By Marice Richter
DALLAS (Reuters) - Life has taken long-distance runner Patrick Finney down many paths, but few have been so rewarding as the one that led him across the finish line on Sunday at the Bellingham Bay Marathon in Washington state.
It was there that Finney, 48, of the Dallas suburb of Grapevine, achieved a personal milestone and made history.
"I am the first person with multiple sclerosis to complete a marathon in all 50 states," he said triumphantly, in a phone interview with Reuters moments after finishing. "It's been an amazing journey, and I'm on top of the world."
Strong, gusty winds made the race especially difficult, and Finney felt queasy when he finished. But he recovered quickly to celebrate with a group of nearly 30 friends and co-runners from Texas, who accompanied him to Bellingham, Washington, to witness an achievement that would have been unimaginable a few years ago.
In 1998, he was diagnosed with MS, an autoimmune disease that attacks the central nervous system and produces various impairments, including difficulty walking.
"My MRIs were consistent with someone who should be in a wheelchair," Finney said.
The diagnosis in 1998 by a doctor in Washington, D.C., was discouraging for the 6-foot-4 software test engineer, who had recently taken up running to shed some weight from his then-300-pound frame.
Finney was directed to "take my medicine and take it easy," but he refused to follow that advice.
Instead, he returned to a regimen of moderate running, which he continued when he relocated from the nation's capital to the Dallas area in 2000.
By 2004, however, the disease had left him unable to walk. But unwilling to endure a life of infirmity, Finney managed to regain his ability to balance on two feet, to walk -- and eventually to run -- through extensive rehabilitation therapy and new medications.
"The first year was a real struggle for me," he said of returning to the running trails. "I was going through a pair of running shoes every two weeks because I scraping them up as I dragged my feet."
But with training, he entered a half-marathon in Dallas in 2005 with only one goal -- to finish. Most of the runners did that in less than two hours. Finney took just over four.
The following year, he ran his first full marathon -- 26.2 miles -- and hasn't stopped since. He also took up coaching.
When a friend challenged him in 2010 to run 50 marathons in 50 states by his 50th birthday, Finney couldn't say no. He developed a plan, put together a spreadsheet and prepared to meet the challenge in 3 1/2 years.
But when he crossed the finished line in just under five hours on Sunday, a couple weeks past his 48th birthday and two years before his goal, he exceeded his own expectations.
"I have gotten to travel to a lot of new places and meet a lot of great people," he said. "It's been a wonderful experience."
This is hardly the end for him. Having completed a total of 71 marathons since 2006, he plans to run in seven more this year.
Long-time friend Jill Parker is in awe, but not surprised.
She recalled an incident several years ago in which a group of runners were preparing for a race on a hot, humid September day in Dallas.
"Everyone was moaning and groaning about the weather except Patrick," Parker said. "He was smiling. When someone asked why he wasn't bothered by the weather, he replied, 'I'm just happy to be able to run.'"
(Editing by Karen Brooks and Steve Gorman)