This article is part of our 2013 Men of the Moment campaign celebrating the year’s great men, presented by Jeep Cherokee.
In December 2005, New York City transit workers went on strike, leaving commuters to fend for themselves. Firefighter and 9/11 responder Matt Long turned to his bike. The below-freezing temperature bothered him a little, but, as a lifelong athlete, he didn’t mind the three-mile ride. Then two or three blocks into his commute, he was blindsided by a life-altering accident.
“I was actually run over by a bus,” Matt says. “I don’t know if people believe me, but I wasn’t just hit and knocked down.” Even that’s putting it lightly. Matt’s body and his bicycle essentially merged into one gory, horrifying fusion when a charter bus barreled over him. The bike ripped out Matt’s abdominal wall and severed his femoral artery. His pelvis, right shoulder, and every bone in his right leg shattered.
Matt learned later that one of the first captains on the scene—a friend of his—told others to call a priest upon extracting Matt’s body from under the bus. “He’s been a fireman for forty years,” Matt explains. “So he’s seen a lot of stuff in his life, and he wasn’t worried about the ambulance. He was concerned with calling a priest.”
Once Matt arrived at the hospital, the prognosis was just as grim. “My surgeon had a tough job to tell my family what to expect. He basically told them I had a 1 percent chance of survival,” Matt says. His family learned that if Matt’s injuries didn’t kill him, infection likely would.
But Matt didn’t die that day. He willed himself to recover, putting his battered body to the ultimate test with a marathon.
“Like every kid, I thought I was a better athlete than I was, but I knew I was a hustler more than anything else,” Matt says. “I had this attitude in life that nothing was impossible.” (Case in point: At Iona College Matt tried to walk on the Division 1 basketball team all four years, before finally making the team his senior year).
As an adult Matt channeled his love for fitness into his job as a New York City firefighter and endurance sports. He describes himself as the type of guy who would bike 50 or 70 miles, then cap off his ride by running a few miles at a 7-minute pace—all before going out for beers and pizza. He had an Ironman and several triathlons and marathons under his belt, as well as a Boston Marathon qualifying time (3:13) that he achieved at the New York City Marathon in November 2005.
“Why can’t I move my toes? What is this piece of metal coming out of my abdomen? Some people have an ‘ah-ha’ moment—I had a ‘holy shit’ moment.”
Weeks later, following his accident, Matt was found himself in a hospital bed, having undergone countless surgeries and suffering at least a dozen broken bones. When he first woke, the magnitude of the accident didn’t register. He remembers telling his family and doctor that he needed to go home so he could start training for the Boston Marathon. “It took a couple of weeks from waking up to realize how bad it was. Once they started taking me off certain medications I had clearer thoughts. That’s when I started to think: What’s my life going to be like? Why can’t I move my toes? What is this piece of metal coming out of my abdomen?” he remembers. “Some people say they have an ‘ah-ha’ moment—I had a ‘holy shit’ moment.”
Reconciling his new body with his old ambitions initially sent Matt into depression. Where he was once running 6-minute miles, now he was struggling to take a few steps in a walker. Once he was released from the intensive care unit, in February, he entered rehab. Julie Khan, his physical therapists, remembers Matt being the youngest person in rehab, and also the one who stayed in the unit the longest.
“I was new to the hospital, and he didn’t really like me in the beginning. He was angry because he didn’t know if he would ever be able to walk normally again. There were days he wouldn’t come to therapy because he was in a bad mood,” Khan says.
Matt’s outlook turned around after his mother intervened with some real talk. “I always credit my mom for smacking me around a little bit,” he says. “She told me attitude would play a huge role in my recovery. She opened my eyes. I realized I had to let go of who I was before my accident and not only embrace this new guy, but make him better.”
When Matt’s attitude perked up, so did his recovery. “Firefighters put their lives in danger every day for other people. And someone who has been an Ironman athlete or marathoner puts himself through some of the most difficult tasks that there are, so I knew that with that personality and history getting better I could push Matt harder and harder,” Khan says. “In the end I was able to push him harder than any other patient I’ve had because I knew he could do it.”
Two years after his stint in the rehab unit Matt went to Arizona to train with Triplex Training. “From day one he wanted to know when he could run, but he came in with crutches. He was hobbling and was unsteady even walking. I remember thinking that it was going to be a challenge,” says Kyle Herrig, one of the strength coaches who worked with Matt at Triplex.
Matt would spend a couple hours a day at Triplex and then work out on his own back at his apartment. “Whatever we asked him to do, he would do,” Herrig says. “We just guided the therapy; he did all the work.”
Finally Herrig and his partner told Matt he could try to run. “Matt’s eyes got big and lit up. I think he was excited and scared all in one,” Herrig says. Matt ran that first mile in 21 minutes. “It wasn’t pretty. Calling it a run is a push, but mentally it was a huge step,” Herrig says. Once Matt knew he could run, he turned his sights to the New York City Marathon, which was about six months away.
Training for such a grueling event with his new body posed challenges. Where a normal training plan might call for up to 18 or 20 miles, he could only handle 14, and then he’d hop on an indoor bike or elliptical machine. While his body didn’t always cooperate, his mind always did. “In endurance races, once you get over two, three, or four hours, it becomes a mental competition,” Herrig says. “I knew wasn’t going to be a problem with him.”
“At mile 21 the pain was so bad, I told my friend not to talk to me. In my mind I was running, but my legs were moving so slowly. Walkers were passing me.”
On November 2, 2008 Matt stepped up to the start line of the New York City Marathon. “No matter how long it took me, I needed to cross that finish line for my mental recovery. If I could cross that finish line, I knew my life with this new body was going to be okay.” His first high during the race came when he saw his family at mile 3. “I knew this meant a lot to them. If I finished, it meant I was back,” he says. “The next high was running up First Avenue. There were crowds of people lining the streets. No other race affords you that experience. It was a runner’s dream.”
When he reached mile 20, Matt hit the wall. “At mile 21 the pain was so bad, I told my friend not to talk to me,” he says. “In my heart I was running, in my mind I was running, but my legs were moving so slowly. Walkers were passing me. I had six more miles to go, so I dug down and fought the pain.”
Matt crossed the finish line in 7 hours and 21 minutes. “I wanted a dramatic finish, so when I crossed the finish line, I did 10 pushups. Then I stood up and started crying,” Matt recalls. “As soon as I finished I couldn’t wait to do two things: Have a Guinness and map out my training for the Ironman.”
Seven months after the marathon Matt finished Ironman Lake Placid in 16:58—just two minutes before the course cutoff time. “When Matt first started talking about running, I didn’t even know that he’d be able to physically run,” Khan remembers. “It’s incredible for even an able-bodied person to do an ironman, but for someone to come from what he’s been through and do it is mindboggling.”
More recently Matt’s traded his running shoes for a bike. In 2012 he tried out for the Paralympic cycling team, but unfortunately his quest was cut short when he was hit by a car in Florida and broke his wrist. Today he cycles with an able-bodied team in New York City, teaches spin classes, and is a strength coach.
He also created the I Will Foundation. “When I made my own comeback, ‘I will’ became my mantra. I thought, I will recover. I will run again,” Matt says. Initially the foundation started as an inspirational one, to help people realize they could accomplish anything with a positive attitude. It later grew to help people accomplish their goals by giving them tangible tools and financial support. The I Will Foundation provided a man who was a double arm amputee a custom-made bike so he could complete an Ironman. Another woman who had polio received a new hand cycle so she could be competitive in races. The foundation also aids non-athletes who have accidents and aren’t able to finance their recovery.
“I like to tell people when your back is against the wall and you think things are really bad, you need to stay positive,” Matt says. “If you wake up and think you can’t do something, then you’re right. It’s not going to get done. But if you have the right attitude if you believe in your cause that you can get something accomplished. That’s what saved my life, my athletic lifestyle and state of mind.”
You can read more about Matt’s experience in his memoir, Matt’s Long Run: mattslongrun.com