From homeless to finish line: Tulsa man trains for Route 66 Marathon

Growing up, James McCartney was always on the move. In his rearview, he saw a torn home. His father was a felon. His mother left her husband when McCartney was in kindergarten.

As a kid, he blamed his mother for his fatherless life and grew violent in his anger. Once he hit his teens, his mother was forced to file a restraining order against him, and he was placed in state’s custody.

At 14 years old, living at the Tulsa Boys Home, a man he knew only as Coach Sullivan approached him. Sullivan had seen him run and believed in the boy and his potential. The coach knew what impact running could have on a life in turmoil and so sponsored McCartney and other runners so they could compete in the Route 66 Half Marathon.


“I really enjoyed it and a lot of times, it gave me a place to be away from what was going on in life,” McCartney, now 25, said. “It gave me a place to really be present and let me work through the emotions I was feeling creatively and non destructively. Running kept me out of even worse trouble.”

While running steadied him temporarily, he eventually turned to drugs in his senior year of high school.

“It was just easier,” he said.

McCartney did acid, mushrooms, and smoked anything that could be burned, among other drugs. Smoking became his new hobby, and running took a back seat.

He returned to live with his mother but was soon kicked out. She said if he was doing drugs, he was unwelcome. So, McCartney left and embarked on what would be a four-year journey of couch hopping, living in the woods, and barely getting by.

“You learn a lot,” McCartney said. “You get to meet a whole lot of interesting people. It wasn’t as bad as everyone thinks. But that’s just in retrospect—at the time it totally sucked.”

McCartney grew up going to church, but when he was homeless, he spent his days furious with God. He blamed Him for his misery and considered himself an atheist.

“I would be living in a tunnel, and it would just be awful. I would blame God,” McCartney said. “But, I can’t really be that atheist if at the worst times, I was like, ‘God, help.’ So that was step three for all things to completely turning around: I had to realize that higher power was very real in my life.”

McCartney’s faith propelled him into a new way of living: mending broken relationships, forgiving others and being forgiven, and doing kind acts for others. Soon after that, he reconnected with a childhood friend, Robin. After years of just missing each other, the timing never quite working out for them to date, everything finally fell into place (a foreign concept to McCartney’s ever-changing background). The two said their vows in May 2014.

The final stage of McCartney’s redemption would be a six-month, spontaneous, wild endeavor: walking from Tulsa, Oklahoma to Seattle, Washington. McCartney and Robin felt led to go to the Northwest, both recounting childhood dreams they each had of running barefoot through the region’s captivating forests.

There was no doing this halfway—the couple felt compelled to give away all of their belongings, quit their jobs, and simply walk in faith, trusting their daily needs would be provided. After a lot of prayer and preparation, the couple finally packed up their bags, their mutt, Rosie, and hit the trails. With only the gear on their back, they simply trusted in each other.


“That’s kind of been the phrase of our life: ‘I’ve got you.’” McCartney said.

Fast-forward to the finish line of the McCartneys’ journey, when they finally reached Seattle in October 2014. He admits the trip was far greater and more fulfilling than the final destination, a familiar concept to runners. While they regrouped in Seattle, McCartney saw a huge billboard advertising a marathon.

“I felt this stirring that I had left something undone,” McCartney said. “I started something and it hadn’t been brought to completion.”

He was thinking of running—of starting and giving it up. He remembered the Route 66 Half Marathon he had completed eight years earlier.

While McCartney jumped back into running after seeing that billboard, he stepped back a little to help with his newborn daughter. Now, three years later, McCartney is training in full swing with a Fleet Feet Sports group, learning about nutrition, and getting up early to train.

He’s preparing for the full Route 66 Marathon, which will be on November 19, 2017. Not only did his love for running rekindle, but also the bond between him and his parents. McCartney talks with his mom every week and his dad recently came for a visit. His “crummy crap hole of a childhood” has finally been redeemed, which just propels him even farther.

“I totally let running fall by the wayside,” McCartney said. “Now I’m like, ‘Legs, you can still do cool things?’ I’ve really enjoyed it. When I started running, I had a lot to run from and escape from. Now I have a lot to run for, and a lot to run to.”

This article first appeared on Runner's World.