the long run : the story of matt long’s recovery

When I used to feel stress at the firehouse … I had the simple solution : Throw on a singlet, put on the shorts, lace up the running shoes and do a hard six miler in the park. Every run solved a problem or reduced its significance. I liked to say a run cleaned the chalkboard of life.

A big source of inspiration for me, as I was recovering from my bike accident in 2008 was New York City firefighter Matthew Long.  He’d been struck by a bus while riding to work.  He suffered extensive internal injuries.  Matt was initially given a 5% chance of survival.  Yet three years later, he lined up at the start of the New York City Marathon, to run the race of a lifetime.  His is an amazing story.

I survived because I had trained my heart to do the same. Becoming an Ironman had kept me from becoming a dead man.

Matt’s book The Long Run is available in paperback now.  It’s a worthwhile read – particularly for those dealing with life-altering injuries.  You can check out his interview with Jon Stewart, talking about what he was up against, and some of the things that made a big difference for him.

It seemed that with each conversation I had with a doctor, the longer my road to recovery became.

I’d first read Matt’s story in the New York Times, just before he ran the 2008 New York City Marathon.  I was nearly four months from my own adventure with a negligent driver.  Reading about Matt making it to the starting line again gave me a glimmer of hope that I might do the same.  Reading and seeing his path to the finish line in Runner’s World in early 2009 was a transformative experience for me.

While in my own recovery, one of the things I struggled with the most was setting my own expectations about when or whether I’d get back to where I’d been before the accident.  Recovery from a serious injury such as a Traumatic Brain Injury does not have a straight path.  There aren’t timelines you can count on.  In a situation like that, it’s hard to figure out what a reasonable baseline of expectations is – at work, running marathons, or with life in general. 

“Matt, come on.” she snapped. “Look how far you’ve come” But I didn’t want to look back. And I couldn’t look forward. I had always lived in the present. I used to wake up every morning expecting to make that day more fun than the day before … Then I got run over by a bus and I couldn’t do anything or see anything. I couldn’t see that last week I had walked 30 feet down a hallway, and this week I walked 60 feet, and next week I might walk 120 feet. I didn’t see that things were doubling. I just saw one thing. Me in a damn wheelchair with a damn colostomy bag hooked to my side.

Matt’s story illustrates this difficulty very clearly.  Prior to his accident, Matt had completed several marathons – including a personal-best (and Boston-qualifying) 3:13 weeks before the race.  He’d also completed Ironman Lake Placid in a very respectable 11:18:01.

Everything changed on the morning of December 22, 2005.  He had to retrain his body in order to become independent again.  In order to start running again, he needed to walk.  In order to walk he needed to stand up.  In order to stand up, he needed to convince himself that he could do it.

“I am very confused about how I feel about my accident.  I ask “Why?” knowing that is a question never to be answered.  I ask to have a full recovery, and that will only be answered in time.  I find myself negotiating with God day in and day out …”

Talking about what it took to stand up again only scratches the surface of the degree of challenge Matt faced.  Coming to terms with some of the consequences of suffering extensive muscular and nerve damage in his core took several years.  Matt’s ability to talk about this will ring true to anyone who’s faced an uphill recovery – focusing on rebuilding both body and your spirit takes incredible determination, and (as Matt tells us) – and incredible amount of support – family, friends, and faith.

[The physical therapist] finished by writing, “If you want to run, all the better.  I would never tell anyone they couldn’t do what they wanted to do”.

One thing to remember is that determination takes many forms.  Sometimes it’s digging deeper to run faster or longer than you thought you could.  Other times it’s dealing with setbacks and not giving up on yourself.  Knowing that if you can’t run today, you’ll try again tomorrow.

The power of Matt’s story for me is how he focused on “I Will” instead of feeling defined by what he couldn’t do.  It’s the gift of hope.

Check out his book The Long Run, or the Runner’s World profile of him.

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