Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Greatest

The Heart of the Champion
I had known about the life of Jason Pisano for only weeks. And on a Tuesday morning, the first of May, I learned he had died the previous day, the result of a choking incident robbing his body of life. In so short of a time I feel I have lost a best friend, yet we never met; although I recently friended him on Facebook, we had not yet corresponded.

How brief, how fragile, how tenuous is our grip on life here. Indeed, a blink of an eye. Yet in this small speck of time, we are able to live, to love, to do.

"I run marathons not because I have Cerebral Palsy, but because I'm an athlete." 

- Jason Pisano

Bid me run, and I will strive with things impossible.


Shortly after the 2012 Boston Marathon was in the books, I was looking for videos of the race when I came across the one below.* I watched it over and over and over, often having to stop, overcome by emotion. I then searched and watched a number of videos, along with discovering Jason and Team Pisano's blog here and website here.

* The video I originally linked to has been made private and therefore not accessible. So I am linking to a different one than the one I mentioned above. Sorry this was done but out of my control. This video below was done by Kim Gulko, a great friend and supporter of Jay's.

“A race is a work of art that people can look at and be affected in as many ways they're capable of understanding.”

 - Pre

I read all of the blog posts, following links and searching for tidbits of information. The more I learned, the higher the mountain of awe rose. I know what it is to run a marathon, as an able-bodied athlete and as a mobility impaired runner. Without this reference, it would have been nearly impossible to know the extent of his accomplishments. With it, I would learn the words Jay had tatted across his shoulders: Impossible Is Nothing.

I stopped - gutted as some say - recalling my own post of my second race as an amputee, when, as I began to struggle late in the race, these words came up from within: Nothing is impossible.

Nothing Is Impossible...Impossible Is Nothing

How I regret not meeting Jason in Hopkinton this year. Yet, had I been there, would I have the same understanding, more to the nature of enlightenment, as I do now?

It is a question that cannot be answered.


At Jay's first Boston, he was not allowed to finish the race. We all know the prejudice against women and how, only through courage and a bit of deceit, that was overcome. What Bobbi Gibb and  Kathrine Switzer would do for women, so would Jason help do for the disabled.

I have given much thought to Jason's initial Boston effort. At first I was deeply angered; angered and hurt because of the history of discrimination and denying him the crossing of the finish line. How could human beings treat other human beings so shabbily?

Jay was, by necessity, not choice, participating as a bandit. I never cared for those sorts as an able-bodied runner; usually these were jackasses too cheap to pay for a race entry fee, in effect stealing from those who paid for all of the race services.

Coming from the planet of the able-bodied, it could be understood why bandits must be escorted from the course. But after the black eye of sex discrimination, you would think that a disabled person, asking for entry, would at least be treated as a human being. Jason had little use of his arms, so the standard wheelchair divisions did not fit his disability. What he was wanted to do was...impossible.

With his friends being his dedicated guides:

'"...he started the race in Hopkinton, Mass., before sunup. He labored for 9.5 hours over the hilly, agonizing terrain but didn't complete the course -- not because he couldn't. ``They pulled me off the track a half-mile before the finish to let the lead runners go through and they wouldn't let me finish,'' Pisano says."'

"The BAA officials refused to recognize me for my accomplishment, but I felt great and fulfilled. The small crowd at the finish line cheered loudly. As Randy (Spellman) was helping me out of the racing chair and into my other chair, a race official came up to us and said, ``You are going to have to get out of here, only athletes are permitted in this area.'' When Randy tried to explain that I had just finished the race, he replied, ``Sure he did, buddy.'' We wanted to punch the guy in the face. I had just finished nine of the hardest hours of my life and I was not even recognized as an athlete. We decided that it wasn't worth it to let the guy ruin what I had accomplished, and we went home, but I knew that I would be back."

To be kind, I suppose the disbelief that Jay had run the marathon by pushing himself backwards in a wheelchair using only his left foot could be understood. In fact, that is the very thought we should understand. What he did was impossible. It could not be done. Get out of our race.

Impossible Is Nothing.

With the knowledge this athlete had done the impossible, an extraordinary amount of national attention and due respect was paid to Jay. I now know why one day I may run Boston as a mobility impaired athlete; also why there is an early start and a more inclusive qualifying time as well:

'"In 1995 you set your sights on the granddaddy of all marathons, The Boston Marathon. The Race Organizer refuses to give you an answer about your eligibility, as it has never been run “backwards.”

"WWJPD (What Would Jason Pisano Do?) Jason would “unofficially” run one of the hilliest courses in America with his own support team. The stir created by his accomplishment would lead to the creation of one of the most popular race classes in the Boston Marathon."'

From the Team Pisano blog, something for all of us to consider:

It makes you wonder what the purpose of the Boston Marathon is.

I understand that they want to limit the impact of the marathon on the towns along the route and also maintain their high qualification standards by keeping the race as short as possible, but the cost may be the very founding spirit of the marathon.

Legend says the when Pheidippides burst into the senate after his journey from Marathon to Athens, he exclaimed "Νενικήκαμεν", which translates to "We have won"."We have won", not "I have won". We.

There are maybe a handful of people of the many thousands that run a marathon with hopes of the fastest time, and so it must follow that the winning is - not who comes in first, but something all together different.

No light, no fanfare, no cheering, no banner awaited Pheidppides on that first of marathons. And so it is with Jason Pisano.

What is your message when you burst throguh the doors of the senate? The message that has driven you the long hard journey, step by step, driven through pain and suffering with only your will to keep you going?

I am a purist, an idealist, so I remain unmoved by the fanfare, the pomp and circumstance, the false and easy message of "I have won". It must be hard for people who carry that message to see Jason, so caught up in the "I", they see that they have no excuse for their whining, their complaining, or even perhaps they see their accomplishments are not so great as they believed them to be.

What they should see is that, yes, they don't have an excuse for whining and complaining. That what they've done is not all that it could be, that there are no limits.

That is the message of Pheidippides, of the Marathon, of Jason Pisano:"Νενικήκαμεν", WE have won.


Pisano Strong


I have run a fraction of the number of marathons Jay has and only one as an amputee. Because of several issues, it took me nearly two hours longer than I had ever run before. It was hard. It was very hard. On that day I learned more about myself and my fellow last place finishers than I ever did a bit further up the ladder.

Jay ran with his arms bound so he would not accidentally strike another athlete. Think about that you upright runners. You can't wipe the sweat from your face or scratch an itch...or grab a cup of water or wave to a loved one in the crowd.

Jason's final Boston marathon took over 12 hours to complete. One foot, his left, shoving himself forward, his steady guides - his best friends, his true brothers-in-arms, kept him out of harm's way and on course. It is almost beyond comprehension, this magnificent display of the unbridled human spirit. How could any mortal man do such a thing, much less this spastic body moving a few feet or yards at a time with one foot?  

"Sure he did buddy."

Jay's racing was a thing of great beauty

Jay belongs on the winner's podium with the laurel wreath halo upon his head. He has done the impossible not once, but 52 times. Many, many men can run a sub 2:10 marathon. Yet who among them - or us - could take what would be a debilitating condition and, through the force of sheer will - create this miracle? Jason Pisano did, and he did so without complaint.

He did it with friends like Randy Spellman, who was his blood-brother. His beloved mother Michele Burdick, stepfather Ray, and grandmother Barbara Hindle-Pisano's support provided Jay with the guidance and inventive needs for his uncommon life. Jay dedicated what would be his final marathon to Barbara.

I put Jason Pisano's accomplishments among the greatest in any sport in history. I do not make that statement lightly. This man, this athlete, had the heart of a pure champion. Nothing could stop him except the very thing that will claim us all...as I write that I am still terribly touched by his loss, that I had not met him. I would have wanted to learn  from Jay; to share running tips and goals and dreams of what could be.


I smile to dream that Sylvester Stallone might one day make a movie about Jay...to hear many of the Rocky themes and words echoing back through his life on the big screen, what a transcendental experience that would be.


Way back, I read an article about Kelly Luckett, who I would later meet at the Getting2Tri camp and we would become friends. She mentioned someone who inspired her at Boston:

"But as inspiring as she is herself, Luckett was inspired in the Boston Marathon by another athlete, Jason Pisano, who has cerebral palsy. Luckett recalled, "Jason has completed several marathons, including many Bostons, by using his legs to push himself backwards in a wheelchair. I know how tough it is to run or even just walk those hills on the Boston course, so I can only imagine the training and perseverance he must have to push himself backwards up those hills!"

I had so hoped to be on the starting line of Boston this year, but that was not to be. And now I do not miss anything about the race other than not being able to help my friend Ashley Kurpiel and the IFOPA and, in a personal loss, missing meeting the greatest, the friend I would never know, Jay Pisano. Yet I know him now, and I believe others will come to see this brightest star, and in time I hope his legacy will be more widely known for what it is. 

For it is a life of impossible dreams, dreams that were reached not by a perfect human body but by one given impossible odds. Jason did not have courage; he was courage personified, and therefore the perfect athlete. Nothing on this living earth could stop him. He kept moving forward - citius, altius, fortius - toward that place where

Impossible Is Nothing.

Jason Pisano, January 25, 1972 - April 30, 2012

The Greatest.

Footnote: Boston did incorporate the Mobility Impaired Division the year following Jason's first race there. Someone knew what they were doing in setting up this category for those who would have never had the opportunity to participate in this historic race. We all make mistakes, it is how we make amends for them that matters. To those who helped bring this about, thank you for making a difference, and for understanding there are higher achievements to be reached while we may strive to do so in this life.


  1. Thanks for this great story of my cousin. A man who humbled me daily !

  2. Colleen, I think your cousin humbles us all. :) Thank you for the kind words.

  3. A Doctor once said, Jay is one in a million, So true.

  4. Gosh Michele I don't think there ever was anyone like your son Jay. His legacy will help many others, this will never, ever end. I know and believe this.

  5. So glad you reposted this. Very fitting.