After my post, All Marathons Have a Backstory was published, I got to thinking about all the other marathon stories developing this fall. In particular, one of my friends from college, Justin, had quite an amazing story to share. After reconnecting on Facebook, I offered him a platform to share that story. Today, it’s not about women’s running or men’s running. Being fast or being slow. It’s about living life to its fullest.
The question I get asked more than anything is why do you run? I am sure as runners we have all had that question asked a million times. It’s a basic question but I don’t think anyone can give a basic answer. In my case it is definitely not an easy answer.
I started running around the age of 11. My Aunt Kelly would take me out for runs during her off season from collegiate running. I will never forget her face the first time we ever did a 3 mile run together. During the run she looked over and said, “Wow, if you stick with this, you could be something really special.” Coming from my Aunt, who was an amazing runner herself, meant so much. Unfortunately though, my aunt took her own life at the young age of 27 after a Sunday morning long run.
I always wondered if I could have changed what happened. What if I had gone on that run with her? Would she still be here? With this always on my mind I never turned out to be the great high school runner that she knew I could be. I did have a decent high school career, running on the varsity team that went to states, but individually I never lived up to the “hype.”
After high school, running competitively was just a painful reminder of my Aunt Kelly. When I got to college I made many friends who were into running so I’d occasionally join them for a jog. But as far as racing went, the days of running 5ks in 17 minutes were behind me. Then everything changed incredibly fast. On January 1, 2004 , on the way to a ski trip with friends, the driver lost control of the SUV and we wrecked at 70 mph on the interstate. The SUV flipped 7 times and I was thrown out of the vehicle, ending up on the other side of the highway. Miraculously, everyone survived. Though I had the most injuries. I dislocated my right hip, had severe lacerations all over my body, and my spine was a half inch out of my back. Due to my injuries I was life-lighted twice and went through 8 surgeries in the first 3 days. I was given a colostomy bag and told I would be in the hospital for at least a couple of months. The doctors said that I was lucky that I was not paralyzed for life but walking was going to be tough. Being able to compete in any type of sport at the level I was used to would probably never happen again. The next six months were extremely tough. But whenever I tried to give up, someone would always pick me back up.
After 15 surgeries, a colostomy bag reversal, and many months of not being able to do anything, I was finally cleared to start working out again. The problem was I did not want to. Not only did I not want to, but the way I always stayed in shape was running. I was told that running long distance was a bad idea due to my injuries. If I wanted to run, it needed to be no more than 3 to 5 miles in one day and at a very easy pace. Now, as much as the days of competitive running were behind me prior to the injury, I still couldn’t shake out the competitive person in me. I didn’t like to do anything unless I could do it to my very best ability. More importantly though, I didn’t want to let my aunt down. I was definitely not that special runner she thought I would have been in life. I spiraled into depression.
I probably would have never worked out again if it wasn’t for my wife Kerrie talking me through every day of depression. My best friend Dave also helped by pushing me back into sports. In particular, there is one day I will never forget. I was lying on the couch and Dave walked in and looked at me and screamed, “GET UP!” I refused. He screamed again, ”GET UP NOW! We are going out for a run and I am sick of seeing you act this way.” After 10 minutes of arguing and knowing he was about to kick my ass, I got up. Dave had always been a sprinter. I figured I would go out and run and he would remember how much he hated distance running and I could head back to the couch. As I put on my shoes, I looked up at Dave and said, “Well are you going to get ready?” He was wearing sandals, and he looked right back at me and said, “I am.”
We went downstairs and decided we would do an easy two mile run. About a half mile in I could barely breathe and he was pulling away from me. I told him to slow down. He laughed and kept running. When I finally finished, he looked at me and said, “Wow a non-distance runner just beat you in sandals! I want you to think about that. Think about who you used to be and who you are now. Think about the second chance you have been given, and how so many people would give anything to be in your shoes but you instead want to lie around and waste it.” Truth be told, this experience is what got me off the couch. For good.
I continued to run but still could not bring myself to race. I just didn’t feel it was possible, especially after the accident. In fact, I would use the accident as an excuse. It wasn’t until January of 2012 when my brother in law, Ryan asked me to do the Pittsburgh Marathon with him. He pitched it to me as an opportunity to complete a marathon.
I began training and started to remember why I loved running. The first couple of weeks of training were like any other in my past and I tried not to pay attention to my pace. Then something changed. I went out for a long run and everything just clicked. My legs felt great, my pace felt amazing, and I finally knew my aunt was with me. Quickly, my attitude changed. I was no longer thinking I can’t be fast because of the accident. Instead I thought, I can be faster. I entered my first 5K in over 10 years during my marathon training and felt like I was ready to beat my old times. I crossed the finish line in 20:40. In the past I probably would have quit but I told myself that I could only get faster from there. I went into Pittsburgh feeling great but went out a little too fast and hit a wall about 18 miles into the race. I ended up finishing in 3:27:00. But instead of quitting, I wanted to get faster.
If you would have told me 9 years ago that I would be back into running races, be a part of the Achilles Running Shop racing team, and pushing for individual victories at local races, I would have laughed in your face. But it has happened because of the support system I have and the determination I found in the darkest moments of my life. Whenever you are hurting or having a setback just know there might be someone else out there going through the same thing.
I run because I know at the start of every run, whether my wife, kids, and family are there or not, that they are thinking about me and know I am giving everything I have on that run. I know that every time I go out for a run my Aunt Kelly is there with me, guiding me one step after another. She knows I have become that something special she told me about so many years ago. But it’s not the overall time that makes one special, not the speed, or even the endurance. It’s not the glory of victory or even the agony of defeat. At the end of the day YOU and only you make yourself special.
There is always a finish line in the distance. You may not always see the finish line, but keep pushing and I promise, your legs and heart will find it.
Justin C. Thomas is a competitive runner from Northeast Ohio. He extends many thanks to his wife Kerrie, three children Ella, Owen, and Lucas, and the many other family and friends who have helped him along the way. Since 2012, he has returned to running under eighteen minutes in the 5k and is aiming to run under three hours at the inaugural Northern Ohio Marathon on October 13th, 2013.