For Richard Nasser, getting to the starting line of the 2015 Boston Marathon was a huge milestone. Reaching the rain-soaked finish line in 3:10:20 on Monday was only possible from a life-changing epiphany and a miraculous tale of survival and recovery.
A year earlier, Nasser was in a medically induced coma on life-support systems and doctors weren’t sure he’d survive, let alone be able to run again. But that’s just part of the story.
Just three years ago, the Augusta, Ga., resident had been a heavy smoker and bordering on obese, with his 6-foot-2 frame tipping the scales at a robust 240 pounds.
“I was 25 years old, smoking a pack of cigarettes a day, 40 pounds overweight and had trouble breathing,” he says with a chuckle of disgust. “I was just laying on the couch watching TV and I had trouble getting a deep breath. I had always thought of myself as a fit guy, but at that point I had to re-evaluate my life.”
Whether it was an epiphany or just that he was sick of feeling lethargic, right then and there that he decided to change his life and try to get fit. He signed up for a 5K that very weekend and, although he struggled to finish in 26 minutes, he wasn’t discouraged. Instead he kept on running and signed up for races almost every weekend.
“That first one was rough. I threw up at the end, but I was committed,” says the 28-year-old industrial chemical salesman. “I figured I was going to take all of the money I was spending on cigarettes and spend it on races. And I found the 5K was kind of like a gateway drug.”
From there, he did a bunch of 5K and 10K races and started to lose weight and get fit. He did his first half marathon and found a discount entry for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Savannah Marathon in Georgia. He trained hard for it, but found the first one to be eye-opening difficult, even though he managed to finish in 3:22:07 while still weighing close to 210 pounds.
By 2013, he started competing in triathlons and set his sights on qualifying for the Boston Marathon. He knew that would require shaving at least 17 minutes off his previous effort to reach the men’s 18-34 age-group standard of 3:05, but he made no secret that he wanted to run even faster than that.
“Everyone was saying I couldn’t break 3 hours weighing over 200 pounds,” says Nasser, who now tips the scales at 187 pounds. “But I’m one of those guys who, when you say I can’t do it, then I’m going to do everything I can to do it. I was running hard all the time.”
He returned to the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon in Savannah in 2013 and, averaging 6:48 per mile, posted a new PR of 2:58:06. With the 2014 Boston Marathon field already full two months earlier—and 10 months until he could register for the 2015 race—he set his sights in early 2014 on competing in Ironman Chattanooga later that summer. He hired a coach and started training with two cousins, one of which was trying to qualify for the Ironman World Championships.
A Near-Death Experience
Two years after the decision to overhaul his life and get fit, he was in the shape of this life. Then last spring—April 15 to be exact—he was hit by a car while at the end of a training ride. He was on a slight downhill on a busy street and the car pulled out 10 feet in front of him.
“There was no time to brake or any kind of reaction, so I just hit it face first going 27 miles an hour,” he says.
The abrupt collision nearly took his life. When he was rushed to MCG Medical Center in Augusta, doctors didn’t think he would make it. His body was in shambles, having suffered a host of injuries and ensuing complications that included a broken neck (in three places), seven broken ribs, a broken arm, a collapsed lung, a jaw broken in four places and numerous other facial and eye injuries. He also suffered brain injuries, had a stroke, and underwent an emergency splenectomy.
He was put into a medically induced coma to help keep him stable and allow his body to start healing. Doctors told his father that Richard might need help learning how to count, read and maybe even talk again. But then, either miraculously or just because he was an intense competitor, Nasser woke up from his coma the day after the Boston Marathon and asked his dad how his best friend, Creighton Nash, fared in Hopkinton-to-Boston race.
“My dad didn’t know what I was talking about,” Nasser said. “So he called my friend and asked him and found out his (net) time was 2:56:34. My dad told me that and then I was put back into a coma for 6 or 7 days.”
After that Nasser was transferred to Shepherd Center spinal cord injury and brain injury rehabilitation hospital in Atlanta. “It was hard to me to move, hard for me to eat and I was really restless and angry and emotional from the brain injuries and the stroke,” he said.
The Road to Recovery
The road to recovery was long and arduous, but numerous surgeries and endless hours of rehab over the next several months allowed him to start walking again in early June. All the while, his girlfriend, Ali Hale, was there supporting him. Soon thereafter he was cleared for light jogging. But Nasser, who doesn’t do anything lightly, logged 130 miles between June 9 and July 3. He entered the Peachtree Road Race in Atlanta on July 4 and clocked a 43-minute 10K.
He still wasn’t fully recovered, though, and he paid the price by going too hard in an Olympic-distance triathlon later that month. Aside from becoming violently ill after that race, he found out he was suffering from heterotropic ossification in his left arm. In short, a muscle was marbled with bone and was rubbing against another bone and causing severe pain. Another surgery was scheduled for late September.
His plans to do Ironman Chattanooga were obviously out of the question, but when he was offered a comp’ed entry to the Augusta 70.3 triathlon, he couldn’t resist.
Swimming with one arm and mostly holding his bike handlebars with one hand, he completed the race in 6:08:01.
“I was this adamant about training before I had the accident. It gave me an identity and changed my life,” Nasser says. “I changed my eating habits, changed my attitude about business, about dealing with struggle. I overhauled everything and Ali was right there with me.”
Back to Boston
And that all leads the story back to Boston. Finally, 17 months after qualifying for Boston and a year after his near-fatal accident, Nasser ran the Boston Marathon. Although he was shooting for a sub-3-hour finish—and came through halfway at 1:29:15—he was OK with finishing in a still-respectable 3:10:20.
“With the circumstances and the weather, I was happy with it,” he said. “I think I can run faster, but that will just give me a reason to qualify again and go back and run it again.”
Unbeknownst to Nasser, his girlfriend, Ali, had worked behind the scenes to surprise him and arranging for his father to fly in from Atlanta that morning to be at the finish line when he finished.
But Nasser had his own surprise lined up. He was going to finish the race and then get down on one knee and propose to her. He had originally planned on proposing to her in Chattanooga after the Ironman race, but the accident changed everything.
“Once I realized the Boston Marathon would be almost exactly a year after my accident, I wanted to do something to give her the respect and credit she deserves,” says Nasser, who says he was quite emotional during the race. “I wouldn’t be the athlete I am today, or the man I am today, if it wasn’t for her support and constantly being by my side. As soon as I finished, I saw her and gave her a big hug because she’s the one I look for after a race.”
Ali was elated and, to end the suspense, she said, “yes.”
“I was so happy and thankful that he had finished and his dad would be there for him with me,” she said. “I see him and he runs and gives his dad a quick hug and then all of a sudden grabs and holds me so tight, as I see him get down on one knee, my first thought is, ‘Oh my God, what the hell is he doing, is he OK?’ because he was shaking so bad and he was so beat up, you could see the effort it took to get down on one knee. I thought he was collapsing.
“I soon figured it all out, I started bawling crying. I had no idea! This race was not about him at all, it was about us. There has never been a more exciting, magical moment in my entire life.”