IRON MOUNTAIN – Cancer wasn’t about to stop Iron Mountain’s Kelly Smith from finishing the 2018 Boston Marathon with his son Brandon.
With a nudge from his son nearly a decade ago, Smith took up running – in his 50s. The father and son, neither with any serious running experience, eyed a marathon in Traverse City as their first attempt, leaving nine months to train.
Brandon, now 34, was an avid weight lifter but bored and looking for a change of pace. Smith was a non-athlete, who works purchasing and customer service at an automotive repair shop. Most folks new to running, might attempt a significantly shorter distance, but for this father/son duo, it was go big or go home.
“My father was not much of an exerciser,” Brandon recalled. “Most people try those couch to 5K events. I like to think we did a couch to marathon.”
“It was painful,” said Kelly of the Traverse City experience, who mentioned a year of cross country in high school as his only other running experience. “But it was a good pain. We just got hooked on it immediately.”
Soon after the first marathon, the idea of Boston entered Brandon’s mind. The pair ran an average of two marathons or half marathons a year in pursuit of qualifying together for Boston, pretty much always running the same races, making family weekends of the events.
Along the way there’d be instances of one of them qualifying for Boston but not the other.
“Brandon was first to qualify,” Smith said. “But he made the decision early on that he wanted to run Boston with his dad. He wanted us to run it side by side.”
“I made that decision to motivate him, and because I really wanted to do it with him,” Brandon said.
So they’d pass and try again the next year, and the next year, and the next year. As the calendar turned to 2017, the duo began training for the Glass City Marathon in Toledo, Ohio.
Smith, who cross trains and uses the treadmills at the Northern Lights YMCA when the local weather doesn’t cooperate, felt as good and fast as ever in the weeks leading up to Toledo. But a few weeks ahead of the race, Smith had to make an unexpected pit stop during an outdoor run.
“I had to stop to use the bathroom in the middle of my run, which was kind of odd for me” he said. “So I found myself walking into the Burger King, and when I looked down in the urinal, I saw blood.”
“He was afraid to tell my mom,” Brandon said. “He didn’t want to stop training. We were so close to qualifying. But I told him to call the doctor today.”
That call started a few weeks of uncertainty for the Smith Family. A scan discovered a tumor on Smith’s left kidney. A tumor the doctors felt would require removing the entire kidney.
“I felt fine up until then,” Smith remembered. “A lot of times with kidney tumors, you never feel anything. In fact, I was feeling real good.”
“I tried not to think about,” Brandon said. “If we never got to Boston, then so be it. I just wanted him to be healthy.”
According to his doctor, if Smith had led a more sedentary lifestyle, he might never have had any symptoms until the tumor was far more advanced. But pushing his body as he did with his training, the symptom appeared sooner.
Immediate surgery was required, but Smith wasn’t having any of that.
“I told the doctor I had a marathon to run in two weeks,” he said. “The doctor told me that he was a surgeon, not a runner, but if running that race was as important to him as it was me, he’d run it.”
A green light for Smith. But if trying to qualify for the Boston Marathon wasn’t pressure enough, try doing it with the knowledge that cancer was sprouting in your kidney.
“The only thing I thought about was that it may be my last chance,” Smith said. “I didn’t know what would happen. If they had to take the whole kidney, well, it’s hard enough to qualify for Boston, let alone trying to run with one kidney.
“So I pushed through it mentally because I didn’t think there’d be another chance. I just pushed through it. I never slowed down. My legs kept going. I never hit the wall.”
Smith had one of his best marathons ever, finishing in three hours and 46 minutes, only slightly off pace of his personal best, which was 3:36. The Toledo time was fast enough for Boston.
But the triumph was bittersweet because Brandon missed the cut.
“That was tough,” Brandon said. “I missed by three minutes. But I knew exactly what I had to do.”
Brandon had to run another marathon later in 2017 to attempt to qualify. It would be a last chance. If he failed, he’d have to wait until qualifiers for the 2019 Boston race. Neither father nor son knew if that would even be possible.
“We agreed to run together,” Smith said.
And then there was that little matter of a cancer surgery.
Shortly after his qualifying run in Toledo, Smith headed into surgery for his tumor. His doctor informed him that there was only a 10 percent chance his tumor wasn’t cancerous and that the most likely outcome would be removal of the entire kidney and hoping nothing spread.
But then, some good news.
“Mr. Smith, you are one lucky man,” Smith recalled the doctor telling him post op.
The tumor was benign. And the doctor was able to save two thirds of Smith’s kidney.
“My dad passed of cancer,” Smith said. “A few years later you get the call that you have cancer. And then you find out you don’t. That was a wonderful day of rejoicing for me and my family.”
So in the fall of 2017, Brandon ran for a last chance at the 2018 Boston race, a five-loop course in Grand Rapids. Brandon felt great early on, maintaining the pace he needed. But things turned around mile 18.
“I was feeling the wall,” he said.
But being a loop course, Brandon was never too far from his family for support.
“Dad kept going to water stations and running next to me, giving me bottles,” Brandon said. “He’d run with me, helped me keep going.”
Brandon was trying to maintain a sub 7:00 per mile pace, a pretty good clip for Smith to keep up with, especially not fully recovered from surgery.
“It was just amazing, those final miles,” Brandon said. “We ended up crossing the line together, and I got a personal best, under three hours.”
It was more than quick enough for the field for the 2018 Boston Marathon. And the stage was set for the decade old dream of a father and son to become a reality.
Once at Boston, time no longer mattered. It was about the dream. It was a victory lap for Smith and his son.
“We decided to just run and enjoy,” Smith said. “We were going to stop and take selfies, have a good time with it.”
Brutal late winter weather – one of the coldest, windiest and wettest days in Boston Marathon history – tried to dampen the experience. But nothing Mother Nature dished out would spoil the day for the Smiths.
Standing in water and mud over their ankles for more than an hour as they stood and waited for their wave to start the race, the rain and wind pelted runners.
“We were totally soaked and freezing with nothing more than 26 miles ahead of us,” said Smith, giving a nod to his U.P. conditioning. “It didn’t matter. The harder it rained, the harder we laughed.
“We knew we could do this, no matter how long it took.”
Some 1300 runners were treated for hypothermia Smith said, describing the medical tents as a triage scene.
“By mile 15 I was really feeling it, the wind, the rain,” he said. “But there was no doubt we were going to finish. We knew we would finish.”
“He was hurting for sure,” Brandon said. “He never fully recovered after the surgery. It’s hard to be in the best shape of your life, and then have to start all over.
“But I knew he would do it. He wanted to stop, but I knew he wouldn’t.”
Then came Boylston Street, the crowds, the noise, the final push.
“I just couldn’t believe the noise, the spectators,” Smith said. “All I could hear was all those people. And then we could see the finish line.”
Smith admitted he was in pretty rough shape at the line. His son grabbed him as they crossed the line, holding his hand up in the air, telling him, “Dad, I love you. I love you so much. We did it!”
The rest of the family was close too. With crowds down a bit due to the adverse conditions, the Smith family was able to get very close to the finish line and join the celebration.
“It was just such a blessing that everything worked out,” Brandon said. “Definitely the highlight of a lifetime. I don’t know many other sons who can say they did that with their dad.”
Brandon’s two sons, ages seven and four, have already indicated they want to run Boston with their dad.
Smith shares nothing but praise for everyone else who helped him through one of the most roller-coaster like years of his life, from his doctors, to his friends and family.
“I give God all the glory and thank Him for the healing and the strength to get through the year,” Smith said. “My wife, I couldn’t have done it without her. She was my biggest cheerleader. A lot of people supported me, believed in me. The Y was a big part of my story because I did so much training there. The staff and members there, they are like family. They are so encouraging.”
With his dream accomplished and enough memories created for a lifetime, Kelly said his running future will focus on pure enjoyment and giving back.
“Brandon will go on with the marathons and pushing for new personal bests,” he said. “I am ready to just run to run. Those 4-5 months of training, the pressure year after year. The pressure is off now. I can sign up for any race, do more local races. I want to volunteer at events. I could see myself becoming a guide for runners with disabilities, helping others reach their goals.”
And if anyone knows about reaching the finish line, it would be Smith.
“Dream, work hard and never give up,” he said.