Photos by Cameron Flaisch
Three Roman runners will join the thousands converging on Boston on April 17 to tackle the storied Boston Marathon and the 26.2 mile course. And while the daunting race the trio faces will be full of ups and downs, it pales in comparison to the journey they have each travelled to get there.
For Keith Long, Justin Strickland and Jay Stephenson, Boston serves as a celebration and another signpost along a journey.
For those who knew Keith Long a few years ago, the idea of that version running, much less running a marathon seems not just improbable but impossible.
“I was overweight. I had high blood pressure. My health wasn’t very good. At my heaviest, I was around 270 pounds,” he says. “I knew I needed to do something, but I was always saying I’ll do it tomorrow.”
For Long, who works in Downtown Atlanta, tomorrow came after he noticed his reflection as he walked to his car.
“I passed several windows on the way to where I was parked, and I saw my reflection,” he says. “I didn’t like what I saw and even worse I was out of breath just walking to my car.”
Soon after, Long watched the documentary “Forks over Knives” with his wife Mary Ann and the two decided to change their eating habits.
“The main thing for me is to be healthy, so I can be around for my son, Thomas. I want to make sure I can be there to help take care of him,” he says. “The way my health was going meant I probably wasn’t going to be around.”
Long started walking on his lunch break and began to see the pounds slide off.
“I walked for several weeks and then I started trying to run some. I probably ran about an eighth of a mile before I had to stop and walk again, but it got me going.”
Long graduated from walking two miles to running a mile and then walking a mile to run-ning two miles and finally running his whole route at lunch.
Long’s wife encouraged him to run the Harbin Clinic Leprechaun-a-thon and he turned in a solid 22-minute effort for the 3.1-mile race. The pair ran the Berry Half Marathon the next year and thoughts of a full marathon entered Long’s head.
“Mary Ann has family from Boston, so we began talking about how it would be neat if I could run the Boston Marathon. Then we looked into it and realized I had to qualify for the race.”
Some marathons, like Boston and New York, get so many applicants that runners must finish a marathon in a certain time based on their age to be able to qualify to run the event.
Long, who was 43 then, looked up the qualifying times on the internet and realized he would have to run a marathon in under 3 hours and 15 minutes to qualify.
“Mary Ann saw the time and thought it was unrealistic. I saw the time and thought to myself I could do that,” he says.
Long tackled the Chickamauga Marathon and then made a serious attempt at the qualifying time at the Rock ’n’ Roll Marathon in Savannah the next spring. Luck wasn’t on his side. The notoriously flat and fast Savannah course turned into an oven as the temperature soared into the upper 70’s and the heat index reached into the high 80’s causing the run to be shortened.
The next attempt came at Myrtle Beach, South Carolina. Going into the race, Long felt he needed to run a 3:12 to ensure he qualified for Boston.
“At about mile 20, I realized I had a good shot at it,” he says. “About mile 23 or 24 my hamstrings started to cramp a bit so I slowed down. I didn’t want to chance something happening and not getting my qualifying time.”
Long crossed the finish line with a 3:03 good for second place in his age group and a solid 12 minutes under the Boston qualifying time.
“I was relieved to get it, but I looked at the time and thought I should have been able to break three (hours),” he says. “I think Mary Ann was more excited than I was. She was probably relieved that I qualified so she wouldn’t have to hear me complaining about it.”
JUST GUNNING FOR PEACHTREE
A few years ago, Justin Strickland managed to get a Peachtree number from one of his friends. Strickland ran the race and enjoyed it, but didn’t like being stuck in the massive throng of people in the back of the pack.
The aim to run a better time to earn a spot near the front of the pack at Peachtree led to longer runs and even a marathon or two, but Strickland found running left him with sever pain in his legs.
“I had some of the bulging varicose veins in my legs, but I figured it was just part of life and more of a cosmetic thing,” Strickland says. “I was having some bad pain in my legs, but I thought it was from the running.”
Strickland visited the Harbin Clinic Vein Center and learned he had venous insufficiency from Dr. John Kirkland.
Venous insufficiency is a condition in which the flow of blood through the veins is impaired. Dr. Kirkland performed procedures on both of Strickland’s legs.
“The surgery was painless and the recovery time was manageable,” Strickland says. “I healed up and started seeing an improvement in my (running) performances almost instantly.”
“The pain I had felt while running was gone. I guess I hadn’t realized how much pain I was in. It was like I had a new set of legs,” he says.
With his legs pain-free, Strickland began seeing his times drop and the thoughts of running Boston began creeping in.
Strickland continued to work, finding that he enjoyed long runs so much that he began volunteering to help pace groups through the marathon. The training and the pacing helped but his pacing was far slower than the 3:15 he needed to qualify for Boston.
Strickland focused his efforts to qualify at the Run Hard Marathon in Columba, S.C.
“The weather was nice and the course was downhill so there were a lot of people there trying to earn their Boston qualifying time,” he says.
Strickland crossed the finish line in 3:13, placing 12th in the race and earning the time necessary to reach Boston. But for him, the Boston qualifying led to something different.
Strickland entered the Lake Martin 50 miler on a lark.
“I don’t know what it is, but I just love running those really long runs,” he says.
Strickland did so well at Lake Martin, he placed 3rd for his age group, and he followed that up by running in the Pinhoti 100 miler.
“It’s funny. I never seem to be able to appreciate anything in the moment. Every time I do something I look at it and then I think to myself that I can do better next time,” he says.
He finished Pinhoti in just a tad over 27 hours earning him a chance to qualify for the infamous Western States 100 in Squaw Valley, California. So, roughly two months after Strickland tackles Boston, he’ll be doing almost four times the distance over mountains and trails in California.
If you’re a runner in Rome, odds are you’re familiar with Stephenson. Stephenson, a three-time All-American while at Berry College, former coach of Shorter’s cross country and track and field teams, and now co-owner of GoGo Running and the Shoe Box can be found running and helping runners on a daily basis.
Stephenson has run in and won races all across the country, including the Grand Rap-ids Marathon, the course he used to qualify for Boston. But Stephenson’s relationship with the marathon has been rocky over the years.
“I’ve only run three marathons. I ran one when I was 16 years old and had never run more than nine miles. I ran the Rocket City Marathon (in Huntsville, Alabama) but had to drop out at Mile 23, and I ran the Grand Rapids Marathon,” he says.
For Stephenson, running hasn’t been as easy the past few years. Age has caught up with him, but a different approach to training has him aiming for new things.
“Honestly, my running is probably the best it’s been in almost 10 years,” he says. “I’ve been doing a lot of extra things to stay healthy and cut down some on my mileage.”
Incorporating high-tech gadgets like an anti-gravity treadmill and using an EllipitiGo which is a strange combination of cycling, elliptical training and running has allowed him to hone his fitness while lessening the overall impact on his body.
While others may be focusing solely on the marathon as Boston approaches, Stephenson took time to run the mile at a few recent indoor track meets.
“A friend of mine texted me asking me if I was crazy, because I ran a couple of indoor miles,” he says. “Just because I’m running a marathon, doesn’t mean I’m only a marathoner now.”
As for Boston, it figures in Stephenson’s plan. In fact, it might be better to say it figures in his five-year plan.
“I don’t have a ton of expectations for Boston. I’d like to run about the same time or faster than I did at Grand Rapids. I really just want to go and get the feel for the race and start preparing,” he says.
The overall plan centers on Stephenson pre-paring for a certain event at Boston. Stephenson is 36 years old. Five years from now, he will be 40 and eligible to compete as a Master’s runner. Master’s runners are age 40 and older and the category is easier than his current age group, which features professional and world-class level runners.
“I haven’t checked to see what the Masters run. My thought is that four or five years is a long ways away. I just want to kind of learn and feel my way,” he says. “I want to do what I can now to learn and then try to be competitive as a Master’s runner.”
While it might be amusing to some to hear Stephenson talking about being competitive after winning a marathon and turning a 4:26 indoor mile, as a former All-American Stephenson’s level of competitive is a bit different than the average runner.
“I’m just going to go up and come back as quick as possible. I think it’s big, but I’m not making a big deal out of it,” Strickland says.
Stephenson will most likely try to learn as much of the lay of the land as possible.
Long and his wife plan on spending extra time in Boston with family. Long even managed to score his wife a spot in a 5K that same week-end in Boston.
Having had several months to process reach-ing his goal, Long has a different take than the one he did moments after finishing the Myrtle Beach Marathon.
“It’s kind of hard to explain to someone else the feeling of relief that you have when you ac-complish a goal you didn’t necessarily think you were going to be able to do,” Long says. “I think all of this will really sink in when we get up to Boson and just take it all in.”
None of the trio talks much about their Boston goals, but each has set their sights on something on the horizon.
“I don’t know. I hear so much about Ironman competitions. Maybe I’ll get a bike and start training for one of those,” Long says. Long pauses a moment after saying this, tilts his head and scratches his chin. “Or maybe I’ll see if I can run sub 2:45. That would be a great goal.”
Strickland plans to enjoy Boston, but is think-ing of California.
“I’m going to have fun at Boston, but I’m really looking forward to Western States,” Strick-land says.
Asking the men to reflect on their journeys brings a similar result.
“I wore a size 44 pants and weighed 270 pounds. I remember running an eighth of a mile and feeling like I was almost dying – thinking to myself, what the Hell am I doing,” Long says. “I never would have thought I’d be getting ready to run Boston. And there is no way I could have done any of this without my wife. She’s been behind me every step of the way.”
“I really just wanted to get a better time for Peachtree,” Strickland says. “I don’t really think much about where I’ve been and how far I’ve come. I’m sure one day I’ll sit back and reminisce.”
“Everyone tells me running Boston is no joke,” Stephenson says. “I don’t want to get too excited and go out too fast and have a bad experience.”
All three started from different places. They will celebrate, they will run Boston, and then they will attack other goals and challenges.
They’ve all accomplished so much, but they all have plenty of miles, plans and goals left ahead of them.