Running keeps stroke victim going

Even before he got home from the hospital, Phil Anderson signaled for his wife, Carol, to stop the car at the entrance of the Ma and Pa Trail near their home in Bel Air.

Phil Anderson, who had retired a few months earlier after more than 30 years working for Provident Bank as a computer programmer, had recently suffered a stroke that left him with a condition known as aphasia. Though his limbs were unaffected, Anderson did not have the ability to speak or recognize certain words.

"He got out of the car and motioned that he wanted to start running," Carol Anderson recalled last week. "I was terrified. I thought, 'What if he falls? He can't speak.' He started walking. It was something he had to do. I got in the car and I waited, and sure enough, he came back in about 10 or 15 minutes with a big smile on his face. I think it helped him feel normal. He needed that connection his past."

That was 41/2 years — and countless miles — ago.

Anderson, now 66, had started running in 1980 after seeing competitors toward the end of the Maryland Marathon near collapse.

"My wife and I had gone to Baltimore for dinner and we got stuck in traffic near the old [Memorial] stadium, and I said, 'Look at those people falling over. I can do that,'" Phil Anderson said. "They were 25 miles into it, and they were walking and falling down. I got up the next morning and started to run. I couldn't even make it down to the end of my block. I said, 'God, I'm out of shape.'"

Within a few months, Anderson was competing in the first of 38 marathons he has run, to go along with 78 ultramarathons (50 kilometers or more) and seven completed 100-mile races (out of 10 attempts), including one in the mountains of Utah. It has certainly added up.

"Almost 40,000 miles running," said Anderson, who has logged every run in journals he keeps, including the 40 miles he ran to celebrate his 40th birthday.

On Saturday, Anderson will keep alive his streak of running in every Northern Central Trail Marathon — this is the 22nd annual race that starts and ends at Sparks Elementary School. It comes a week after he competed in a 50-mile race in Western Maryland for the 10th time. Anderson and Ronnie Wong of Baltimore are the only two to run in the first 21 marathons.

Asked how he can race a 50-miler one week and a marathon of 26.2 miles the next, Anderson said, "You take a couple of days off, get off your feet. I'm going to be walking and hiking a lot for the first race."

In the mid-1990s, he even ran once in the Boston Marathon — unofficially.

"I ran it as a bandit," he said. "It was kind of funny. They let you do it. When you finish, they tell you, 'Don't go here [to record your time], go there.' I never qualified. I ran it with a friend. I don't know if they let you do it now."

Anderson has also been active in the local running community, as president for 18 years of the Running Club of Harford County as well as race director of a number of events over the years and founder of the 5K Phil's Survivor Run after having his stroke.

"He's probably more dedicated than the average runner in that he's involved in the administrative end of it," said Dave Cooley, director of the Northern Central marathon.

When he saw Anderson show up for the Northern Central a few months after suffering the stroke, Cooley said, "It was amazing. I was very surprised, as were a lot of runners."

Don Cole, who met Anderson while playing golf with a mutual friend, was so inspired by Anderson's story that he and his partner in a Hanover, Pa., production company filmed a 30-minute documentary they have shown at a few small film festivals.

"Phil is one of the most focused, driven, passionate people I've ever met," Cole said. "He's dogged."

Since recovering from his stroke and undergoing surgery to clear out blocked arteries in his neck, Anderson has built up to about 25 miles a week. He also went for extensive speech therapy and improved his speech by reading the newspaper to his wife.

"Once in a while, he'll have a word he just can't get and we'll write it down or go to the dictionary, but he's really doing amazingly well," she said. "It's very rare now that he can't find a word he needs."

Ironically, Anderson and his wife believe that the stress caused by his involvement in putting on a number of races led to the stroke.