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Maher uses walk to propel him through life

Published: Thursday, Aug. 7, 2014 10:29 p.m. CDT
Caption
(Photo provided)
Matt Maher (right), a 2009 St. Charles East graduate, met inspiration and former "The Biggest Loser" contestant Vinny Hickerson after Sunday's "The Biggest Loser" RunWalk Chicago Half-Marathon. Maher, diagnosed with cerebral palsy at age 2, walked his first half-marathon.

Matt Maher traded a 10 percent chance to live beyond childbirth for 10 excruciatingly blissful hours walking near Chicago's lakefront Sunday.

He entered the world facing challenging odds and figures, so forgive him for failing to get too preoccupied about time.

The one-pound, six-ounce infant born 16 weeks prematurely is 23 now and has grown to 5-foot-4 and 152 pounds. All of him rejoiced as he walked the final steps of his first half-marathon with several members of his St. Charles family trekking the final five miles by Maher's side.

"It was a whole inspiring weekend," Maher said. "It was one of the best weekends I've had in a long time."

To be sure, Maher only sees things going up from here. He wants to keep working with special needs students. He wants to get his personal training certification. He dreams of one day opening his own gym to train Special Olympic athletes.

Yes, Maher has cerebral palsy, but he plans to forever use Sunday to show himself that's all but irrelevant when it comes to setting goals for the rest of his life.

"What do you say? What do you say about a kid who was never supposed to live, let alone walk around and do things, who just walked a half-marathon?" said Kristy Maher, Matt's mom.

Kristy Maher, her husband, Jim, and their oldest son, 30-year-old Kevin, joined Matt Maher's journey in progress Sunday. Matt Maher's fraternal twin sister, Michelle, who lives in Denver, was unable to attend, but don't think she lacked a hand in all this.

Growing up, Matt Maher admired the neighborhood running group that included his mother and sister – veterans of last year's Bank of America Chicago Marathon – and channeled their influence when he registered for the race in May.

"I just kind of looked at that and I just said there's got to be something out there that I can do," Maher said. "I might not be able to run as fast as they can, but there's got to be a race out there that accommodates [me]."

The NBC reality weight-loss series "The Biggest Loser," one of Maher's favorite programs, sponsored Sunday's races, which also included a 5K and youth mile and started and finished outside Soldier Field. The show's title is an oxymoron, and the camaraderie still seems to happily stick with officials and contestants.

More on that later.

Allowed to begin about 90 minutes earlier than the scheduled 7:30 a.m. start time, Maher took to the course with lontime trainer Phil DeMonte, now with The Speed School in St. Charles. In his final training before the race, Maher walked 10 miles in about 5 1/2 hours, but found that pace difficult to match on race day.

Around the eighth mile of his 13.1 mile journey, he felt especially achy. His hip flexors, already tight from his cerebral palsy, nagged in tandem with the rest of his body.

For the final five-plus miles, Maher's parents, brother and trainer alternated shoulders for support. At around 4 p.m., as the finish line beckoned, they yearned for Maher's sake to see a few more well-wishers waiting even though the course had been closed for a few hours.

"At that point as a parent, to watch each step your child takes and he was just wincing in pain. … I just kept thinking, we're going to get back there and they're all going to be gone and nobody's going to be able to know what he did," Kristy Maher said.

Not quite. In addition to the race directors and a few other officials, three former show contestants watched Maher finish. That number included recent fan-favorite Vinny Hickerson, who lost nearly 200 pounds on the show in 2011.

"I just was overcome with emotion when I finished," Maher said. "Not only because I finished, but the fact that they were still there."

DeMonte, who has trained Maher in spots for the past few years, said Maher had to exert three to four times more effort than athletes without his affliction.

"For him, it was just sheer determination with that," DeMonte said. "Every ounce of what he had, he gave to that half-marathon. ... You couldn't ask for anything more."

Of, course, Maher will. The 2009 St. Charles East graduate relishes challenging himself, and already has designs on entering another half-marathon this year.

One option, in Libertyville, has a 6 1/2-hour time limit, a built-in test for Maher to recapture his pre-race training pace.

Before pursuing half-marathons, Maher competed in three International Natural Bodybuilding Association competitons in 2013, winning each through the INBA's physically challenged division. Ultimately, though, he felt the sport wasn't for him.

Powerlifting also is on Maher's radar, with a few other as-yet-uncovered options potentially on the way. Hickerson, after all, posted pictures with Maher on social media and has talked about having Maher visit him in Tennessee.

Wherever he goes, Maher plans to tote Sunday's memories with him. Those are never a burden.

"It was well worth it," Maher said. "It was well worth it."

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