Matt Long’s remarkable story of endurance, “The Long Run: A New York City Firefighter’s Triumphant Comeback from Crash Victim to Elite Athlete,” is right up there with Lance Armstrong’s graphic cancer-survivor story “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.”
"The Long Run: A New York City Firefighter’s Triumphant Comeback from Crash Victim to Elite Athlete” By Matt Long with Charles Butler. Rodale, New York, 2010. 249 pages. $25.99.
Matt Long’s remarkable story of endurance, “The Long Run: A New York City Firefighter’s Triumphant Comeback from Crash Victim to Elite Athlete,” is right up there with Lance Armstrong’s graphic cancer-survivor story “It’s Not About the Bike: My Journey Back to Life.” Here you have extreme contenders — competitive, elite athletes who’ve trained themselves to push through tremendous pain and exhaustion. Their training and conditioning cannot stop the horrors that befall them. Yet their training and superlative fitness are probably why they’re both still alive.
Matt Long’s memoir is about an accident in which he and his bicycle are run over by a bus in Manhattan. Unbelievably, the bike and its rider become one as they are enmeshed underneath a 20-ton bus and Long’s blood flows across Third Avenue and collects in the gutter.
What Long and his co-writer Charles Butler produce is an admirably honest account of his battle with mind-boggling devastation. In the blink of an eye he goes from one of the most fulfilled, engaged bachelors living the good life in Manhattan to a broken and torn body that’s given less than a 5 percent chance to pull through — odds similar to what Armstrong had. It takes the better part of two years for Long to surmount the physical and emotional challenges. When he finally does get to the point where he can move beyond the shock and incapacitating nature of the injuries, absolutely nothing stands in this man’s way.
Long loved running and had the body for it. Sixty-mile weeks were par for the course. He’d run marathons and competed in triathlons. Just before the accident, in fact, he’d qualified for the 2006 Boston Marathon. He owned and operated three successful bars in NYC at the same time that he worked as a firefighter in the city. He was gregarious, handsome, came from a big Irish family and loved everything about his life. He never got more than four or five hours of sleep a night, thriving more on his regimen of training, fighting fires, overseeing the bars, spending time with his extended family, socializing in the city, dating and training some more.
On Dec. 22, 2005, at around 5:45 a.m. Long was biking from his apartment to Randall’s Island, accessed via the Triborough Bridge, to meet his training buddies for a 6 a.m. workout. There was a transit strike and biking was the surest way to his destination. He was biking up Third Avenue at 52nd Street when a bus made a sudden right turn from the center lane. Long was two lanes to the left and hit the 20-ton bus near the front passenger entrance. He and the bike somehow got run over and were squeezed together in the 8-inch clearance between the undercarriage and the blacktop. Oddly, Long’s anger about this incident is directed at the strikers and not the reckless nature of that wide and careless turn. The driver was cited for making an illegal turn and that’s the last we hear of him.
“My life is a struggle,” says Long. He’s had more than 40 surgeries with more likely. A responder to the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, he’s no longer able to work as a firefighter. He’s employed by the NYFD as a rookie trainer.
Long’s injuries included numerous broken bones and catastrophic internal injuries. His urethra and rectum were shredded. The heart Long trained to work so hard for hours at a time beat on and never gave up. He gave himself the ability to survive. Surgeries and months of his hard conditioning work enabled surgeons to get rid of the colostomy bag and restore his bowels to an acceptable level of functioning. His intestines were so swollen that his abdominal muscles were vertically split down the middle. His scarred and re-sculpted body is visual testament to his ordeal. And Long will he never be the playboy he once was.
But he would run a marathon again and he would once again achieve Ironman status. His stories of surviving 9/11, the bus accident and then the training and running of the NYC Marathon in 2008 and the Ironman competition in Lake Placid in 2009 are astonishing.
There are all kinds of physical adventures and grueling challenges. Long has clearly been handed one of the most potentially devastating. I wouldn’t call him a survivor, with all the passive implications that word can conjure. I’d call him a true and gifted athlete who spent two years warily eyeing the playing field before figuring out what he had to do to get back. Then he had to do it.
Rae Francoeur can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read her blog at http://www.freefallrae.blogspot.com/ or her book, “Free Fall: A Late-in-Life Love Affair,” available online or in bookstores.