Ed Rudman was in the best shape of his life. He had kicked a junk food addiction, shed 50 pounds, run a half-dozen marathons and, with his eye on a triathlon, was taking his first swim lesson when the stroke hit.
It was the first of three Rudman would suffer over a week-long stretch in January, prompting doctors to run a tube up his right side, tell his wife to pray if she believed in that kind of thing, and suck a blood clot out of his brain.
This Saturday, Rudman, 58, will line up for the Eversource Hartford Marathon, his first since the strokes. It will be the second time running the full marathon course; the first was in 2014, Rudman's first ever marathon. Earlier that year, he had kicked a fondness for Whoppers and ice cream sandwiches after realizing that fondness verged on addiction. Rudman recalled being at a package store at the end of a workday, watching people buy nip bottles of liquor. He asked the owner why they were buying them. For the drive home, she said.
"It totally struck me," he said, "because on my way home I would go into McDonald's and order two or three large fries and a Coke and maybe a kid's meal too – not because I was hungry but because I needed to have enough."
"I said, 'Holy crap – I'm an addict.'"
For years, Rudman had inflated and deflated on a seasonal basis – 180 pounds in the summer, 230 in the winter when he couldn't bike. But his eating habits didn't shift with the seasons. If he was watching TV, he'd pick up a 20-pack of ice cream sandwiches beforehand; on commercial breaks he'd run to the freezer and swallow five of them, and in an hour they'd be gone. It wasn't even the taste that hooked him, he said, but the texture.
"The hard, crunchy outside and then the ice cream inside – I don't know how to describe it," he said. "It was an addiction."
Rudman didn't touch booze, but sensed he was of the same genus as the package store alcoholics. And so he cut the junk food, embraced the juice cleanse trend and decamped to New York state for a weeklong 'juice retreat.' He didn't know anyone there, and picked up running for something to do. When he returned, he told himself he was going to run a marathon, and scrawled on a piece of paper a goal of four hours, not knowing if it was possible. That October, he finished the Hartford Marathon just 20 minutes shy of his goal.
A few months later, Rudman fell into a group that called themselves "The Lactic Acid Droppers," a band of roving marathoners identified by the initials LADs tattooed on their right wrists. Rudman ran races in Massachusetts, Vermont, New York and Washington D.C., and Hartford again in 2015 as a half-marathoner. In 2016, he logged 1,000 miles with his legs and another 1,000 on his bike. He was 50 pounds lighter, and was starting to think about a triathlon when the strokes hit.
In the hospital, Rudman questioned the timing of it all. He'd turned things around. He'd found something he loved and looked forward to something that didn't come in a greasy fast food bag or the freezer section of the supermarket. And now the strokes threatened to take it all away.
"I never worried about dying," he said, "but I thought, 'Man, that part of my life just started – and now it's over already?'"
He didn't know what effect the strokes would have on his body. But lying there with his left side numb and a clot squatting in his brain, Rudman realized he wouldn't miss running so much as the people he ran with.
"I don't love to run," he said. "Running is OK, but the best part is the people you're running with."
He was discharged on a Friday. The following Saturday, he walked with his wife to his alma mater, Rocky Hill High School. She never ran with him, but she did that day. They took four laps on the track together.
In the following months, he fell into his old pace, determined to make the Hartford Marathon in October. He'd been forced to miss the previous year's by "the powers that be" – his daughter's wedding, he clarified.
When Rudman toes the line this Saturday, he knows he'll see the gamut of entrants. Veterans and first-timers. Roadrunners and plodders. A mass of people, each with a story he knows could be as unlikely and circuitous as his own.
"You go to the marathon and you say, 'Look at that lady who's running all crooked,' or, 'Look at that guy who's 280 pounds,' Rudman said. "But that guy might have been 600 pounds last year. And that lady might have been paralyzed and she just learned to walk again. When you get into it and meet people, you see that everybody's got a story."