If the first step of any journey is the toughest, imagine for a moment how difficult the path has been for Roger Long.
Long drove to Chattanooga from his home in Trussville, Ala., to join friends and run in this morning's Missionary Ridge Road Race as he trains for his first marathon, the 38th Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 27.
The obstacles the Kingston, Tenn., native has overcome just to reach this point should make any of us think twice about complaining that we can't find the motivation to get off the couch and set more active goals for our lives.
Eleven years ago, at the age of 36, Long was diagnosed with young-onset Parkinson's disease. Like anyone who's just been dealt such a sucker punch, the father of two boys couldn't help but wonder how much time he would have to be the provider his family had come to depend on. Within four years after the diagnosis, with his ability to walk becoming more hindered with each passing month, Long was forced to retire from his job. For several years after that, he had to use a cane and leg brace just to be able to walk.
"I struggled for eight years to get my bearings in the fight against PD," Long said. "My older son joined the Marines, and it was while he was deployed to Afghanistan in 2010 that I became motivated to find a way to stop the steady decline I was on. I just wanted to be better for my son, so that when he came home from the war I would be able to walk beside him through whatever he faced afterward.
"To do the things I do now, I essentially had to learn to walk normally again on my own without the use of walking aids."
So Long began to walk a three-quarters-mile trail around a lake near his home, eventually lengthening his daily walks while decreasing the medication he had been taking to control the effects of Parkinson's.
A driven, goal-oriented Long turned those first painful but significant steps into a personal crusade against the degenerative, muscle-binding disease. Since he began his journey, Long has hiked more than 2,500 miles in the United States and even took the battle 19,341 feet above sea level when he reached the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro. Long was the only member with Parkinson's of a 15-person group that hiked to the top of Africa's tallest mountain. That group, which was part of the fundraising arm of the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's Resarch, raised more than $100,000.
Long also has completed the Bataan Memorial Death March in New Mexico, which is a marathon-length endurance hike through the desert.
"Up until about three years ago I couldn't have imagined doing these things, even before I had PD," he said this week. "What I've learned when something like this happens in life is that it makes a person reshape what you think life is really about. Life isn't about things - it's about people. That was the change for me and my family and friends, and those closest to me became more of a priority. We all have a burden. Mine happens to be PD - learning to not only deal with it but to turn it into something positive."
Aside from hoping to encourage other people afflicted with Parkinson's, Long is running to honor his two sons, both Marines, as well as to raise awareness and financial support for wounded veterans, specifically the Fisher House Foundation. It provides temporary housing and accommodations for the families of ill or injured service members.
"I was talking to my oldest son one day about leaving yet another medication behind me, and he became agitated with concern and said, 'Dad, you're acting like you're cured or something.' That became my motto: 'Live like you're cured.'"
Contact Stephen Hargis at email@example.com or 423-757-6293.