A second chance to be someone special

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 simple answer. In my case it is definitely not an easy answer.

I started running around age 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 three 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, this compliment 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 she knew I could be. I had a decent high school career, running on the varsity team that went to the state meet, but individually I never lived up to the “hype.”

Running in high school (second from the left)

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 5k’s 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 seven times, and I was thrown out of the vehicle, ending up on the other side of the highway. Miraculously, everyone survived. However, 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 eight surgeries in the first three 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 I was lucky I was not paralyzed for life, but walking was going to be tough. Being able to compete at the level I was used to in any type of sport 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 running was the way I always stayed in shape; and I was told running long distances was a bad idea due to my injuries. If I wanted to run, it needed to be no more than three to five miles in one day and at a very easy pace. Now, as much as my days of competitive running were already 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 be. I spiraled into depression.

Justin & Dave
With my friend Dave

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. I am sick of seeing you act this way.” After ten 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 ready.”

We went downstairs and decided we would do an easy two mile run. About a half mile in, I could barely breathe and Dave 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 instead you 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. During my marathon training, I entered my first 5K in over ten years 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 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.

After my Pittsburgh race, fast-forward a couple of years to 2014. I had made it my absolute one and only running goal to qualify for the Boston Marathon. In 2013, I attempted the distance again and came up just a bit short, crossing the finish line in 3:04:42, which would not be enough once the time adjustments came out for Boston. I went back to the drawing board, not willing to give in yet. Along the way on my journey to Boston, I found three training partners who have now become three of my best friends. One of them shared my Boston goal, as well. We decided to dedicate the entire winter going into 2014 to the Cleveland Marathon. With the help of J.T. Wittmann, John Distler, and Kyle Griffith, I was able to take my training to the next level. I came out of the winter feeling as if I was in better shape than I had ever been. I went into Cleveland coming off a 20 mile race victory and felt very prepared. At Cleveland I was able to achieve a 2:58:59, and so the journey to Boston was now a reality. I had made a dream come true for not only myself, but my Aunt Kelly! My competitive nature took over.  I now wanted to not only go run Boston, I wanted to set a new PR and push myself to the ultimate limit to prove I was better now than I was before.

My Boston training began about two weeks after Cleveland. I wanted to concentrate on getting faster, so I targeted 5Ks and a half marathon until my Boston cycle would begin. With my head held high, I can now say I am faster at all distances then I was before the accident, setting a new 5K PR of 16:25 and a half marathon PR of 1:16:30. With the summer races and training behind me, the reality of Boston really set in. I will never forget the first day I was able to register for Boston. I was at work and my new boss was in town. He knew my passion for Boston and the second I was able to apply he said “Go apply now, we can finish our visit after.” I could not believe I was putting in my information for Boston! A few days later I received confirmation, I had been accepted to the 2015 Boston Marathon along with one of my training partners, JT. We then began planning everything, where we would stay, when we would arrive, how many weeks to train, what we needed to really concentrate on: it was surreal. I went with a 19 week training program, and each week I dedicated my training to someone who had impacted me and my running career, to make sure everyone knew how much they meant to me, and that I would not be where I was without each of them!

Justin IMG_243844349822110 (2)
With the family

Before I knew it, 18 weeks had gone by, and it was time to head to Boston! I was lucky enough to go through a tough winter without any real injuries. I had studied the course, picked the brains of fellow runners on training for the distance, and learned how to improve. I went to Boston more confident then I had ever been before. I set three goals for myself, each a little higher: Goal one – 2:45:00 or top 1000, Goal two – 2:40:00 or top 500, and final goal – 2:36:00 or top 300. As we drove to the house we were renting for the weekend in Sharon MA, I was excited beyond words. Along for the trip was my wife, two of our four kids, JT and his wife, my brother-in-law Ryan, and two of my best friends Chris and Quintin. The support they provided through this whole journey, and over the weekend was immeasurable. After we arrived at the house, we unpacked and of course the first thing JT and I had to do was go for a shakeout run through Sharon. This was the very first time I was overcome by emotion. It hit me this was actually a reality. I was going to run the Boston Marathon! We went into the city after the run and headed straight to the Expo. As we walked the city streets, I was shocked at how much of the city comes to a stop so that runners like me can take the streets. We had so many people saying “good luck,” shaking our hands, and telling us how excited they were for us. I felt like a celebrity and I was just an average runner in town for the weekend. This was the first time I understood what people meant by the greatest race and people on earth.

After visiting the Expo, we went home to relax and get some sleep. The next day we woke up and headed back downtown to visit the city, spend more time at the Expo, and make some memories in the city. As we walked around Boylston Street, people continued to go out of their way for us. The Expo was absolutely insane (but in a good way). I remember walking around seeing all the runners and questioning if I was really ready for this race. The day flew by and Sunday was here, I wanted to make sure my friends and family got to enjoy the trip as well, so we headed downtown again and went to visit the aquarium, and the Quincy Market. For dinner that night we were able to enjoy some amazing Italian in Little Italy. I was once again blown away by the people around the city and how excited they were for us to be there.

Before I knew it Marathon Monday was here. A quick check at the weather showed exactly what I dreaded: Rain and 15-20 mph winds from the East. I could not help but think about the weather. My wife gave me a kiss before I walked out the door at 5:00am with JT, and told me relax, everyone is already so proud of you, no matter what happens you are a winner to everyone who knows you. JT and I then headed to the train station where we were met with good lucks and handshakes once again. We headed to the transportation buses and checked our bags. It was now beyond real, we made the trip to Hopkinton and Athletes’ Village. During the bus ride, we were able to speak to a few runners, and we all helped calm one another down. Athletes’ Village was so overwhelming with so many runners; and water, food, anything you needed, was right there. As the rain began, I finally came to terms with the fact nothing I could do was going to change the weather. I just had to go out and knock out the race.

After about 45 minutes, officials started calling for the first wave of athletes; and JT and I headed towards the start line. We dropped off our extra clothes and got to the start line. As I took to the corral, I got a good spot near the front of Corral 4 and started to shake out the legs. This was another moment where I was taken over by emotion. I started to breakdown as I thought about my life and how truly lucky I was: How I was getting ready to run Boston, and other people dream about it, or dream about just walking again. I thought about everything my aunt had taught me, the life lessons my family and friends had taught me, and finally all the good luck messages from friends and hugs and kisses from my wife and kids. I had already won and I hadn’t even taken one step on the course yet! I then looked around and saw thousands of runners. Even more impressive though, were the volunteers who were there to take care of us and help everything run smoothly. On top of that were the thousands of supporters just at the start line! I thought to myself, there is no way the entire 26.2 miles can have crowd support like this.

The gun went off and my Boston journey began. I was able to get out of the crowd around 1.5 miles and really settled into my pace. I felt strong, but could not believe the amount of people lining the streets as we ran by. I was crazy to run in this weather but they were standing out there in the cold and rain to let us know they supported us every step of the way. No other reason or reward but to push us to the finish line. As the race continued, so many thoughts ran through my head. I couldn’t help but imagine my aunt running next to me, smiling and enjoying the experience as much as I was. The crowd support never ended throughout the entire course.

Throughout the race I gave as many high fives as I could, I passed a few runners who had overcome their own setbacks. One runner really stood out to me. He was using crutches and was attempting the complete course. I was amazed. I had to run next to him and tell him how much he inspired me, and to keep it up! I continued down the streets and the crowds were deafening at points throughout the race. It actually made it hard to stay in control at times, but so worth every step. As I tried to run smart, I knew I just had to make it through the Newton Hills and I would be home free, the support I received heading through Newton was much needed.

As I came over Heartbreak, I saw my family and friends screaming their heads off in the rain, winds, and cold. I had one last push and continued to shoot for the finish line. As I hit about mile 22.5 my legs just froze. They had nothing left and I attempted to push through the pain. I unfortunately slowed way down but continued to run to the finish line. As I struggled over the last three miles, I didn’t mind. I had so many supporters screaming for me to finish and I had more time to “enjoy” the course and run one last dream with my aunt.

As I came down to the finish chute I had nothing left. I pushed to cross the line and finished in 2:47:32! I did not hit my goal times, but I didn’t care. I had just run the Boston Marathon! The volunteers made sure I was OK, and just as I crossed the line I heard a familiar voice. JT was literally right behind me, teammates and friends crossing the line within seconds of one another. We received our medals and embraced in a hug we both knew meant more than words could say.

On the journey to Boston

I looked up and knew my aunt had been with me the entire way. I ran and completed the Boston Marathon. Not only did I complete Boston, but I ran it in the rain and wind. If you had told me I would run a Marathon in a rain storm at forty degrees with a head wind the entire way and enjoy it, I would have laughed at you. But it happened, and not only did it happen, it is my greatest running memory and race I have ever been a part of in my entire life. Why, some would ask. It wasn’t because it’s called the Boston Marathon, it’s because the people along the way made it the greatest experience.  They were out in the weather, screaming as we ran by. They pushed us when we wanted to quit. They smiled when it was the one thing we needed. They found my bib number and let me know I could keep going, and when we finished, they were there to catch us if needed. I cannot describe in words how amazing this experience truly was, and what it meant to me. This city and its people made my dreams a reality. It is truly the greatest race on Earth. For every volunteer and supporter, it is you who makes this event what it is. I never thought I would see sub-elite athletes or sub 2:30 marathon runners stopping to hug or kiss their families because of what this event means. We are all BOSTON STRONG, but the supporters and volunteers make this event, not the name of the race.

The last time I broke down was shortly after the race. I don’t know if anyone in my group of friends and family noticed, but as we met up in the train station I saw my wife and kids. I was overjoyed not just to see all of them, but to know they supported me the entire way. I tried to hold back the tears as I embraced my wife and kids. My son took my medal and held it so proudly telling me how proud I made him. This was the perfect ending to a perfect dream, I kept waiting to wake up but it was reality. Thank you to everyone and the city of Boston.  For this one person, you made a lifetime dream a reality.

If you would have told me 11 years ago 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.

So, why do I run you still ask, 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 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 Thomas
Roaming Shores, Ohio
April 20, 2015
Age – 48
Bib # 25485