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The Race of His Life: John Heuisler’s Marathon to Remember

He was hoping to PR, but he got something way better.

Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh turned into an incredible surprise birthday party for John Heuisler.

Your older brother’s turning 40. You revere him, admiring the two stints he served in the Middle East as a naval officer. He’s a towering 6-foot-5. He rowed at Virginia.

“A 6-5 monster,” Chris Heuisler (rhymes with Chrysler) says of his sibling, John.

John is a husband, father, son, brother, employee, athlete. He reads stories to his daughters before tucking them in at night.

“One of his best traits is he’s loyal,” says Chris, “almost to a fault.”

Chris wants to throw John a surprise birthday party. Not the kind where you send out the email blast, set a date, invite everyone to a house or restaurant, then yell “Surprise!” when he walks through the door.

Lame. Cliché. Not good enough. So what do you do?

If you’re Chris, you think of the bond you share with your brother. You’re runners, John talking you into the first marathon you ran together back in 2000. You like the 26.2-mile experience so much you make a promise to each other. You’ll run a marathon in all 50 states. They’re at 22 states and counting.

“It was a nice way for us to bond a little bit,” says Chris.

Still, the nagging question. How do you celebrate John’s milestone 40th? Then one day last year—May 16, 2014 to be precise—it came to Chris while he was logging sprint intervals near his home outside Boston.

“Struck me like a punch in the face,” recalls Chris.

Chris would create a ‘This is Your Life’ experience, inviting family and friends to join them for this year’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh Marathon presented by WRAL, which was held April 12, 11 months after Chris hatched the idea.

RELATED: Photos: Rock ‘n’ Roll Raleigh

Chris wanted a meaningful person in John’s life to meet them at each mile marker and run one mile with John, a sort of human baton pass all the way to the finish line.

The hard part? Keeping it all on the down low, planning a rollicking 26.2-mile surprise party for nearly a year without John sniffing out the surprise. Via emails and texts, Chris let more than 100 people in on the secret.

“I don’t understand how nothing leaked out,” says Chris.

Say this: The Heuislers can keep a secret.

A cousin from Los Angeles made the trip, as did a friend from Canada. All four of John’s siblings, plus his parents ran relay legs. College friends showed up, including a Virginia rowing teammate. Chris arranged for two people John had never met to run with them because they represented two causes dear to John’s heart.

In all, about 35 people descended upon Raleigh. While Chris and John stayed at a friend’s home, maintaining the low-key, stay-off-your-feet, eat-and-drink-sensibly runner’s calm before the race, family members rented a huge house and partied hard.

“I come from an Irish Catholic family,” says Chris.” And all I know is they were having a good time.”

Chris told people to quit sending pictures via text because he was afraid John might see them.

A couple weeks before the marathon, John, who lives in Baltimore, ran a half marathon in 1:26. In conversations with Chris, John talked excitedly about running a fast time in Raleigh. His PR is 3:09.

Says Chris, “And I’m thinking, ‘You have no clue what’s about to go down. You are not running 3:20, bro.’ But I couldn’t say it.”

Greeting John at Mile 1 was his cousin, 40-year-old Tim Delone, dressed as the Chevy Chase character from the 1985 movie, “Fletch.” Delone flew in from Los Angeles. His costume included Chase’s Afro wig and Lakers jersey.

Not recognizing Delone initially, John was impressed that someone dressed up as “Fletch,” then upon further inspection realized it was his cousin.

“What are you doing here?” John asked.

Wearing an official Rock ‘n’ Roll participant bib, Delone fibbed, saying he was inspired by the brothers and had begun running. (The truth: Delone joked that he probably hadn’t run a mile since a fifth-grade fitness test.)

John, though, swallowed the bait. Thinking Tim would be along for the entire 26.2 miles, he said, “If you’re going to run a marathon, you better get rid of that wig.”

At Mile 2, John was met by his sister Katy. She wore a Don Mattingly Yankees T-shirt, an ode to John’s favorite baseball player as a kid.

By now, John sensed what was unfolding.

“Is there a (special) runner at every mile?” he asked his brother.

Replied Chris, “I’m not saying a word.”

Chris, who now works for Westin Hotels, was once an actor. He appeared in the film “Freaky Friday” with Lindsay Lohan and played a bad guy in the soap opera “As The World Turns.”

“I threw a baby down a flight of stairs and tried to kill my mother-in-law,” he says. “But this (planning the marathon) was probably the acting performance of my life.”

On the marathon party wound, friends and family members jumping out from behind bushes, telephone poles and trees, helping John celebrate his 40th birthday, which arrives on May 8. Near Mile 13, Chris said, “I think you’re going to be excited to meet this next runner.”

Replied John, “As in, I don’t know who this person is?”

John is a passionate supporter of the San Diego-based Challenged Athletes Foundation, which raises funds so that physically challenged men, women and children, many missing limbs, can be active athletically. John participates annually in CAF’s marquee fundraiser, the San Diego Triathlon Challenge.

“I volunteered in 2003 and knew I needed to be a part of this mission empowering athletes,” says John. “It resonates with me.”

As they approached Mile 13, there stood 29-year-old Chris Tate, his lower left leg one of those futuristic curved prosthetic running blades. Tate lost his leg below the knee nearly five years ago after being hit by a drunk driver while riding a dirt bike. Tate lives in Reston, Va. CAF arranged for him to run with Heuisler.

During their one-mile jog, John complimented Tate on his pace.

“You’re running pretty good,” John said.

Tate didn’t have the heart to tell the birthday boy he was just jogging. The beauty of the moment: John has helped raise money so that athletes like Tate could kick his ass.

Says Tate, “It was cool to be a part of something for someone who supports CAF so much.”

John’s father, also named John, is 69 years old and battling kidney failure. When his father showed up between Miles 23 and 24, son and father reversed roles, son worrying about his father.

“Pops,” John said, “you don’t have to run.”

“No,” his father replied, “I’m going to run.”

Days after the marathon, John’s voice chokes up recalling the scene.

“That was probably the first time he ran in a long time,” says John. “I know it wasn’t easy for him. And I know he wouldn’t consider anything else.”

The boys’ mother, Sharon, ran a mile. She was like the proud mother hen, beaming because her brood of five children had come together, celebrating John’s birthday, celebrating family.

“The love they have between them,” says Sharon, 66, “I couldn’t be happier.”

John served eight years active duty in the Navy. He still serves in the Navy Reserve. Awaiting him at Mile 24 was Rachel Elizalde-Powell, who participates in the running program Wear Blue To Remember, which honors men and women in the U.S. military who died in combat.

Rachel’s brother, Adrian, her only sibling, was an Army sergeant first class serving in Iraq when he was killed on Aug. 23, 2007. Pictures of military members who died in service lined the roadside. Shortly into their mile run, Rachel pointed out Adrian’s picture. Rachel, John and Chris stopped for a moment of silence.

“I’m so sorry for your brother’s loss,” John said to Rachel.

Says Rachel, “You could tell he was very touched.”

In plotting his brother’s marathon relay, Chris saved the best for last. At Mile 25, John’s wife, Kelley, joined the party.

“It’s not my place to take you home,” said Chris, who departed, jogging ahead.

Near Mile 26, John swept 3-year-old daughter Adelaide into his arms. Kelley picked up 18-month-old Eloise. Mother, father and their two daughters crossed the finish line.

“This was the first and likely only marathon run that I didn’t want to end,” says John.

The prospect of turning 40 had not been easy for him. It’s such a milestone that you can’t help but reflect, take inventory. And in the process, John sometimes beat himself up. Had he achieved enough, earned enough money, touched enough lives?

“His relationships with people in his life, that’s his priority,” says Kelley. “I don’t think he realizes that it’s so innate a part of his character. It’s who he is.”

Kelley pauses, thinking about the impact the celebration had on her husband.

“Putting such a high priority on those relationships, this is your payoff,” she says. “It makes you so much richer. I was just so happy to see him feel what we felt. The turnout was validation for how much we love him and appreciate him.”

Reached two days after the marathon, John was still processing what had unfolded.

“I’m still in somewhat of shock,” he says. “I’m overwhelmed, grateful, blown away, you name it. I’ve run the gamut of every possible emotion.”

He has no idea how he can repay his brother.

“My premise is that life’s too short to just give somebody a watch,” says Chris. “What I want to give somebody is something that will last the rest of their life.”