He was used to pushing through pain, the sidesplitting aches and burning lungs that accompany distance running. This was no mere ache, though.
It felt like a blade had wedged under his bottom rib as Matt Edwards struggled to lift his laundry basket. The phantom instrument prodded deeper with every step, leaving him bent forward at the waist and shuffling the last few feet to his apartment complex's laundry room.
What had started as an apparent case of indigestion was something much more serious. The Belmont University senior, who first noticed the discomfort the day following his career best cross country performance, hobbled back to his room and opened an internet browser.
The self-diagnosis – which doctors would corroborate the next day – was appendicitis.
"It may be the only time Googling symptoms turns out to be right," Edwards said now, more than two months after receiving the news that interrupted both his and the Belmont Bruins' promising season.
Matt Edwards found competitive running only after spending his childhood playing soccer in the United Kingdom. Like most growing up along the southern shore of Wales in Barry, he dreamed of seeing the world as a member of the Welsh national team. It wasn't until he was 16 years old that he understood cross country would be his avenue to an international and academic future.
Edwards excelled, but the individualistic sport didn't have the same team aspect that soccer cultivated. It was as true at his secondary school as once he joined the team at nearby Cardiff Metropolitan University. The feeling did not follow him to this side of the Atlantic Ocean, though.
After three years and a degree earned at Cardiff, Edwards set off for Nashville and Belmont, where he found a differing atmosphere while competing in the NCAA. It was no longer every man for himself, but a cohesive group with a common goal. Even as an outsider, he was a Bruin.
After racing to second at the 2016 Ohio Valley Conference Cross County Championships, Belmont was ramping up for another postseason run in October. In the Bruins' final regular-season outing, Edwards scorched the course at the University of Alabama on the way to a team-best 11th placing.
Belmont finished fifth overall in the final tune-up for the conference meet.
"I kept getting better and better," remembered Edwards, who topped two runners who would eventually qualify for the NCAA South Regional Championships. "Alabama was one of the best races I've ever had, but I knew there was more to come for this team."
The next night, a Saturday, he noticed the pain. By Monday morning, teammate and roommate Kaden Eaton was ferrying Edwards to the emergency room.
He needed an appendectomy, then four weeks of rest at a minimum. In that moment, reality set in for Edwards.
No conference. No Regionals. The tears welled in his eyes.
"I couldn't hold it back," Edwards said. "It hit home how much running really means to me."
His family thousands of miles away, he relied on his adopted kin more than ever. Belmont Head Athletic Trainer Kim Anderson stayed with Edwards throughout the day until his surgery that evening. BU Assistant Athletic Director Amy McGinnis brought scones to the hospital, a comforting reminder of home. And of course his fellow Bruin runners were there.
They showered him with words of encouragement, pulled the blinds when he was too weak to stand and dedicated the remainder of the season to their fallen teammate. They knew how important that inclusion would be.
There's little more difficult for a competitor than being forced from competition, a lesson Eaton learned while recovering from his own injury early in his Belmont career.
"When you wake up in the morning and watch everybody else go to practice and you can't, that's painful. It's lonely," Eaton explained.
The loneliest he's ever been, Edwards confirmed. After spending nearly every hour of every day with the team – running, working out, eating, bonding – he was suddenly an island. And homesick.
Seeing how his situation had drained the team as well, Edwards buried his depressive feelings. There was hardly a week remaining before conference and he feared becoming a mental burden.
"I didn't tell anybody how badly it hit me because I didn't want them to worry," Edwards said. "I started to make a conscious effort to try and perk up because I knew they had conference coming up. Maybe it would help me to help the people around me."
Running high on emotion, the Bruins made a valiant effort at the OVC Championships. A top-12 finish by Kaleb McLeod and a career day from Declan McManus, both sophomores, were not enough to overcome the psychological and physical loss of the team's senior leader.
Belmont took third. A week later the Bruins' season ended with an 11th-place finish at Regionals.
"I think not having Edwards took an emotional toll on these guys," Belmont Head Cross Country Coach Jeff Langdon said. "Matt is a great competitor who always supports his teammates."
Though disappointed by the season's finish, the humbled Bruins were provided perspective by Edwards' absence. Remember to appreciate what you have, Eaton offered.
"You get in the heat of the season, it can just become a grind," he said. "That was a wake-up of how fortunate we are to get to do this. We needed to be making the most out of every second."
It appears in the late stages of almost any distance race. The physical pain makes each stride feel like the last one you may ever run. The mental fog obscures all motivation to continue.
Hitting the wall is an inevitability; overcoming it takes practice and poise.
"When you get to three miles is when it really hurts," Edwards said. "Why I ran so well this season is when I got to three miles, I never had those thoughts. I would think, 'I'm doing this for me, my teammates and everyone that's supporting me.'"
With a renewed appreciation for the sport that has whisked him around the globe, Edwards has channeled that focus toward conquering a new wall. While his cross country career may be over, track season remains.
The Bruins commence the bulk of their indoor track schedule Friday, Jan. 12, with the Commodore Invitational just up the road at Vanderbilt. Though some things will always be out of his control, Edwards is determined to make the most of his remaining days as a Bruin.
"All the little things, anything that you can do, I'm making sure I'm doing," he said. "Every chance you have, you need to take advantage of it. The goals I didn't reach in cross country, there are equivalents in track season I know I'm capable of reaching – if I just put my head down and do the work."