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Faneca goes the extra mile(s) in new life

2/10/2014

PITTSBURGH -- Brett Keisel called to offer congratulations a couple of days after Alan Faneca accomplished what would have been unfathomable only a few years earlier.

But he also made it clear to his former Steelers teammate that Faneca had laid waste to Keisel's cover.

Keisel's wife, Sarah, has run several marathons and the Steelers defensive end always had an out when she broached the subject of them completing one after his playing days were over.

"I've said all along that football players don't do that, our bodies have taken enough of a beating and then Faneca goes and blows it out of the water," Keisel said with a laugh. "Now what am I supposed to say? ‘Well, Alan did it.' "

Yes, yes he did.

Faneca obliterated any notion that 300-pound plus NFL players can't re-invent themselves after retiring. It turns out they can push their bodies to a different extreme.

Faneca did just that when he ran a marathon on Feb. 2 -- the same day that the Seahawks obliterated the Broncos in the Super Bowl -- and completed it in less than four hours.

Faneca, three years removed from an NFL career that spanned 13 seasons -- and just three months after he started training for his first 26.2 mile race -- ran the New Orleans Rock 'n' Roll Marathon in 3:56:17.

That is astounding on several levels.

"Most people don't break four hours in their first marathons," said Bart Yasso, chief running officer of Runner's World Magazine. "That's a great start for anyone. For someone to run as fast as Alan did he had to train pretty hard to get to that level."

Indeed, juxtaposed pictures of Faneca playing guard, where he was a fixture for 10 seasons in Pittsburgh, and running in the marathon went viral last week. They led to calls from teammates that spanned his career.

Some, like Keisel, offered congratulations. Others asked if he had any fitness and lifestyle advice for them.

What Faneca never expected was the call that came from TMZ, the celebrity website associated with controversial and risqué stories more than ones about running. He took the call while he was in his hyperbaric chamber, his legs still sore and a bit shaky from what he what put them through two days earlier.

"Who is this?" Faneca asked after answering his phone.

That's when he realized how much of a story his running a marathon had become.

"I had no inkling," Faneca said. "It just blew up."

The reason for that is simple: Faneca did just that opposite of blowing up after retiring in May, 2011.

He shed more than 100 pounds after calling it a career, one that should one day land him in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. What started Faneca on the path to running a marathon, even if he did not know it at the time, actually happened early during his NFL career.

The details are a little hazy now but Faneca recalls seeing a former player in the Steelers locker room one day and telling himself he would shed the extra weight that was critical to his job when he no longer needed it.

After retiring following a season with the Cardinals -- he had previously played two seasons with the Jets after signing with them as a free agent in 2008 -- Faneca cut his calorie consumption to around 1,800 a day.

The 6-5 Faneca had taken in around 4,000 calories during his playing days when he weighed around 320 pounds, drinking two to three protein shakes regularly. He watched what he ate, but paid no mind to how often he ate.

The weight started to come off when Faneca changed his approach to eating and also incorporated one hour of cardiovascular exercise a day into his training regimen.

One day last fall he suggested to his wife, Julie, who had recently run a half marathon, that they go for a jog in a nearby park to take advantage of the weather.

They started running together, and "that's where it all began," said Faneca.

He gradually started running longer distances, which gave him a foundation when he decided to tackle a marathon.

Faneca enlisted the help of a running coach to help him train, and he found out early that running a marathon wasn't going to be anything like a jog in the park.

During one of their first training sessions, Faneca ran a mile as fast as he could. The coach extrapolated that time over 26.2 miles and told him that's how fast he should run his first marathon.

"I'm like, ‘really?' " Faneca said.

Faneca and the other runners in his group bogged down around the 19-mile mark of the New Orleans Rock 'n' Roll Marathon and fell off their pace a bit. But he reached his goal of completing the race in under four hours.

And he did so in part because Faneca had plenty of practice willing himself through grinds that were as much psychological as they were physical -- whether it was practicing in unrelenting heat and suffocating humidity during training camp or fighting through injuries that piled up over the course of his career.

In that sense maybe there isn't as much of a disconnect that the pictures of Faneca playing football and the ones of him running a marathon seem to suggest.

He had to tap into sheer will to do both.

Yasso has worked at Runner's World for almost 30 years and covered marathons all over the world. He recalls former NFL players running marathons but when asked if that includes linemen, he said, "none come to mind."

"The guy is unbelievable," Yasso said of Faneca. "I have a feeling he'll get the running bug."

He has caught some sort of bug.

Faneca recently bought a racing bike, and he is looking into competing in a duathlon. The duathlon is a close cousin of the triathlon with three phases: running, biking and running.

Faneca said his shoulders are too beat up for him to complete the swimming requirement of a triathlon, which is why he has set his sights on a duathlon.

Faneca may look like more of a runner now than a football player but a new body type only masks the discomfort he deals with on a regular basis, the residue and inevitably of a lengthy NFL career.

"A lot of people see me and they're like ‘Oh, you got out while you're healthy.' That's great if you've got that vision in your mind but don't be fooled that I'm not going to going to have a bunch of fake body parts here in the future, that I don't have surgeries lurking," Faneca said. "I'm doing good now and hopefully (surgeries) come much further and hopefully the weight loss helps push those even further off. That's all part of what you sign up for and it comes with the territory."

Faneca covered a tremendous amount of territory during his NFL career and not just because he excelled as a pulling guard.

He earned nine All-Pro selections and threw the block that paved the way for Willie Parker's 75-yard run in Super Bowl XL, which is still the longest in the game's history. He earned a spot on the Steelers' all-time team when the organization celebrated its 75-year anniversary in 2007. He also made the NFL's All-Decade team of the 2000s.

Completing a marathon may not quite rank with some of Faneca's heady NFL accomplishments but the feat does have a place in his personal sporting pantheon.

"Needless to say I saved all of my things I wore, my bib and all of that stuff," Faneca said, "so I'm going to do some sort of shrine to the achievement."