From Couch Potato to Marathon Runner

April 23, 2012

Kevin Ryan remembers hearing his colleague Matt Stoner talk last summer about wanting to get in shape.

It didn't strike him as anything unusual. He and Stoner and the others who maintain the online courses for the Center for Integrative Medicine's fellowship program would regularly take turns talking about the need to get healthier.

After all, they spend their days sitting at computers. Ryan is an assistant specialist for interactive learning at the center, while Stoner is an associate specialist for interactive learning.

"It's hard to break away and use your spare time when you're tired," Ryan said. "It's really mental. It's a huge mental leap just to begin."

But that's what Stoner did. It turns out, he had been told by his doctor to take better care of himself, and shortly after, he received a postcard in the mail about the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society's Team in Training program.

The program helps participants train for an endurance event such as a marathon, triathlon, hiking event or cycling competition. In exchange, the trainees raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society.

When Stoner, who will be 37 this year, received the postcard, something clicked. He decided Team in Training would help him adopt an active lifestyle.

By August, he was training for his first marathon – the P.F. Chang's Rock 'n' Roll Arizona Marathon on Jan. 15 in Phoenix. By the time he ran it, he was 40 pounds lighter than when he began training.

"I had to learn a lot because I didn't know anything about running," he said.

The areas of missing knowledge ranged from nutrition and hydration to choosing the right shoes.

"I learned all those painfully," he said.

He was required to raise $1,500 to cover the costs of his training as well as event registration and transportation to get there. He ultimately raised $3,000.

He did two half-marathons in October – one up "A" Mountain and one two weeks later up Mount Lemmon.

"I just made training a priority," he said, noting that he began coming to campus "insanely early" to run long distances before work.

Team in Training gave him a schedule of what kind of exercise to do each day leading up to the marathon, and he mostly followed that.

He worked with a Team in Training coach, Rick Karl, who also works at the University as an IT manager for the Arizona State Museum.

Team in Training hosts two running seasons per yer, and Karl is working on his 11th season with the organization.

"He was the very epitome of the people we get for Team in Training," Karl said of Stoner. "He set his remote control down, got out of the La-Z-Boy and decided he was going to run a marathon."

Initially, Stoner seemed unsure of whether the program was going to give him what he needed, Karl said. But by the time he'd been doing it about a month, his attitude was changing, as was his physique.

"It's really nice to see people like Matt come through with a really apprehensive, doubtful attitude about whether they can do this, and then you see the light in their eyes after they realize they can," he said.

Stoner said he started out walking, moving on to power walking before running eventually took over. He didn't feel comfortable running until around November, after he'd dropped about 25 pounds, he said.

He had hoped to finish his first marathon in about five and a half hours, and he did it in five hours and 37 minutes, with leukemia patients cheering for him along the way and his parents cheering for him at the finish line.

Just finishing the race – and so close to the goal he had set for himself – was a huge accomplishment.

"I have no illusions. I was never an athlete in grade school or high school. I was always picked last," he said.

In a brief YouTube video he put together outlining his journey to running his first marathon, Stoner offers a glimpse of a childhood in which he was bullied, where kids called him mean names and he finished so far behind in a track meet that the humiliation prevented him from trying anything like that again for many, many years.

When he first began working with Team in Training, he didn't have a personal connection to the program's cause. Since then, he found out the nephew of a high school friend has been fighting childhood leukemia.

The way Stoner sees it, the 26.2 miles he runs in a marathon is nothing compared with what his friend's nephew has gone through since the diagnosis, he said.

He's already signed up to do another marathon in Vancouver, British Columbia, on May 6. He'll raise more money for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society along the way.

With about six weeks to go, he has raised a little more than $2,500 of the $3,500 he needs for the next race – with $800 of that coming from a wine-tasting fundraiser he held. He has a special Team in Training fundraising Web page where people can make donations on his behalf.

He decided to buy his own plane ticket so the society can keep more of the money he raises. The funds go toward research and helping families with loved ones in treatment.

He also has become what the Team in Training people call a "fundraising mentor," said Louanne Clark, a local Team in Training campaign manager.

It means that in addition to fundraising to meet his own goals, he helps other people figure out how to meet theirs.

"Matt is a superstar," Clark said. "He has brought a lot to our program as well," she said, noting that he has contributed his skills in communication and marketing to help get the word out.

Coworker Ryan said Stoner's transformation has been inspiring.

"It's been amazing ... not just physically, but his mental outlook has just drastically changed and you can tell," he said. "He's got this natural glow about him now that he never used to have. He's a happier person now."

Stoner says he hopes people can look at him and see that they can achieve their goals, too.

"I went from being a couch potato to doing this," he said. "It's never too late to get active."