More than 45,000 runners completed last Sunday’s Chicago Marathon, but none of them were quite like Townsend’s Michael Davis.
Davis became the youngest runner with Cystic Fibrosis in the event’s 42-year history to complete the 26.2-mile tour of the Windy City.
It’s a nearly perfectly flat trek through the city, until a hill inside the final half mile. Michael said he was so locked in; he didn’t even notice his mother.
“I had my headphones in, I turned the music up. She was actually at the 26-mile mark, and I was just looking at the ground trying to get up that hill. I didn’t even notice she was there until she showed me the video after. I was so zoned in to getting up that hill and finishing. I got to the top of the hill, the finish line was right there, and it was a good feeling.”
It's another finish line for Davis, who was named the 2017 Team Boomer Co-Athlete of the Year as part of the former NFL quarterback’s Boomer Esiason Foundation.
But it was another finish line that didn’t seem possible for Davis at one point when he was in elementary school.
“I had developed this bacteria in my lungs at one point, and my doctor actually told me that I was either going to die rapidly and fast, or slow and painful, and fast was going to be painful, and I was going to die. So that kind of sparked that I needed to make a change.”
That change? It turned out to be running.
“I was supposed to do a nine-month treatment, and I was going to lose my hearing along with other side effects. I started running, and I asked him if I could have one last summer to live my life, and start the treatment afterward. I picked up running, and surfing, and being around the salt air. I went back and my lung function actually had improved. I noticed that change and kept it up, and it’s made a huge difference.”
It was enough to spark Michael in the 5K game, and after he medalled in an event known as the Otter Trotter at Old State Elementary, he was hooked, but as someone always looking for a challenge, 3.1 miles wasn’t enough for Davis.
“When I was 14 years old, I decided I wanted to more than 5K or a little run that I had been doing. I ran the New York City Half Marathon when I was 14. My lung function was pretty low, so I was in and out of the hospital a lot. After that, I kept running more and more, and my lung function started going up, and I felt better overall, along with the new medication. I then went on to do four half marathons, and decided I wanted to do a full marathon.”
Ultimately, Chicago became Michael’s goal, but there was still the matter of fighting the Cystic Fibrosis. Remarkably, as his stamina improved, his body was showing signs of winning some rounds of his health fight.
“Before I started running, I was in the hospital up to six times a year for 4-6 weeks at a time. Since I started running, now I’ve been out of the hospital for two years, and my lung function has been in the 80s [percent], and it used to be in the low 70s or even the 60s sometimes. I haven’t even seen that in two years, so it’s made a big difference.”
What exactly does that difference feel like?
“A lot of people say having CF is like breathing through a straw. You can definitely feel a difference from the 60s to the mid-80s. It’s a lot easier to breathe, and I can do more and feel energized to do things.”
So the goal was in place, and he worked with Jay Asparro to put together a plan. Marathoners typically build up their weekly long runs by about 1-2 miles a week, until you get to 20 miles, for what is known as the dress rehearsal.
It was at that point that Michael wanted to feel some more of that salt air, but surprisingly, he wanted even more of an adrenaline rush.
“I lived at the beach all summer, and it’s a flat island in New Jersey. I love running there, so for the 20-miler I went back there to run it. I got there Friday night, and they had a surfing competition the next day. So, I texted my mom and said ‘what if I run the 20 miles and then right after it go to the surfing competition or run it tonight and then go tomorrow, because I love to surf.’ She said absolutely not, you’re crazy. So, I ended up waking up at 5 a.m. to run the 20 miles, and I did it in three hours and 15 minutes, and then an hour or two later I stretched, ate food, and then went out and surfed for five hours. I just felt great, and then the next day I did the same thing. It was a long weekend, but it definitely prepared me.”
After that gut-busting final hill, 5:21:50 later, Davis hit the finish line, and received a medal with “You are a Marathoner” engraved at the bottom.
“It’s definitely rewarding to read that, and really let it set in. The training, even when I got to Chicago, it didn’t really set in yet. I went to the expo, got the bib, and realized a lot of people here, and I’m doing this. As I was running, it was setting in more, and when I finished and got the medal and realized I just ran a marathon, and I was the youngest person with CF to do it, it was a great feeling.”
Adding to Davis’ medal? Both Boomer Esiason and Chicago Bears Head Coach Matt Nagy shouted out Michael on social media after the race, congratulating him on his accomplishment.
“I’ve known Boomer for a while through his foundation and running for Team Boomer. Getting the Bears Head Coach, that was pretty cool to get that recognition from someone at that level. It’s neat to see my story has reached out further than I ever thought it would.”
It’s a story Michael Davis is eager to share with his fellow 30,000 Americans battling Cystic Fibrosis, a number even lower than the finisher count of the Chicago Marathon.
“I know even myself, most of my life I was in and out of hospitals not even being able to run. There’s many kids with CF waiting for lung transplants, and physically can’t run or do what they want to do because they have CF. I run for them, and to inspire them. I want people in the CF community to know they can do what they want to do if you have CF or not.”
5K, check. Half-marathon, check. Full-marathon, check. Where does Michael Davis go from here?
“As of right now, I’m kind of still soaking in the support and the fact I just ran a marathon. In the future, maybe I’ll be the youngest person with CF to complete an Ironman [triathlon]. The New York City Marathon is a goal, but you have to be 18 to run that, plenty of stuff to come in the future to make a difference.”
Michael said he’ll need to improve his biking skills to take on the triathlon world’s biggest challenge, but given everything he’s done and overcome to this point, does anyone doubt he’ll find that finish line, too?