By JOHN J. BURO
MARLBORO -Earlier this year, Spencer Freedman weighed in at a robust 337 pounds and wasn’t feeling particularly good about himself.
Freedman, 35, was well aware of his family’s history -well aware of the cancer that claimed his mother’s life back in 1987, just one day before his first day of kindergarten. He didn’t want his wife, Audra, and their five year-old son to experience that same type of loss.
A lifestyle change was in order.
“As far as back I could remember, I’ve always had a weight problem,” Freedman recalled. “In fact, when I look at my Facebook memory photos, -for the five or six years I’ve been on the site- in every picture, I’ve been really heavy. I knew I had to get healthy, because of my family. But, I never could stick to anything long-term. I never did exercise and nutrition -I would do one or the other, and it would only be for a short amount of time.
“But, I’m much better now.”
Freedman enrolled at The MAX Challenge (Old Bridge) in January, followed its proven nutrition and exercise regimen and, within months, dropped nearly 70 pounds. And while he couldn’t cite a singular event -the final straw- which prompted him to join in the first place, connecting the dots between his son’s entry into kindergarten and his own, was high on that list.
“I had to get healthy for him,” Freedman admitted, while flashing back to the very last day of his mom’s 33rd year. “I knew what it was like to grow up without a parent.”
Getting healthy often means purchasing new clothes -a fact which became evident when he happened to purge his smaller wardrobe just one week before stepping through the doors of The MAX. Threads that hadn’t been worn in years were discarded in favor of those that fit better. Freedman laughs at the irony. “I wish I had them now.”
What he does have, though, is a greater appreciation for life.
During the middle of his first 10-week challenge, he embarked on a new endeavor. Despite the winter chill, Freedman -depicting a modern-day Forrest Gump- took to the asphalt. Long walks became long runs and he was soon turned onto the Galloway Method of Running by a fellow MAXer.
After Freedman committed to the advice given by Jeff Galloway, a lifelong runner who competed in the 10,000 meter race for the 1972 US Olympic Team, he was presented with yet another reason to move forward.
To those who followed his myriad of Facebook posts charting distance and time, the decision to take it a step further surprised no one. By the time Freedman had registered to run the 2017 New York City Marathon under the JAR of Hope banner -joining founder Jim Raffone and 19 others in a massive fundraising effort to combat Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy (DMD)- he was only months removed from his very first workout.
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Charity is big business with the New York Road Runners (NYRR). Last year, 9,000 different organizations combined to generate more than $36 million.
Of course, there are those who won’t make it to the starting line, on the Staten Island side of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge. According to Runner’s World, there were more than 98,000 entrants who applied for the free, non-guaranteed drawing to enter the 2017 race.
Naturally, the revamped system did have a downside: an even greater rejection rate. Only 16,000 runners were given a bib -their identification number-, meaning just a paltry 17% gained admittance. Still, there will be 50,000 pairs of sneakers touching down on the five boroughs, with the balance of runners grandfathered in by way of ‘guaranteed methods’.
This was the first time a freebie lottery was offered, which was quite different from the selection process employed in 2015, when -as Forbes Magazine later reported- the NYRR had charged each of the-then 82,000 hopefuls a non-refundable $11 entry fee. The result: more than 75% of the applicants were rejected and a lawsuit against the NYRR ensued.
Under the auspices of JAR of Hope, Freedman was in. However, as the countdown to Sunday, November 5 edges closer, there is still much more work to do.
In the beginning, he had observed Galloway’s videos which suggested alternately walking and running at 90 second intervals -thereby enabling him to routinely knock down two and three miles at a clip. Over time, Freedman gained both speed and endurance, two qualities which will surely help him navigate the 26.219 mile course.
A pair of 5K (3.1 miles) runs/walks this past spring served as a solid warm-up. Inspired by several MAXers who accompanied him -(“There are just so many people there who want to be fit, who want to run.”)-, he joined the Old Bridge Road Runner’s Club, which ran three days a week.
In May, he reached two miles, non-stop, for the first time and declared himself ready for The Spring Lake Five Mile Run over Memorial Day weekend. Though the initial plan was to break up the pace, Freedman exceeded his own expectations and, subsequently zipped through the course. The following week, he crushed the six-mile Towpath ‘Train’-ing Run in Piscataway.
Next on the agenda is the Brooklyn Half-Marathon in mid-October, a 13.1 mile trek ending in Prospect Park. For this, Freedman entered an extensive 14-week training program. With his spot for this race secured, another challenge soon emerged from the shadows.
Raffone’s Facebook post, seeking runners for Team Jamesy, caught Freedman’s eye.
“My original plan,” he revealed, “was to run the Marathon in 2018. That was where I was headed.”
The charities offered to him didn’t feel quite right, in that they either lacked an emotional connection or weren’t compelling enough.
The truth was that, although Freedman had made great strides in a very short time, he simply didn’t feel ready for the grueling task. “2018 would’ve given me more time to drop a bunch more weight, lighten up and work on my endurance. It was only after I read Jim’s post that I realized this is my shot, my opportunity. It’s right here in my face. I can do this.”
“He’s an absolutely incredible individual and I think the world of him,” Raffone said of the latest addition to his team. “Anyone who has that compassion is someone I’d like to align myself with.”
While Jamesy’s battle with Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy did initially trigger Freedman’s interest, it was a MAX-sponsored event back in the spring that ultimately broke him.
An accompanying video featured separate clips of Jamesy and a teenager named Brandon -already in a wheelchair- and was the very first JAR of Hope segment that Freedman had seen. “I didn’t know how bad this thing could get,” he said. “Compared to Brandon, Jamesy looked fine. But, without a cure, he too will be relegated to a wheelchair.”
Reality was a gut-punch. “I can’t remember the last time I cried so much.”
“My son is five now,” Freedman said, “and Jamesy was a similar age when he was diagnosed. So, I can relate to the Raffones’ heartache. After the video, I just wanted to get to my son as quickly as possible. I remember he was lying on the bed with Audra and I just wanted to hug him. Thank God he was okay.”
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“I had met Jim a few times and he’s just a great guy. I read all about the events and runs that he does, like the G2G (a 170 mile race over one week covering the rim of the Grand Canyon), in order to raise awareness for his son and, yes, it makes me appreciate him as a dad who’s willing to go to the ends of the Earth for his son. And, it makes me appreciate my son’s good health even more.”
Freedman paused for a moment to reflect.
“It has also made me realize not to sweat the small stuff. There are so many worse things that could happen.”
One tearjerker video, fused with one profound connection, had immediately altered his life. “Once I saw it,” he said, “ I wanted to do something with JAR of Hope. I wanted to open my wallet right then and there. I really wanted to make a difference.”
Completing the marathon will go a long way to making that difference. If Freedman can consistently run a 14:00/mile, he could finish within seven hours which -given his 270 pounds- would be quite remarkable.
“I definitely don’t have the prototypical runner’s body. Sure, it’ll be tougher. But, it’s the only body I know.”
Aside from family matters, this race remains “my Number One priority. I think about it every day.” He broke into his trademark smile.
“I remembered, after signing up, I’d wake up and ask, “Holy —-, what did I get myself into?”
At the time of this interview, Freedman was at the halfway point of meeting the minimum $5,000 pledge. There were at least two significant donors lined up -which would put him well over the top should they come through.
“It’s a pretty lofty goal,” he stated. “I’m just as worried about reaching (this threshold) as I am about finishing the race.”
And, though Freedman confessed to being scared, anxious and excited -all at the same time-, he stayed true to the message. This was about raising money for the JAR of Hope and raising awareness for Duchenne.
“I’m not putting on a front; I’m not running up to 40 miles a week not to finish. So, if I have to crawl across the finish line, I will.”