On Monday morning, an estimated 25,000 runners will line up in Hopkinton, Mass. for the 116th Boston Marathon. While a few thousand entries are reserved for charity runners, many in the starting corrals will have spent years training and improving their times, just to be able to say they qualified for the world’s oldest annual marathon. Former NYC firefighter Matt Long qualified in 2005, but he has yet to make it to the starting line.
“When you go to Boston, you wear that jacket or your t-shirt or your hat, someone says, “Where did you qualify?” wanting to make sure you didn’t sneak in,” Long explained. “I qualified, so someday I’ll do it.”
Standing in line for drinks at a Starbucks in Manhattan, Long looked to be the picture of health: bald, but slightly tanned, and undeniably physically fit. But as Long made his way to the corner of table I’d snagged, the truth got harder to hide. He wobbles when he walks, one leg is shorter than the other, and he had a cast on his left wrist, the result of a recent accident while training on his bicycle in Florida.
“Lightning struck twice, but the bus didn’t kill me. A Buick wasn’t going to kill me,” Long said with a grin. “I laugh at things like this now.”
It’s a little jarring to meet someone who talks so casually about being hit by a 40,000 pound bus while riding his bike to work during a transit strike, but Long’s told the story more than a few times.
When Long appeared on the Daily Show last summer, he mentioned the 68 units of blood doctors gave him during the first 10 or 11 hours after his accident. Some of the other details he left out. The bus broke every bone in his left leg, shattered the right side of his pelvis and his right shoulder, and severed multiple arteries when, as Long told John Stewart, his bike sliced him open “like a can.”
It was more than a year after the accident when Runner’s World Executive Editor Charles Butler met Long for the first time.
“That afternoon he was really thin,” Butler remembers. “He had an overcoat on, even though it was springtime. That was my first remembrance of him, kind of unshaven, but pleasant.”
Long was still on crutches when he and Butler first met, but that soon changed. A year later, in the spring of 2008, Long ran his first post-accident mile and immediately decided to train for and run the 2008 New York City Marathon.
That November, less than three years after his accident, Long finished those 26.2 miles in 7:21.
Butler’s 9,000-word article for Runner’s World, “A Second Life“, inspired more letters and emails than anything the magazine had ever printed. Eventually, Long and Butler would turn the story into a book called The Long Run: A New York City Firefighter’s Triumphant Comeback from Crash Victim to Elite Athlete. But first, Matt Long had another surprise.
“He called me up after he did it and said, ‘Hey, by the way, another footnote. I just did the Ironman,'” Butler recalled. Long suggested Butler check out the video on YouTube.
Unlike a marathon, the Ironman has a time limit. Finish in 17:01, and you don’t get a medal. Matt finished in a little over 11 hours the summer before his accident. In that YouTube video, the crowd waits in the dark and goes crazy as post-accident Matt, clearly exhausted and in terrible pain, crosses the line with just under two minutes to spare.
“Pain is temporary,” Long said. “It’s not just a slogan, it’s not just a line that people use, but pain in the athletic sense is temporary. I live with pain every day. But to push myself to the next level so I can be who I was before my accident was worth it, because mentally my life hasn’t changed.”
At the Starbucks just blocks from the hospital where he was taken after his accident, Matt gave credit to the doctors who saved his life, the nurses who kept him going, and the physical therapists who pushed him to do more. But, he said, they all agree it was the running, biking, and swimming he did before a bus ran him over that made the difference.
“My heart and my lungs were so trained from these endurance events that I did that they wouldn’t stop,” Long said. “They just kept working, and it’s not short of a miracle that I’m here.”
The lingering effects of Long’s injuries forced him to give up his job as a firefighter. But he says sometimes the struggle isn’t about overcoming adversity. It’s about accepting it. Besides, he’s found a new way of helping his community. After the book came out, Long’s inbox was flooded by requests from people looking for inspiration. Now he often finds himself back in the hospital, visiting those in need.
When Matt Long and Charles Butler first met, Long was broken, not just physically, but psychologically. Butler says many of the conversations that became the book were raw and emotional, as Long struggled with his fears after the accident—that he might never walk without crutches, never find a woman to love, and never become a father. Now, Butler says, Long has once again become the guy his friends remember from before the accident, the guy who can laugh off getting hit by a Buick while encouraging others to keep fighting through adversity.
“He does it with a good smile, and he tells it as it is, he tells it like a guy from Brooklyn who had a rough day, but now he’s, gosh, I think at one point he said he’d never thought he’d be married. Well, look at him now. He’s married and having a kid. That’s pretty amazing.”