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Grandma's Marathon: Keating grateful broken back didn't rob him of his ability to run

Steve Kuchera / skuchera@duluthnews.com Grandma’s Marathon runner Shane Keating runs past St. Luke’s hospital, where he had spinal fusion surgery after breaking his back in a 2005 sledding accident. Keating, who could have been paralyzed, runs Grandmas to remind himself that he’s been given a second chance.

If his pace holds, Shane Keating will run past St. Luke's hospital in downtown Duluth at about 11:25 a.m. Saturday.

He'll be nearly 24 miles into Grandma's Marathon, dogged determination more than energy carrying the 36-year-old from Foley, Minn., toward Canal Park. Mentally, Keating will be through the worst of it. You get, oh, 17 miles into a marathon, and you're feeling pretty darn good. Until you realize there are almost 10 left. Practically double digits. Still.

But 24 is manageable. Keating ought to be less than 25 minutes from the finish line.

Physically, all bets are off.

Regardless of the pain inundating his quads and calves, Keating will be flooded with gratitude as he approaches St. Luke's at 10th Avenue East. It was there, 13 years earlier, that the then-St. Scholastica senior underwent spinal-fusion surgery.

Keating should be paralyzed from the waist down, his only involvement in a Grandma's race requiring a wheelchair.

Here's what the neurosurgeon told Keating's parents, Mary Sue and the late Tom Keating, in January 2005, when a Sunday afternoon of extreme sledding went awry: "Looking at this X-ray, I cannot explain to you why your son can walk. There is no reason he isn't paralyzed. If you believe in miracles, this is one. If you believe in blind luck, your son just hit the Powerball. Twice."

Breaking the fall

Shane Keating and a handful of friends were sledding just south of the St. Scholastica campus, off Kenwood Avenue. It was a typical January day in Duluth — cold and overcast. In his Mad River Rocket sled, Keating clutched a pine tree and pulled himself over a cliff, plunging 23 feet to the ground below.

He bounced, hard, into a pile of powder. The landing was about what you'd expect from a two-plus-story fall — bumpy, but at the same time unremarkable. Upon impact, Keating's momentum propelled him further down the hill, until coming to a rest.

Then he got up and walked away.

Laying on the floor at his apartment that evening, and with the discomfort in his back intensifying, Keating asked a friend for a ride to the emergency room. There, he had X-rays done.

"The doctor came back in after that and said, 'Don't move a muscle, don't sneeze, don't fart, don't do anything,' " Keating recalled. "You broke your back."

Keating had never so much as broken a bone before.

"I just went right for the big one," he said, laughing.

The damage: both a compression fracture and Chance fracture to his T12 vertebra, the height of which was reduced by 40 percent. "Additionally," Keating explained, "the vertebra was cut completely in half."

His spine was in two pieces, but the bones never shifted, which would have severed his spinal cord. He likened it to splitting a tree.

"You cut it in half, but the tree didn't fall over. It stayed up in the air. It shouldn't have because I did all kinds of things after the injury that you absolutely should not do," like trudging through the snow, walking up and down steps and riding in a vehicle, Keating said. "If the initial injury itself didn't cause it to shift, all those other things afterwards should have."

Added Mary Sue: "At that point, he really was in two pieces."

The day of the mishap, she and Tom, who died in a January 2006 car accident, had just returned to Foley from a convention in Dallas, where he was recognized as Minnesota's teacher of the year, along with winners from the other 49 states. Tom took the first call, from his son's roommate, and later relayed to Mary Sue that Shane had a sprained back or "some kind of spasm" and "they're taking him in."

Alarmed, mom "called every medical facility in Duluth" trying to find out what was going on. She finally tracked down Shane at St. Luke's, but whoever answered the phone cited data-privacy laws when pressed for information. You can imagine how that went over. Mary Sue was able to pry a few details loose before realizing the seriousness of the situation.

"Are you telling me that my son has a broken back?" she asked.

"Yes," came the reply.

Mom and dad headed north.

During a lengthy surgery, three of Shane Keating's vertebrae "were fused together with pins and rods," he said. He wore a stabilizing hard-plastic shell on his upper body, which Keating shed just before graduating from St. Scholastica that May, and underwent physical therapy for close to a year.

Keating, who captained the Saints cross-country team as a senior, is quick to note that he was thinking clearly while deciding to go over the cliff, "which probably makes it worse," he joked. He doesn't drink, smoke or otherwise engage in mood-altering substances.

"Other than running," he said.

Rehabbing to run

Obviously, Keating's running went on hiatus.

Broken backs will do that.

He rehabbed diligently and, on Feb. 8, 2006 — 381 days after the accident — Keating was ready to peel off a few miles. Inside the fieldhouse at Foley High School, he began jogging. Slowly.

Painful? For sure. But not in the obvious way.

Despite the circumstances and all that he had overcome to reach that milestone, Keating couldn't ignore his stopwatch. And the numbers hurt. He's accustomed to going fast, with a personal best of 17 minutes, 15 seconds over 5 kilometers and 4:47 for the mile.

But — and here's what Keating had to remind himself — he was running.

"It was very emotional to just have the opportunity to do that when I shouldn't have," he said. "That ability, that gift, should've been taken away from me."

Saturday, the trim, 5-foot-9 Keating will embark on his third Grandma's Marathon. His PR at the distance is 4:10:33.

"That's gonna change (on Saturday)," Keating said.

Sub-4 is the goal.

His training has gone well, though because of the injury Keating likely won't ever be able to rack up the kind of mileage he'd prefer. The constant pounding on his back, which still bears a 10-inch scar, would be too much. That, along with age, has allowed Keating to accept that his fastest days are in the past.

Baloney, said his wife, Mary. This past winter, she'd watch her husband leave the house at 4:30 a.m. for a workout, headlamp on, and remark dryly, "You better win this marathon." Similarly, she can only shake her head as Keating heads for the door at 10 p.m., intent on sneaking in some speed work at the high school track.

He is nothing if not headstrong, according to Mary. Competitive, too.

"In no way, shape or form has he accepted that he'll never get back to where he was," Mary said. "He's never gonna settle."

She should know. The two met in fifth grade and started dating in 10th, back when Keating's hair was black and thick. Now, it's on the retreat, with far more salt than pepper. It started turning, he said, in his late 20s. The couple's oldest child, daughter Rory, is 8. Rory has two siblings — 6-year-old Finnegan and 4-year-old Nora.

Keating plans to stick to his 9:09 pace Saturday until at least Mile 20, when he'll re-evaluate. He wants to go under four hours for two reasons. First, it's a round number. Second, and more importantly, that'd push Keating past his sister-in-law and running cohort, Natalie Newman of Maple Lake, Minn., whose best marathon is 4:02:49.

The two ran Grandma's together in 2015 and 2016. Newman, though, is battling breast cancer and won't be in this year's field. If Keating can top her PR, he has no doubt that an annoyed Newman will train tirelessly to go even lower in 2019.

"Until we cross the finish line neck-and-neck, neither one of us will be satisfied," Newman said. "We'll always be trying to beat each other."

'Why me?'

To this day, Keating doesn't know why he was spared a more severe fate. He thinks about it often. On May 19, he was out for a run, plodding through 12 monotonous miles.

It was a grind. Until it wasn't.

"I just kept telling myself, 'Hey, you're not supposed to be out here. You're supposed to be burning down the road in a wheelchair right now. So quit complaining and just have fun with it,' " he said.

Keating, a job recruiter who also owns an endurance event-planning company called Meet the Monster Athletics, frequently asks himself "why me?" But the tone of that question has done a 180, from one of victimhood to indebtedness.

"It didn't take long before I started to think, 'OK, well I've been given a second chance here that I'm not supposed to have,' " he explained. "So, why me? What is it that I'm supposed to do with this gift, this ability?"

Inspire others, perhaps. Maybe his children, who see dad relentlessly working toward a goal. Maybe someone else who hears his story and decides to run a 5K or marathon.

"Not that I'm doing it on the Olympic stage by any stretch of the imagination. I'm just trying to go under four hours — that's all I'm trying to do here," he said. "But, if through that and through telling the story, that can inspire somebody in athletics, in running or just in their personal life in some way, then I feel like I've taken what was potentially a very horrible situation and turned it into a positive."

Keating believes everything happens for a reason. Scientifically, he shouldn't be walking. Mary says once he learned there was a chance he'd be able to run again, "then that's what he was going to do."

"It's a substantial part of who he is," she said.

Said Mary Sue: "I think that speaks to his determination, that this wouldn't define him."

Incidentally, sledding remains a part of who Keating is. He still uses his Mad River Rocket. With one glaring difference.

"No cliffs," he quipped. "I'm done with cliffs."

Asked if she was surprised her husband recovered as fully as he did, Mary didn't hesitate.

"No — not for a second," she said.

Keating normally runs once during the week and does his long workout on the weekend. Competitively, he'd love to do more and chase the times produced by his younger self. Simultaneously, he's learned to "appreciate just being able to be out there."

As he said, Keating runs "quite simply because I can."

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