Chattanoogan Nathan Sexton earns rare Boston Marathon special entry

Nathan Sexton passes a man carrying a flag near the finish line Sunday, March 5, 2017 in the Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon.
photo Nathan Sexton passes a man carrying a flag near the finish line Sunday, March 5, 2017 in the Erlanger Chattanooga Marathon.

A finishing time of 3 hours, 7 minutes and 9 seconds in the March 5 Chattanooga Marathon vaulted Nathan Sexton to second on the podium for his age group and 13th overall out of 398 finishers, eliciting awe and admiration from family, friends and the local running community.

But none of that lessened the sting.

His hope of qualifying for the 2018 Boston Marathon had been snatched away by complications of a grade 4 brain cancer during the race's final leg.

A late-race seizure did not stop Sexton, but it slowed his pace, causing him to finish just 129 seconds short of qualifying for next year's Boston Marathon.

"Mostly tired!" Sexton said in an email last week, describing how he felt just after the race. "But also, super frustrated."

Sexton said he initially started thinking about a marathon he could run this fall for another qualification attempt.

"I would have kept trying for the 2018 Boston Marathon," he said, "but this was a blessing in disguise."

The Boston Athletic Association heard Sexton's story, and on March 17 offered him a spot in next month's 2017 Boston Marathon, a rare move for one of the world's premier marathons.

"We receive many requests every year to grant special entry into the Boston Marathon, and while all are reviewed, they're seldom approved," Boston Athletic Association communications director T.K. Skenderian wrote in an email.

"Our review of Nathan's story and prognosis, coupled with a wave of support he received from people in both Chattanooga and Boston, proved that acceptance could be granted," Skendarian wrote.

"This is an exceptional circumstance for us to do this at this late date, but we feel strongly that Nathan is an exceptional person, and we wish him the best on race day."

With no races on his immediate horizon, Sexton temporarily abandoned his special diet after the Chattanooga Marathon to indulge in the culinary delights of Paris. He wrote on his blog that he gained 10 pounds on the trip.

Soon after he returned home, Nathan's father, Buddy, called.

"I hope you are in shape," Buddy recalled saying to Nathan during the call, "because I just got an email from the Boston Athletic Association and you're going to be running another marathon next month."

Nathan's reply?

"He said, 'Oh my gosh, you've got to be kidding,'" Buddy said. "He was really, really excited about it."

The Boston Marathon is April 17, leaving the 30-year-old husband and father little time to prepare. Nathan said he will train, but not quite as hard as he did for the Chattanooga Marathon. He said he plans to enjoy the race and not be so focused on his time.

"I can't thank God enough for providing me this opportunity, because who knows what 2018 will hold for me," Nathan wrote. "I mean, that would put me at the three-year mark, which is way past the average survival rate."

Sexton has outlasted the average life expectancy for people with grade 4 glioblastoma. He was diagnosed in the summer of 2015. A clinical trial at the University of Alabama at Birmingham has kept his tumor from growing for now, but the cancer affects his speech and other elements of daily life.

He was running a 6:55-minute-mile-pace in the Chattanooga Marathon before the seizure hit with roughly five miles remaining. Sexton's running partner stuffed medication down his throat, and the two soldiered on toward the finish line.

Exhausted and disappointed after the race, Nathan was approached by a local elementary school student. The boy, named Corey, explained that Nathan was his hero and he had written a paper in school about him.

"Man, it meant the world to meet Corey," Sexton said. "It really put things back in perspective. Worldly success is so fleeting, and it is so easy to get sucked into. Running a sub-three-hour marathon was all I was after, and when you meet someone you don't even know who says you're his hero, I almost teared up."

The meeting is one example of the big-picture narratives Nathan and his father say are at work in the midst of Nathan's ongoing fight with cancer.

"Not only is he getting into the Boston Marathon," Buddy Sexton said. "But the way that he got in, suddenly, at least some of the leaders of this race and that city have been touched. There are already these meta-narratives and these bigger stories at work."

Contact staff writer David Cobb at dcobb@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.