Sports

Lifelong friends keep pushing forward; Auburn man to join friend in running LA Marathon 25 years later

Doug Shull, left, and Chris Ackerman, right, at the 1986 Los Angeles Marathon. - Courtesy Photo
Doug Shull, left, and Chris Ackerman, right, at the 1986 Los Angeles Marathon.
— image credit: Courtesy Photo

Auburn's Chris Ackerman is all too familiar with Doug Shull's back.

In high school, Ackerman often found himself watching as his faster teammate navigated the cross country course ahead of him.

The duo participated in the 1986 Los Angeles Marathon, where Shull again finished ahead of his buddy. This time, however, it wasn't because of Shull's superior speed. It was because Ackerman pushed his lifelong friend, now a quadriplegic confined to a wheelchair, through the 26.2-mile course.

On March 20, Ackerman and Shull, both 54, will relive that marathon, winding their way through the City of Angels for a second time.

Childhood dreams

As teammates on the Morton (Ill.) High School cross country team back in the early 1970s, Ackerman and Shull talked about some day competing in marathons together. Big dreams, especially for Ackerman, who admits he sometimes struggled through the three-mile courses.

"Doug was really good," Ackerman said. "He was running sub-5-minute miles as a freshman. I wasn't that good."

Shull added: "He used to watch my back a lot as we ran."

Despite his prowess on the trail, Shull never boasted about being the better athlete.

"He was one of the folks on the team who cared," Ackerman said. "Doug was the one who reached out to me and all the other members of the team and would ask how our race was afterward."

On the eve of their junior year of high school, tragedy struck Shull, who broke his neck diving into a lake.

"Luckily, there were a couple of friends there to pull him out of the lake so he didn't drown," Ackerman said.

That day was the last time Shull would feel anything below his neck.

Despite a seven-month rehabilitation, Shull managed to stay positive and even returned to school to graduate with his class.

"A lot of people say you have to go through depression and anger," Shull said. "But I had so much support from friends and family that I never went through the depression stage. I had my faith in Christ and with those combined, I never really went through that. My family was like, 'You're not going to sit around. You're going to go to school. You're going to do all the things everybody else does.' "

After graduation, Ackerman and Shull attended Central Illinois College.

"I helped him go to class. I'd make him breakfast and drive him to school every day," Ackerman said.

As their friendship deepened, Ackerman began to benefit from Shull's positive attitude toward life.

Ackerman remembers having one particularly bad day.

"I got a C on a test," he said, "and when I saw Doug, he asked me how my day was. I told him and asked how his day was."

Shull replied by telling him he had fallen in his wheelchair and was stuck on the ground for more than an hour.

"That made me realize I hadn't had that bad of a day," Ackerman said.

Shull's positive attitude, despite his disabilities, deepened their friendship.

Ackerman's devotion, in turn, was crucial to Shull in the early days following his injury.

"He's been such a positive influence," Shull said. "We have a mutual admiration for each other."

After two years at junior college, the duo separated, with Ackerman heading to California Coast University to study computers and Shull moving on to the University of Illinois to study finance.

Staying in touch

Ackerman, pictured left, said it wasn't until his final two years of college that he began to grow into his body. His running improved, and he began to compete in marathons and even ultra-marathons – grueling races of 50 miles or more. Through it all, he never forgot Shull and stayed in constant contact.

"I was happy for him," Shull said of his friend's accomplishments.

Meanwhile, Shull was busy with accomplishments of his own, graduating and starting a career in banking. He also began to coach cross country in Morton and helped launch the Morton Junior High School girls track and field program.

Then, one day in 1986, Ackerman called his friend with a crazy idea.

"He asked if I wanted to do the L.A. Marathon with him pushing me," Shull said. "I was hesitant. I thought he was nuts. As it turned out, it was really a great thing in our lives."

Because Shull's motorized wheelchair was too heavy to push, the duo figured a lightweight racing-style wheelchair would be their best bet. However, because the chairs are meant to be used by their occupants, not pushed, the handles on the chair were too flimsy.

Ackerman said they fixed the problem by having a pair of 10-speed bicycle handlebars affixed to the chair.

After more than four hours, the duo finished the race, with Shull again placing ahead of his friend.

"We have a lot of great memories," Shull said. "It was great. It was almost as if I was doing it myself back in the old days."

Once more go-around

A couple of years ago, Ackerman and Shull again began talking about the marathon.

Although they were 25 years older, the temptation to try it again was just too strong.

This time, the duo will compete to raise money for World Vision's program to provide freshwater and sanitation to children in Africa.

Shull, pictured left, admitted he's a little more concerned about running in this year's race.

"I'm kind of scared of it," he said. "I've aged a lot since then, had four more neck surgeries since then. Being a quadriplegic, you age a bit faster than a normal person."

Still, Shull has never been one to avoid a challenge.

"It's a challenge to overcome all the obstacles that I've had all the last 13 years," he said. "I'm not as strong as I was 30 years ago ... but it's to prove I can overcome those obstacles."

And, of course, it's a chance to hang with his best friend again.

"We just have a lot mutual ideals in life," he said. "We both have a strong belief in the Lord. He was my best man at the wedding. I always feel like I can give him a call. We share a lot of our successes. It's just been a great friendship."

Ackerman agreed.

"When I become ungrateful and start thinking about the things I don't have, I remember Doug," Ackerman said. "One of the things he said that I remember is 'always leave someone better than when you met them.' He's just amazing."

To help Shull and Ackerman raise money for World Vision and read about their first L.A. Marathon, visit here.

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