Content advisory: suicidal thoughts
The following is a letter from Matt Kenny to the Toronto Waterfront Marathon team:
My name is Matt, and I kept my story secret out of shame and fear but thought perhaps it was worthy of recognition. I have realized through recent conversations that it could help someone who may be silently suffering with their own battles.
My dream had always been to run the Boston Marathon. As a casual runner who had completed only one marathon in the past, I was hooked. I had a two-year plan and was ready to set my sights on getting my Boston qualifying time. However, fate had different plans for me. A phone call would forever change my life in August 2021 – 30 mins into my 40th birthday party. After months of medical testing, they found lesions on my spinal cord, and I was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS).
The doctors did not sugarcoat it – “MS will almost always end in disability, and can include cognitive decline, blindness, and early death.” I was told to pick one of three treatments (chemotherapy being one), and I would start immediately. I stared blankly at the wall.
Things quickly got worse. What started as numbness in the back of my right arm traveled to my feet. Every step was uncomfortable, and I felt like I was walking on marbles. Soon after, it affected my left leg. While jogging, electric shocks went through my legs, and I tripped and fell. I was at the track, surrounded by strangers. I hobbled to the infield and had a full-blown anxiety attack. Gasping for breath, tears mixed with sweat behind my sunglasses, as it hit me that I would never run the Boston Marathon. My body was giving up.
Soon after my feet, the nerves in my legs had tremors 24/7 (a symptom of MS and Parkinson’s), my fingers became stiff, I started dropping things as I lost dexterity in my hands, and I had pains shooting down both arms. I lost feeling in my chest and could not tell when I was peeing, as all the feeling in my lower abdomen and groin was gone. I did not rise to this occasion like a character in some great novel; I buckled under the weight and spiralled into darkness.
As more symptoms appeared, I fell deeper into depression. My world experience had taught me that asking for help was a weakness, so I didn’t. The darkness continued to creep in, like cold hands around my throat, and one day, with my face pressed against the hard concrete floor, with all the blinds closed and very few options, I decided to take my own life.
The future I was told I would be facing was not something I knew how to handle, and the thought of taking my life brought a sense of relief. It was an option not to suffer, to not become a burden to those I loved, and to take back control where I seemingly had none.
I began to find comfort in my weeks of depression when I picked up a book by Matt Haig – a best-selling author and known depressive. I opened a random page, and it had one single line of text:
“The answer is that you stay alive for other versions of you. For the people you will meet, yes, sure, but also the people you will be.”
I stared at the page. The very next day, I saw a handwritten note taped to a lamp post that said:
“One day, you will tell your story about how you overcame what you went through, and it will be someone else’s survival guide.”
And I cried, knowing that something in me had died and life could never be the same. I didn’t know how, but I knew I had to fight. And my new journey began. I refused all medical treatments and focused 24 hours a day on healing my body and mind naturally – I changed every aspect of my life – diet, sleeping patterns, stress reduction, stretching, strength and balance training, and movement.
Before my diagnosis, I had signed up for the 2022 Miami Half Marathon, but two weeks out, I could only walk for 15 mins at a time, with special inserts in my shoes to feel my feet. I decided not to do it, terrified of making my symptoms worse, but on race day, I packed my race kit at 4 am and headed to the start line. If I was going down, I was going down swinging.
I finished with a very slow ¼ mile walk, ¼ mile jog strategy, and when I saw the finish line, my mind shifted again. Maybe I could finish a full marathon despite everyone (and the internet) telling me this is the worst thing I could do in my condition. I refined my goals and turned 15 mins of walking into jogging, running, sprinting, and 15+ mile long distances. It took six months to fully “run” again, but I put one foot in front of the other and never looked back.
And then, I set my sights on the 2022 Toronto Waterfront Marathon with the lofty goal of setting a personal best record. This was my sole focus for five months – no matter how bad my symptoms got, I got up on Sundays between 3:30–5 am and laced up my shoes to hit the pavement for my long runs. And on October 16, 2022, I crossed the finish line with a personal best time of 03:58:53, with friends and family lining the course, cheering my every stride. The race that quite legitimately saved me.
A race that is likely painstaking to organize and coordinate and set up, but a race that, for some of us, is so much more than just a race – it was the focus that kept me going on the bad days and the goal that lit the fire in my guts to defy medical odds. Since crossing that finish line, I have now set my sights on being the first person with MS to complete all six World Marathon Majors, and last week, I was thrilled to find out that I had been accepted to run the Chicago Marathon in 2023, so yet another journey now begins.
So, perhaps it’s time to write a new chapter about someone like me – an extraordinarily ordinary human diagnosed with MS who was shamed into accepting his fate. Someone who refused and instead clawed back from the edge, fought his demons, altered almost every facet of his life, threw on his running shoes, and rebuilt himself into running a personal best marathon time in his hometown because that’s my story. It has worth; it was what someone like me needed to hear to give me hope. To keep me alive.
To those who are struggling – stay with me. It is completely fine to fall apart. It is completely fine to be lost, to visit the darkness, and to cry, but please get back up and swing again and again, no matter how many times you miss. You have people in your corner, and we need you.
You are never alone. It gets better. You matter. You have worth. Take care of yourselves, and please look after each other.
Written by Matt Kenny