November 7, 1991 was the luckiest day of my life. It was the day I broke my neck in a swimming-pool accident. Suffering such a severe injury isn’t what I hoped for when I woke up that morning. But I was blessed to escape paralysis, and I celebrate November 7 every year as a birthday for my legs. I’ve always wanted to run a marathon on this date and I’m finally going to get my chance.
There’s a small marathon in Huntington Beach, Ca., this Saturday. It’s probably the smallest marathon I’ll ever run in (not shortest — it will be 26.2 miles, just like all the others, but there will probably be fewer than 25 entrants). But I’m totally excited. November 7 is a day I consider to be a birthday for my legs, and what better way to commemorate that than to run a marathon?
I celebrate because I was the slimmest of margins away from the unthinkable. It happened when I was pushed head-first into the shallow end of a pool that was only 3 1/2 feet deep. If I would have been paralyzed, I might have drowned. If I would have survived, I would have spent the rest of my life in an electric wheelchair, using a mouth stick to control my life.
I would have never met Tiffany. There would have been no Benjamin, Jack or Ava. Every year on November 7, I spend all day thanking God for sparing my legs. I get emotional on my run and I get emotional when I see my kids. Towards the end of my first marathon, when I was shooting to finish in less than four hours, I knew I wasn’t going to hit my time goal. I started getting upset, thinking I was going to let my wife and kids down at the finish line. My stupid legs weren’t working well enough. I started having a little bit of a breakdown.
But then I finally realized that my stupid legs were working very well. I was going to finish a marathon with legs I was lucky to have use of and see my wife and kids I almost didn’t have. That finish line in San Diego wasn’t the end. I kept going from there. Well, I’m not talking about how we spent 90 minutes looking for the car in the parking lot after that race (that was certainly memorable!). I’m talking about how I continued on the journey God sent me on.
For a while, I was bitter that I was damaged goods through no fault of my own. My neck hurts every day and that’s never going to change. I thought I got a raw deal. It took me nearly two decades, but I finally realized I have a gift that can help other people.
If you’ve never been here before, in 2010, I’m going to try to run 60 marathons all over the country in my son Jack’s honor to try to raise awareness and money for a charity called Train 4 Autism. Jack, my 6-year-old special star, is severely autistic; he’s still in diapers, he can’t really talk and his life is a non-stop, 7-days-a-week cycle of special education classes and in-home behavioral therapy. It’s not the life any parent dreams of for their child. It’s certainly not what Tiff and I expected with our middle child, who was supposed to bridge the gap between our oldest (8-year-old Benjamin) and youngest (4-year-old Ava).
We used to wonder why he was born with autism. Like me and my neck pain, it’s not fair that he’s going to struggle for the rest of his life. But at the core of it all, I know I’m blessed that I’m still walking and that we’re blessed to have Jack.
For years, I tried to figure out what the purpose was for our struggles. Eventually, I started thinking that together, Jack and I had to make a difference. I didn’t know how, but it clicked for me during a run this February. I’m going to run 60 marathons next year and build up a charity. If all goes well, little Jack is going to have an impact on a ton of people. He’ll never know or understand that, but he’s going to make a difference in this world.
Simple enough, right? Well, even without the neck injury, I’m absolutely the last person you’d expect to run 60 marathons in a year. In high school, I cheated on the mile in PE. When I played baseball, I’d get thrown out at first on singles to right
field. I was never athletic and I couldn’t run. Actually, I hated running. It was a punishment.
After high school, I gained weight, started drinking and smoking, and did everything imaginable to ruin my health. In 2003, my wife sent me to the doctor to take a physical. I felt like I was showing up at school without my homework — I dreaded going because I knew I was in trouble.
My cholesterol was above 300 and my liver was so bad, my doctor asked me, in all seriousness, if I drank hard alcohol on my way to the blood test. I didn’t, so he didn’t know what to say about the numbers. He wanted to put me on medication for my cholesterol, but he was afraid it would blow up my liver and he couldn’t. He told me to
start exercising. I thought I was a walking heart attack, but he told me I was OK to take a walk around the block.
“You’ll be fine,” he told me. “Just don’t go out and try to run a marathon tomorrow.”
How ironic that statement would become. That was in May 2003. A year later, I topped out at 261 pounds. In November 2004, I finally took my first walk around the block. Tiffany bought me an iPod for my 30th birthday and I wanted to put it to use. I figured I could listen to it more if I went walking, so four times a week, I spent an hour walking 3.4 miles.
That walking turned into jogging, and 3.4 slow miles per day in October 2005 turned into a dare to run a half marathon six weeks later. That turned into two more half marathons and a dare to run a marathon. Since that first 26.2-miler on June 4, 2006, I’ve never looked back. I ran my 26th full marathon in October with Tiff, guiding her through her first. I’ve also run a 50K (31 miles) and a 50-mile race to challenge myself.
Somewhere along the line, I got decent at running. I’ll never make it to the Olympics or win a big race, but despite never running a single mile in my life faster than 8:30 before my 31st birthday, I’ve run a marathon at an average pace of 6:52/mile. I’ve qualified for the Boston Marathon 12 times. Last year, I ran three marathons in three states in eight days, all quicker than 7:13/mile. Through it all, though, I’ve learned my running has more of a purpose than chasing time goals.
There’s no logical reason for me to run the way I do. I’m the fat, slow, unathletic, drunk-on-the-weekend, pack-a-day-for-four-years guy who broke his neck and should be a quadriplegic. That’s why I know it’s a gift. My legs were spared for a purpose, Jack suffers for a purpose, and next year, we’ll find out if that purpose is Operation Jack.
I’m excited about the opportunity to help Train 4 Autism grow. Train 4 Autism helps get people through races, from 5Ks to marathons to triathlons, while providing a vehicle to help raise money for the autism-related charity of the participant’s choosing. I really like the model and I think there’s great potential for growth nationwide.
Sometimes, I wonder if I really can give Train 4 Autism the kind of spark I dream of. But other huge organizations, like Team In Training, started small at one point. If Train 4 Autism grows, I’ll know I played a part in the early years and Jack will have made a difference in the world. He might need some help, but as his father, that would make me incredibly proud!
So, maybe this really is why my legs were spared and Jack was born with autism. Maybe something big really is going to happen. I can’t wait until January 1, when I’ll lace up my shoes in Kingwood, Texas. My New Year’s Resolution: 60 marathons, 1,000 new members of Train 4 Autism and a legacy for my son.
But first, my marathon on Saturday. November 7. Thank you, God, for sparing me and giving me this chance! I’m going to make the most of it!