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Sam Felsenfeld turns dare into marathon quest for autistic son

Boston Herald - 4/2/2017

April 02--Most dares lead to a one-off activity, not an extended pursuit.

But for Sam Felsenfeld, certain demarcation points have changed the course of his life. A friend's dare to run a half-marathon in 2005 serves as one.

That friend was Rhett Boyakin, who hassled Felsenfeld into it.

"I was like, 'Oh, I can't do that,' " Felsenfeld said. "He kind of egged me on, dared me, called me chicken and all that kind of stuff. I was like, 'Fine, I'll do it.' "

After two half-marathons, another friend, Kevin Ruyle, did his best to get Felsenfeld to take the next step: a full one. Felsenfeld was dead-set against it. Again, though, he relented.

"I'm like, 'No. No, no, no. No, no, no. Shut up. Go away,' " Felsenfeld said. "He's like, 'No, you should do it.' I'm like, 'No.' "

It was not long before Felsenfeld accepted the challenge to run in San Diego in 2006.

"I trained for another one," he said. "That was it. All downhill from there. Blame it on Rhett. . . . What kind of friend dares you into that, right?"

But it's been a worthy endeavor. Preparing to run his 10th Boston Marathon in a couple of weeks, he already has run 122 overall and in 2010 alone raised nearly $90,000 for the Operation Jack Foundation, named after his son who deals with severe autism.

Felsenfeld might not have accepted the first dare if he didn't realize earlier in life how lucky he was to run in the first place.

Before and after

It's a date Felsenfeld never will forget: Nov. 7, 1991. Magic Johnson announced he was HIV-positive on that day, but it sticks out to Felsenfeld for a more personal reason.

Not long before his 17th birthday, Felsenfeld was at a pool party in his hometown of Foothill Ranch, Calif., when someone pushed him head-first into the shallow end. He broke his neck on the bottom of the pool, and though he was not paralyzed, he's never forgotten the incident.

"It's something you never expect to happen, but it did," he said. "But for me, it's been one of those things where everything in my life was before and after."

It made his life much harder than he ever anticipated.

"It sucked. It was my senior year in high school. I tried to go to school, but sitting up in class all day was tough so I tried to go to school two days a week," Felsenfeld said. "There was one day, I was walking out of science class and a kid, he was a freshman, and he tried to pop a balloon on the back of my head and it jammed my head. I was just like, 'I can't be around people anymore.' So I was on home studies for probably like three months or so, which was kind of a bummer."

Even though he hated the pain of physical therapy, he knew it could have been worse. He still had the use of his legs. And he had no idea how vigorously he would put them to work.

Wake-up call

When he was 29, Felsenfeld had high cholesterol and a weight problem, topping out at 261 pounds. After a visit to the doctor, he was told he needed to change his diet and exercise more.

Felsenfeld was curious about what the exercise should entail.

"(The doctor's) exact words were, 'Well, I wouldn't suggest you go out and run a marathon tomorrow, but you can walk around the block,'" Felsenfeld said.

On his 30th birthday, his wife bought him an iPod that Felsenfeld initially didn't want to use. That did not last.

"(I thought), 'This thing is pretty cool. You know what? Maybe I will go for a walk with this thing and just listen to music in the morning,'" he recalled. "So I started walking, and that was it."

Jack's cause

Felsenfeld maintains that running isn't even his favorite sport. He prefers baseball, football and ultimate fighting. But he can't stop running because he knows it's not just for him.

His son, Jack, one of his three children, suffers from autism.

"He struggles," said Felsenfeld, who resides with his family in the Philadelphia area. "(He's) minimal verbal. He's 13 and a half now. (He's a) self-injury risk (with) seizure activity (and) GI tract (issues), been through spinal taps and colonoscopies and 24-hour EEGs."

Jack serves as an inspiration in multiple ways.

"I think about my son. I think about my gift of recovery and my legs that were spared," Felsenfeld said. "And I could never run. And I just put it all together. I said, 'I need to do something to make some good out of it.' So that's what I did."

He created the foundation and sees it as a way for his son to do something he otherwise couldn't.

"My goal going into the whole thing was that he's going to struggle throughout his life," Felsenfeld said. "I don't think he'll ever have a family. He'll never have kids. I don't even know that he'll ever have a job. You want your kids to be successful and make a difference in the world. My thought is just that I didn't want him to be another name on a tombstone someday. My other two kids, they can take care of themselves and stuff. I didn't want him to go through this world for no reason.

"So I thought if I can do this, and I can raise all this money and do something to help charity and help people and stuff like that, then he will make a difference. He will help kids. He doesn't know that he'll do it, but he will have an impact that way. So that was why I went into it. And it totally changed everything."

A web developer by trade, Felsenfeld is running this year with the Michael Lisnow Respite Center's team. It's a Hopkinton-based organization that provides support for individuals with disabilities and their families.

"I've just found over the years that I just like helping people," he said. "I just do. I've been able to find a way to make it all work together and I enjoy it."

And out of all the ways to do it, the Boston Marathon holds a special place in his heart. He can barely contain his joy for the race.

"It's just the best. I just love it," he said. "I can't even explain how much I love it. I'm just looking to go have a good time."

And it's safe to say that no one will have to dare Felsenfeld to get on the course this time.


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