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Run for Justin

His Passion, His Vision, Our Mission...

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Going the distance for Justin Nealon

Three years removed from running cross country at Omaha Skutt High School, Justin Nealon was bitten by the marathon bug.

The distance races became an obsession. When he wasn't out running, he was reading running books that covered training and dietary issues, scouring the Internet for articles that had anything to do with marathon running, or writing in his running journal.

"It was almost like Forrest Gump," said Dan Nealon, Justin's father. "It's kind of silly, but it was almost like one day he just got up and started running."

Justin died 11/2 years ago when he was struck by a car while walking home, but his family is carrying on his memory - and his avocation. On Saturday the Nealon family will host the Run for Justin, a 5-kilometer run and walk at Zorinsky Lake.

As Dan talked about the run, the rest of the Nealon family - wife Martha and children Shannon, Megan, Dave and Lindsey - trickled into the family room one by one.

The first "Run for Justin" was held on July 3of last year, just over four months after Justin was struck and killed by a police cruiser at 3 a.m. while crossing Industrial Road in west Omaha.

"Last year Chuck Cooper, Justin's high school cross country coach, did a lot of the organizing of the race for us," Dan said. "This year we've taken more of that load up ourselves, and it's been a little nerve-racking."

About a week before last year's race, Dan said, there were only about 15 to 20 people registered for the race. The race organizers expected a small crowd, mostly Justin's friends and other family friends.

When 350 people showed up the morning of the race, the Nealons were shocked - and touched.

"It was overwhelming to see so many people supporting our brother and doing what he loved to do," said Justin'syounger sister, Shannon.

Justin, 22 when he died, was looking to the future, setting short-term and long-term goals for himself. Among them was to qualify for North America's premier road race, the Boston Marathon. He predicted it would take four years to achieve that.

The first time Justin covered 26.2 miles was at the Chicago Marathon. He crossed the finish line in 3 hours, 6 minutes, 17 seconds - qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Justin had found something he loved, and it began to give direction to his life. An excerpt from his journal reflected his enthusiasm:

"The finish was the coolest thing I've ever experienced, thousands of fans lining the street and filling the grandstands. Glad to be through my first marathon, can't wait till the next one!"-Oct. 12, 2003

Few families create a charity event in memory of their lost loved one.

But even having done that, the Nealons weren't finished.

To maintain Justin's spirit, Dan and Shannon, a student at St. Louis University, participated in the Chicago Marathon in October 2004.

The rest of the family traveled to Chicago as well, participating in the race by forming a relay team to cover the ground.

All family members were present at the end, crossing the finish line just as Justin had the previous year.

"The race was tough, and there are moments when your body hurts, but we were never going to stop," Dan said. "His journal gave us direction."

After experiencing the marathon firsthand, Justin's family echoed his fascination with the race.

"If you've never run a marathon or even watched a marathon, go to Chicago," Martha said. "The city goes all-out for the race, and there are fans along the entire course."

Dan and Shannon went on to compete in the San Diego Marathon as well. They went to the event sponsored by Team In Training, an organization that provides training and sponsorship in a major marathon in exchange for a runner's fundraising efforts for the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society.

Justin had been fundraising for Team In Training in an effort to run in the San Diego Marathon.

Because of his involvement with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society, the Nealons are donating their proceeds from the Run for Justin to the organization.

The family expects to be involved with the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society for a long time, acknowledging that what started as a way to cope with their loss has evolved into a way to honor Justin.

"It's an easy story to share," Dan said. "It's great for us to be out here doing what Justin loved to do, and doing something for other people at the same time."

Martha pops in a DVD from last year's Chicago Marathon, and the family transitions into a chorus of each individual pointing out the special attributes of the race weekend and hushing each other to let the video take full effect.Dave's eyes light up as he talks about the atmosphere surrounding the city. Now a student at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, he plans on joining his dad and sister this fall on the course in Chicago.

Dan gives his perspective of the race experience from a participant's view, and the family's excitement suggests they share the same feelings about marathons as Justin.

They can't wait 'till the next one.