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Books | Sports

August 28, 2011

Taking the Long Way Back

New York City firefighter Matt Long came back from a gory mauling by a bus to run a marathon. He told Charlie Butler his story, or as much of it as he remembered.

Andrew Golding

A single moment can change a life. The moment that changed Matt Long's is one he doesn't remember.

On December 22, 2005, Long was riding his Trek 2200 bike in Manhattan, on 52nd Street and 3rd Avenue. The time was approximately 5:45 am. A 40,000-pound bus traveling at 25 miles per hour made an illegal right turn and hit Long. The force of the collision sucked him under the bus and the bike's seatpost nearly tore him in half, causing blood to gush from his abdomen. Police and ambulances were soon at the scene and Long was soon at the hospital, given less than a 5 percent chance to survive. The injuries were massive, numerous, and complex. And gory. One doctor said it looked it looked like a bomb had gone off in Long's stomach.

Charlie Butler (left) and Matt Long. Photo of Long by James Cooper.
"One person asked me, 'If I could go back in time and have the bus miss me, would I?' "—Matt Long

Charlie Butler (left) and Matt Long. Photo of Long by James Cooper.

Long was 39 years old at the time of the accident. He worked as a New York City firefighter, a 12-year veteran of Ladder 43 in East Harlem, and owned several bars in the city. He was a hardcore athlete, participating in several marathons and Ironman competitions. He enjoyed the city and had an active social life. But it would be a long time before he would return to that life. Long survived the accident, needing nearly 70 units of blood to make it through the night. It was five months before he was released from the hospital, 40 pounds lighter and still recovering from his injuries.

In The Long Run: A New York City Firefighter's Triumphant Comeback from Crash Victim to Elite Athlete, Long tells his story. Written with Charlie Butler, it is a story of what happened after the accident—a recovery process that included deep emotional and physical struggles in an effort to rebuild a life. In the following interview, conducted by email and edited for clarity, Long and Butler tell Gelf about the process of writing the book together, how Long feels about the driver who hit him, and how the book has affected his dating life.

Gelf Magazine: What was the biggest challenge involved in writing the book?

Matt Long: The biggest challenge was going over details about the first six weeks while I was in a coma. I loved working with Charlie Butler; he really made this experience a good one.

Gelf Magazine: Charlie, Matt has no memory of the main events in the book—the accident and the days in the hospital that followed. Was it difficult getting Matt's family and friends to talk about those events?

Charlie Butler: I had a lot of things in my favor when it came to reporting the facets of Matt's accident that Matt could not recall. First off, he comes from a large family—he has eight siblings—and each had memories to share. He also works in the New York City Fire Department, the FDNY, which is a fraternity of sorts. He had spent 14 years or so at his house in East Harlem and became close to a number of his fellow firefighters. So those guys all had colorful stories to tell, both before and during his stay in the hospital. And he had all his buddies in the triathlon club he belongs to. These athletes visited Matt a lot while he was recovering, so they had plenty of things to share. So in the end I had a huge roster of people to interview, get details from, verify anecdotes, etc., to supplement what Matt had to offer.
That said, interviewing all these people, especially Matt's parents and siblings, did present challenges. While I was interviewing them—and this was happening a couple of years after his accident when he was essentially in better shape—often they'd start to tear up as they recalled details of those first couple of weeks in the hospital. The tears and the crackling voices reminded me of how terrible this guy's accident was and how much he meant to the various people I was talking to.

Gelf Magazine: Matt, on your Daily Show appearance, you explained that "the bike basically sliced me open." The book details the injuries, but this has not stopped you from returning to biking. Did you have any fear?

Matt Long: I was nervous, but the fact that I don't remember the accident has helped me get back on the bike.

Gelf Magazine: Any notable reaction from friends and family to the book?

Matt Long: Friends were surprised about how open and honest I was about all of my injuries and rehab. I kept much of this to myself but felt I had to tell all if I wanted to impact others.
Charlie Butler: Well, my four-year-old son likes to goof on the cover of the book—the shot of the shirtless Matt. He'll pull up his T-shirt and pose with his hands on his hips and run around the house. And my mom talks the book up a bit. She met Matt's mom at a party and they compared notes about being the mothers of a lot of kids. They had a lot to share—although my mom only had eight kids, while Mrs. Long had nine. And Denis Leary gave the manuscript a real nice plug after he read it. That guy sure knows how to drop some colorful adjectives into his reviews. And then there are the unsolicited remarks—remarks left on blogs or on The Long Run: A New York City Firefighter's Triumphant Comeback from Crash Victim to Elite Athlete—from unknown people who have been affected by Matt's story. They could relate to his working-class life and the challenges he faced. It's amazing how many people are, on a daily basis, trying to get something back in their lives.

Gelf Magazine: Matt—If there's not a NYC transit strike, you're not riding your bike when the accident happened. The strike was led by then-NYC Transit Authority President Roger Toussaint, and you direct some anger at him: "The illegal strike…broke my body." Why do you not express any anger toward the driver of the bus that hit you, who was cited for an illegal turn?

Matt Long: I have no anger towards the bus driver. I am sure he has suffered enough knowing he hit another human being. I can't imagine how that must have felt.

Gelf Magazine: Charlie, you have run several marathons and work as executive editor at Runner's World magazine. Can you describe what makes running a passion of yours?

Charlie Butler: I've run a total of five marathons, including four New York City marathons. My last one was in 2008, when I ran with Matt as part of the reporting for the Runner's World story that The Long Run is based on. But while I'm glad to be a member of the marathon club, and while I've worked at Runner's World for seven years, I'm probably the slowpoke on any relay team RW would put together. I run mostly just to burn off the Big Macs I sometimes sneak into the office.
But working on stories about running is certainly a passion. The beauty of Runner's World magazine is that besides the traditional service pieces we deliver each month—how to train for a marathon, how to pick the right running shoes—we tell some really cool, interesting, long-form stories that delve deeply into the heart of human nature and athletics—like Matt's story. Each month the magazine publishes at least one piece—a profile, a narrative, an exposé—that runs 7,000 to 8,000 words. We tackle difficult topics and work with some of the best writers around— Steve Friedman, Steve Rushin, John Brant—who bring so much color and drama to their pieces. So, being able to work on such stories helps to fuel my passion for running.

Gelf Magazine: I'm interested in how you worked with Matt to tell his story. Where did you guys meet to talk? How often and how long were the sessions?

Charlie Butler: This question has a two-part answer.
Part One: For the piece on Matt that ran in Runner's World in March 2009, I spent close to 18 months reporting the story. I first met Matt in April 2007, and over the course of the months leading up to the 2008 NYC Marathon that he ran, we met and talked over the phone a lot. We seemed to do a lot of the interviews in a Starbucks on Third Avenue; that was his hangout of choice back then. But we also talked during his therapy sessions, during a run in Central Park, in cabs, at his firehouse—anywhere I could catch him. And the reporting and interviewing, of course, changed over that period. At first I was just trying to get to know Matt and see what his future as a runner might be. But then, as he became confident that he would attempt the marathon, I began exploring a lot more parts to his story. I interviewed his primary doctors, his therapists, his parents, and a few siblings. And by running the marathon with him, I got to spend nine or so uninterrupted hours with him and his running buddies. So that reporting provided the basis for the Runner's World piece.
Then, Part Two: When the book came along, and we had to turn a nine-page story into a 200-page story, I had to spend even more time with Matt. A lot of the reporting took place in Matt's apartment, a couple of long sessions—five and six hours long. We had a couple of good interview sessions in bars with some of Matt's buddies and former physical therapists—although doing long interviews in bars with a lot of music in the background does not make for easy transcribing. We had one session where we went together and talked to his doctors. It was alarming in many respects to hear the doctors tell Matt details of his accident that he previously did not know. The details made him even more aware of what terrible shape he had been in.
I've heard some readers say that the descriptions in the book of what Matt went through—like the graphic nature of how the bike invaded his body—are a bit difficult to take. But they also say they help to better understand what Matt had to endure. I was only able to re-create such scenes because of the willingness of so many people—the cops who pulled him from under the bus, the doctors who operated on him, the PTs who worked with him during his recovery—to share their memories and expertise. Their help was crucial to bringing the reality of Matt's story to life.

Gelf Magazine: This is your first book. What stands out about the experience?

Charlie Butler: I got lucky. I was able to work with someone who was so willing to share the intimate details of his life, before his accident, during his recovery, and even after. In a lot of ways Matt had a good story before the accident; he had lived a very full life. Throw in a gruesome accident and the challenges he went through to run a marathon and then do an Ironman and, honestly, I just didn't want to mess it up.

Gelf Magazine: Matt and Charlie, what is the one question you have been asked in your speaking appearances that you thought about later?

Matt Long: One person asked me, "If I could go back in time and have the bus miss me, would I?"
I said, "No!" I have been blessed with this recovery to inspire others not to quit.
Charlie Butler: "Is Matt still single?" Some mom wanted to introduce her daughter to him. I told her she'd have to go to the source for that answer.

Gelf Magazine: Matt, let's go to the source. Your fearless, confident approach to meeting and asking out women is discussed in several sections of the book. You mention that you are single as of the book's completion in mid-2010. Pardon the People magazine-esque question: What is your current romantic situation?

Matt Long: I am trying to stay a bachelor until I make the People magazine most-eligible list. Seriously, I have met a very special person, Mary, with two young girls, Grace and Emily, and we have been dating for about 10 months. We were introduced on a blind date and I couldn't be happier! I took her bowling on our first date, which with my bad leg and shoulder really set me up for a loss, but I still managed a victory.

Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding







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Comments

- Books
- posted on Aug 30, 11
Ric Garson

This Golding kid does a fabulous job. Seems to be a great talent!

- Books
- posted on Aug 30, 11
ric garson

This writer [ Golding ] is great


Article by Andrew Golding

Andrew Golding works in the television industry in New York. He twitters at Twitter.com/AndrewGolding

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