Formerly homeless, alcoholic Orlando man tries to qualify for Boston Marathon
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The original article can be found here: http://www.orlandosentinel.com/health/fitness/os-homeless-marathoner-20101119,0,3971493,full.story
By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel on 9:45 p.m. EST, November 20, 2010
Steve White trains recently at Orlando's Howard Middle School for his first marathon. He was trying to get his life together at Orlando Union Rescue Mission last year and joined a program called "Stepping Onward," which helps people make changes through running". (RED HUBER/ORLANDO SENTINEL / November 9, 2010)
"The sun is not yet up when Steve White arrives at the Howard Middle School track near downtown Orlando. He has just put in 12 hours on the graveyard shift for a linen service, but before he sleeps he must train. Soon the 43-year-old is running half-mile repeats like clockwork, a chiseled, solitary figure in the dawn.
His first marathon is a week away, and White is determined to run fast enough to qualify for the most prestigious road race in the nation: the Boston Marathon.
For any runner, making it to Boston is an accomplishment worthy of lifelong bragging rights. For Steve White, it would be a Cinderella story.
Until two years ago, he was homeless, a longtime alcoholic and a 20-year smoker who hadn't run since his high-school-football days.
"I felt like I've been a loser all my life," he said recently. "This gives me a chance to prove to myself, my family, the people I've let down, people that knew me as the old person I was — this gives me a chance to let them know I've changed."
But White might have never made it to a starting line without a 39-year-old woman named Claire Grove, a doctor and marathoner herself, who is trying to change the way people feel about themselves by helping them to run.
In January 2009, she started a nonprofit called Stepping Onward, initially for men and women in homeless shelters and later for teens in foster homes.
"Negative self-talk is so common," Grove said. "I had such a passion for running, and I loved the lessons it had taught me, especially about being able to overcome that voice in your head that says you just can't do it, that it's too much and you should give up. I wanted to inspire others to overcome that same voice."
Steve White was one of her first recruits.
'I was just kind of lost'
White grew up in tiny Rustburg, Va., where he ran for two things: his football coach and his wrestling team. The latter had a 5-mile trek up a nearby mountain, and White can remember the feeling of his lungs straining, his legs churning and the sweat running down his body.
He loved it.
Despite his middle-class upbringing and loving parents, he had a haunting sense of not particularly belonging anywhere. It didn't help that he was an only child and that the neighborhood crowd bullied him for his shyness. By age 12, he had already started drinking to fit in.
It would only get worse as he left school and tried to make a living.
"I was just kind of lost out in the world," he said. "Everyplace I was looking, I couldn't get fulfillment."
At first, he went to trade school to become a welder. But he wound up working everything from fast-food gigs to shipyards to oil fields in New Mexico.
In his 20s, he also started smoking.
By his early 40s, he hadn't much to show for his life. He had never married, never stuck with any particular career path, never saved any money. He was drinking frequently and working at a Taco Bell when his hours were cut and he could no longer pay his rent. Again he moved on, this time to Orlando, and landed first at the Salvation Army.
One night, he heard some men talking about the Orlando Union Rescue Mission only a few blocks away.
"They was talking about the program and how it made them go to church and stuff like that, and they was downing it," White said. "But I thought: 'That's exactly what I need.' "
'He'd just run in circles'
From the day he joined the Rescue Mission's discipleship program in March 2009, White gave up drinking and smoking. To make sure he wasn't tempted, he started exercising, giving his body a high from endorphins rather than nicotine and alcohol. But disciples are not allowed to leave the premises for the first 60 days — a way of keeping them out of trouble.
Brad Sefter, then a resident himself, watched baffled as White did lap after lap around a tiny parking lot.
"He'd just run in circles, and then he'd go up and down these two flights of stairs for, like, an hour," Sefter said. "So I asked him if he wanted to come running with me, and he jumped at the chance."
Sefter was a runner himself, and because he was one of the senior residents, he was able to get permission to take White off the property for runs.
"I had been running six to eight months already," Sefter said, "and from Day One couldn't keep up with him. His endurance is phenomenal."
At the same time, Grove, medical director for a string of weight-loss clinics, had launched Stepping Onward, a name she took from the proverb she had first heard on a medical mission to Africa: The journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step.
She recruited Sefter, who recruited White. From the beginning, Grove knew that White was special. While everyone else labored, he seemed to be comfortable. When he wasn't running, White was quiet. But when they trained, he and Grove would have long conversations about faith. Too, he was remarkably disciplined and eager to push himself.
For their first 5-kilometer road race — the Track Shack Celebration of Running — the group arrived about a minute after the starting gun fired. White was unfazed. He simply shot ahead through the crowd, passing hundreds of runners to finish in a respectable 22 minutes and 33 seconds.
His next 5K race, he ran 19:32. Then, recruited by Grove to join a 191-mile relay run across the state in November 2009, White faced his biggest challenge ever: running 22 miles, broken up into three segments.
He ran the final stretch looking as effortless as he had the first. The whole team joined him for the sprint to the finish line, cheering.
"At the end, it was a whole different Steve," Grove said. "He was the man. I knew we had to set a bigger goal for him."
'You have to want it'
Late last year, they settled on the Space Coast Marathon, a fast course in Brevard County. This year, the race is Nov. 28.
Soon after, White got a job at the linen service — and quickly got promoted. Twice.
His work ethic was becoming legendary. After his all-night shifts on Fridays, he would ride the bus back downtown, then ride his bike to meet the group for a Saturday morning workout.
Grove decided to hire a coach for him, and Stepping Onward paid his entry fees and travel costs. White kept working harder. He saved money, bought a car and, in September, moved out of the mission and rented a studio apartment. And, still, he kept training, often on his own because of his work schedule.
"He is an ideal student," said his coach, Bill Wenner, who has worked with hundreds of marathoners. "He'll do what you tell him to do and will give 100 percent of his ability to it. … I thought it would be a cool story if we could get him to qualify for Boston — but I would never have taken him on if we didn't think he was capable. I would have just told Claire we were barking up the wrong tree."
About 20,000 runners from around the world qualify each year for the Boston Marathon — held the third Monday in April — the only U.S. marathon that requires entrants to run a qualifying time. For men in White's age group, it is no slower than three hours, 20 minutes, a target White can reasonably expect to hit. But as Wenner points out, a lot of things can go wrong in 26.2 miles, many of them beyond a runner's control.
"It's not by any means a gimme," he said.
If White is nervous, he doesn't show it. He talks about the race with the same calm demeanor his friends say he always has. And when he runs, he prays, thanking God for his blessings and reciting biblical verses that bring him comfort.
Next weekend in Brevard will be no different.
"You have to work. You have to want it," he said. "But I'll let God guide my footsteps."
-By Kate Santich, Orlando Sentinel on 9:45 p.m. EST, November 20, 2010