The story behind the story: ‘Big Dan Runs the Marathon’

Dan O'Neil started running when he weighed over 300 pounds. Since then, he has lowered his blood pressure, improved his sleep apnea and mustered the courage to publish his journey in a children's book.

WASHINGTON — Dan O’Neil was pretty athletic as a kid. He ran indoor track and cross-country in high school. Then, like so many high school athletes, “after I got out of high school, I just stopped running.”

Over the next couple of decades, the Boston-area man could probably find lots of reasons why his weight ballooned. But it’s just as accurate to say “life sort of happened; I had gotten really heavy.” By the time O’Neil was ready to start running again, he weighed over 300 pounds.

“It was slow, but I was out there doing it,” he said of his return to the pavement.

Eventually O’Neil joined a new gym and after getting involved with their running club, he got prepped enough to do a half-marathon. Still weighing more than he would prefer, O’Neil was nonetheless inspired to keep going.

“I decided when I got to the finish line, ‘Well wow! I was able to do this, why couldn’t I do a full one?’” O’Neil said.

So he approached his running coach at the gym about running in the Boston Marathon. Her answer was pretty blunt: “She more or less said ‘Dan you’ve gotta change a lot of stuff and fast.’”

So O’Neil said he overhauled his diet, adding in protein shakes and cutting out sugar.

O’Neil was able to enter the Boston Marathon by joining a charity team to raise funds for the Perkins School for the Blind, where his nephews attended. Eating better and running harder, “we ended up losing 64 pounds in four months,” dropping to 228 pounds by race day, he said.

Despite the weight loss, he was in pretty rough shape after finishing the Boston Marathon. Yet, before long he was pondering his next one.

Last year he took his first ever trip to D.C. to run in the Marine Corps Marathon. It was such a great experience, he decided he had to return this year too.

“I love the fact that you can see a lot of stuff. Seeing the whole National Mall, getting to run by the museums and some of the landmarks, it’s so cool … I was taking a lot of pictures while I was running,” O’Neil said. “Then you get to finish at the Iwo Jima monument and having that soldier put that medal on you, there’s just nothing like that. That was an amazing experience, to do the race, so I was really excited that I was able to get in a second time.”

How “Big Dan Runs the Marathon” came to be

O’Neil says all the running and weight loss have given him greater confidence.

“I always liked writing,” said O’Neil. “I try to do thought-provoking things, and I never had the courage to write a book.”

He found the courage from a friend who owns a book store.

“He said ‘You got something here. You should try to self-publish this.’”

And he did. And he titled it “Big Dan Runs the Marathon.”

“I wanted to give the message that if you work hard and give your very best, anything is possible,” O’Neil said. “Children should want to achieve something more, and I think sometimes just achieving something without always being the best at it and always having to win can be its own reward. That was the main reason I actually wrote it.”

And that’s sort of where O’Neil is with running. He’s been able to lower his blood pressure and improve his sleep apnea. And even though he’s in his mid-40s, he’s not going to stop running now.

“I’m never going to win a race, I’m never going to be the fastest person,” O’Neil said. “But when I can go out there and do a marathon—especially at my age—and I can still complete one, I think it’s an accomplishment. And sometimes an accomplishment is a victory in itself.”

Here’s how “Big Dan Runs the Marathon” ends:

So he took the left on Boylston Street, and then he was feeling fine

He mustered up a slow jog and he crossed the finish line

Big Dan’s body was smaller, and somehow he ended up with a bigger heart

Even though the race for him was finished, this was the best journey he ever got to start

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