A Runner's Journey

I started following Matt Brewer through our little “Idiots Runner’s Club late last year. So when I read that he had completed his first marathon I was happy for him. A couple of days later, he posted this passage on our club page and I went from happy to thrilled. What an amazing journey he has been on. What incredible lessons he has learned. I seldom ask people to guest write here but as soon as I read this I knew Matt’s story needed a wider audience. From learning, at 24 years old that he had a tumor that might kill him, to dealing with a debilitating depression, Matt has come so far. Matt’s story is a story of hope. No matter how dark things look today, there is always tomorrow and we never know what that will hold in store. I hope that you find his story as inspiring as I did.

Written by Matt Brewer

“You’ll be dead by the time you’re 32 years old,” a doctor told me as he was looking over my blood work results in 2007. “That is, unless we can remove the tumor lodged between your heart and spinal cord.” At the time, I had just gotten married at the ripe age of 24 I was looking forward to what the future held in store. A routine yearly physical revealed something that I would have never imagined. “How could I have a tumor?” I was overweight and had higher blood pressure and fully expected the doctor to tell me how this would lead to obesity, increased high blood pressure, and possibly heart disease but none of that came up.

“Matt, you have a very high amount of Calcium in your blood, worse yet it is being leached from your bones. It’s a wonder you haven’t literally fallen apart.” Paraphrased, of course as it was still so surreal and I knew he must have confused me for someone else and I couldn’t have something like that wrong with me at 24 years old. We took more tests and x-rays. Over the course of about 5 months I had so much blood work and tests run I began to feel like a guinea pig in a lab. It was all true. First, the team of docs thought thyroid, or rather parathyroid, in my neck. “Nope, normal size and shape, we’re baffled,” I remember the pair of specialists saying. More tests and I’m getting more and more frustrated that all these specialists with their fancy degrees can’t find out what is leaching calcium from my bones into my blood. Finally, the doctors saw a golf ball size mass in my chest. The culprit was found and now the question was how to get it out as it sat right behind my heart and in front of my spine. “Would I be paralyzed?” “What about my heart?” Long story short, the surgeons removed the tumor. Although, my heart stopped beating for a bit I was revived and stitched up. After the surgery one of the 2 surgeons came in and said my sternum felt like a wet sponge and the could have probably cut through it with a butter knife. He went on to say if I was involved in a car wreck I would have been immediately killed due to the fragility of my bones.

Post op, I look down and see huge tubes coming out of my chest and a 9-inch scar from where my chest was literally cut in half. I jokingly told my wife and family that all the ladies would find these scars hot…haha. I spent the remaining 4 days in the hospital. I couldn’t walk, couldn’t use the bathroom by myself, felt completely dependent. As my chest began to heal and the staples held me together I regained some of my strength and could, at the very most, walk around by myself.
My life almost ended at age 24. Up to that point I felt invincible. I never had a broken bone, surprisingly due to how fragile my bones were, and no major surgery. After something as life changing as this occurs things are put into perspective and you realize how you’re just as human as anyone else and at the blink of an eye you could be gone.

Fast forward a bit. My chest scar is healed nicely and I’m able to lift more than 5 pounds. Although physically I am getting better, mentally I am a wreck. The next few years I battled with depression and anxiety. I just assumed it was some sort of PTSD from my surgery and the trauma that I went through. I think partially it was but I think a lot of it was due to what I’ve done with my life or rather what I haven’t done with my life. Here I have been given a second shot at life and I haven’t done anything with it. I love my wife and in January 2009 we welcomed our first child, my little girl Zoe. I couldn’t have been happier at the time but again my depression deepened.
I worked for nearly 3 years as a psychiatric tech, imagine that. I worked there proudly until one day at work I snapped and had a panic attack and was sent to the ER. My co-workers thought I was faking it but little did they know or I know that that day would have me fighting for my life all over again. The next several months I’m stuck in bed, weak, depressed, and scared I am losing my mind. I was losing my mind. I couldn’t leave the house, I couldn’t do anything. Sadly, I had to quit the hospital and had some backlash from them not understanding what was happening. You’d think working in inpatient psych that people would care and understand more than anyone else. Not true. I loved my job and helping the sick, that’s the truth.

I finally found a medical doctor who took the time to listen to me and was eventually put on some medication that helped. After several months of some lifestyle changes, medication, and putting my trust in faith I finally started feeling human again.It is so completely normal to be abnormal. Don’t hide it.

After all that you’d think I’d be some fit and trim athlete because you know lying in bed for months gives you that lean and trim look. Well, no, apparently that isn’t the case. I was heavier than ever and my blood pressure not any better. Amber had a gym membership and so we started going. I felt so out of place and envied all the people and how good they looked. It doesn’t help one’s psyche going to the gym the first time. Slowly we began working out. I was immediately drawn to the treadmill. I don’t know why, maybe because I figured running burned more calories or maybe because I didn’t understand what in the world the other machines were supposed to do but the treadmill and I became good friends.

On the nicer days I would skip the gym and find a local trail where I could wog(walking/joking sort of) and be alone and not have the stares from the people in the gym. You know the type of people in the gym that stare at their biceps all day? Yea, those people. I couldn’t run a mile at once. I felt winded just walking a mile.

Something clicked. I suck at running but I love the feeling! I started loving the feeling of being alone and pushing myself. No distractions, no expectations, just myself and the trails. I wasn’t fast. I didn’t care. I just enjoyed running.

Months and months went by and the weight started falling off. At my heaviest I weighed 280 lbs. If I was good at football I’d probably be a good fit at 6’5, 280 lbs. After some time of running and eating somewhat better my weight dropped to 210 and I got faster and my heart didn’t feel like it was going to explode anymore.

The past 2 years I’ve been running. I love it. My wife and kids like it and thankfully are supportive of it. I spend as much time as I can with them but on days when I am by myself and free I run. I started out running 14 minute miles at best and now through being diligent and monitoring my heart rate and pushing myself not to the point of injury I am able to run a lot faster and for long periods of time.

So what does this all have to do with anything? Well, to me everything. I am 31 years old and last Sunday, March 1st I completed my first Marathon. That is 26.2 miles to the people that think a 5k is a marathon. I completed it in 4:21. Considering a knee injury and the weather I am very happy with this time. Was it all rainbows and fireworks at the end? No, it wasn’t. It was a surreal experience and a really fun and enjoyable experience. I didn’t get overly emotional at the finish nor did I immediately start calling myself a “Marathoner.” I still don’t really feel like it was a major accomplishment but considering the last 10 years of my life and going from my deathbed to running a marathon and next month a 50K ultra marathon I couldn’t be happier. That doesn’t make much sense I suppose but I am so thankful to be able to run, some people can’t, and I am so thankful for good health and an awesome family. I consider all the Idiots in the Idiots Running Club my family too. I joined the dumb club shortly after I started running and without the encouragement of everyone I wouldn’t have accomplished what I have and what I plan to in the future. Remember to always be humble, passionate, and give back and set a good example for all people especially newbie runners.