answer your prayers on your schedule. I kept trusting God’s plan was bigger than my plan.”
Emma began to picture a life without cross country during her sophomore year. Her parents encouraged her to pick up golf. However, walking 18 holes left her in excruciating pain.
“I wasn’t very good at golf, which made me realize that running was my passion,” she said. “Several people asked me, ‘How do you like running? Who even likes running?’ Even when I tried other sports, I realized how much I loved running.”
In December 2021, the Ungers met with three doctors at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia. The doctors constructed a 3D model of Emma’s hip based on previous CAT scans and created a surgery battle plan to remove the tumor before Emma underwent a five-and-a-half-hour surgery. In Columbus, she attempted to return to running but found herself competing at 75 percent of what she had been capable of doing.
“For people who had seen Emma run before, it appeared like she was dragging her right leg because the tumor had been in her right hip,” Amy Unger said.
The Ungers found three therapists and doctors who could fine-tune her form and began breaking up the scar tissue on her leg. Eventually, Emma began to show glimpses of her former self. She placed third in the 1,600 (5:16.93) at the Division III district meet.
A week later, Unger placed sixth (5:17.38) in a regional championship and failed to qualify for the state meet as an individual. However, Unger joined Zoe Ward (WC ’23), Ava Holbrook (WC ’26), and Ellie Cain (WC ’23) in a 16th-place finish in the 3,200 relay (10:00.04) at the Division III state meet.
During the summer, she could train at a distance running camp in Flagstaff, Arizona, something she had wanted to do before she was injured in seventh grade.
At the beginning of this season, the Warriors runner struggled with pain during the team’s season opener at the OHSAA preseason meet at Obetz. She placed fourth out of 276 runners (19:28.3).
However, after undergoing another round of treatments, Unger felt pain-free before the Sept. 2 meet.
“I knew (this year) wasn’t going to be easy,” the runner said. “Having everything come together after so many years of waiting and going through so much pain, and then breaking the record and getting first place was such an amazing feeling.”
“And the best part is, with her injury behind her, she’s just getting started,” Schaefer added.