GOLDEN — For weeks he had persistent headaches and experienced vertigo. If he tilted his head back and tried to look up, it felt like the room was spinning. One time he leaned against a wall to put on his shoes and fell over.
Somehow, in the fall of 2012, Neal Anderson managed nevertheless to be one of the top cross country runners on a Colorado School of Mines team that finished second at the Division II NCAA championships, the school's highest placing. But on the eve of the regional championships, Anderson found out he was facing a different kind of race.
"He gave me a (phone call) right before practice and was crying, very emotional," Mines coach Chris Siemers recalls, "just learning the news that he had a brain tumor."
Anderson didn't get to run with his teammates at nationals. He had brain surgery a few days later, but he rallied from those dark days and will close his college career this week by running the steeplechase at the Division II NCAA track and field championships in Allendale, Mich., completing an 18-month comeback caused by the brain surgery and a string of injuries that followed.
"It's been a long process," said Anderson, who is from Bettendorf, Iowa. "I am really excited to be back with my teammates."
Anderson, who graduated two weeks ago with a master's degree in metallurgical materials engineering, had surgery in November 2012 to remove a tumor from the back right hemisphere of his brain. Tests classified it as a pilocytic astrocytoma.
"The actual tumor was about the size of the last digit of your pinkie," Anderson said. "But it had a fluid-filled sack around it that made it about the size of a golf ball."
Doctors suspected it was benign before it was removed, but there was plenty of worry until that was confirmed.
"It was really, really scary — it was horrible," said Anderson's girlfriend, Hannah Schuster, a 1,500-meter runner on the Mines team. "I was really worried and trying to do things to distract myself from being as worried as I was. I was at the hospital after he was in surgery, all day, every day. There was nowhere for me to sleep, or I would have slept there too."
Anderson was able to resume running a month after the surgery. Since then he has battled a series of injuries that stalled his comeback: an iliotibial band leg injury, a knee problem, a hamstring injury that lingered from last fall until this past February, then plantar fasciitis.
He wasn't able to compete until late last month, and at that point it was a longshot that he'd be able to qualify for nationals.
"It seems like maybe I started to get it back together just in time," he said. "I was working really hard on my form, trying to strengthen all the little muscles that had made my less-than-stellar form work for me before."
Still needing a qualifying time for nationals, Anderson ran in a "Last Chance" meet May 10 and posted a time that ranked him 22nd among Division II steeplechase runners. Only 20 get to run at nationals. But two days later he learned that two runners who qualified ahead of him had decided not to run. Anderson was in.
Mines is sending 12 athletes to nationals — its most ever — but Anderson's presence will be special.
"We were just so excited," Siemers said. "The coolest thing is that he's done a lot for the program. He gets to have his last meet in a Mines uniform be in the national meet. It just inspires his teammates — all he's done to come back from the brain tumor and help lead this crew."