Jeff Kaplan Almost Died Training for the NYC Marathon. Now, He’s Running Chicago

Jeff Kaplan lost a lot on September 14, 2018. That’s the day a driver in a car struck him while he was on a training run for the New York City Marathon.

Many of his memories—from high school, college, and of the accident itself—are gone. He lost half of his skull from a surgery called a craniectomy. The damage to the right side of his brain robbed him of control and even sometimes the awareness of the left side of his body.

But as he prepares to run the Chicago Marathon on October 10—fundraising for the Brain Injury Recovery Foundation along the way—Kaplan prefers to focus on all he’s gained.

Now, a 3D-printed piece of plastic protects his precious grey matter. He’s re-learned, one step and single-leg balance at a time, to walk, and then to run. This, he does with long-time friends and family—including his trainer Hank DeGroat and his sister Jen—and a whole new running community.

Most of all, he’s welcomed Jeff 2.0, who he says is healthier and kinder, and has big goals for the future.

“A lot of people with TBI [traumatic brain injury], if I tell them I sometimes call myself Jeff 2.0, they get really sad and ask, why are you not the same?” Kaplan told Runner’s World. “But I see it as a positive thing. I think I’m a better person than I was before the accident.”

A Run and a Life, Interrupted

One piece of information Kaplan may never retrieve is exactly why he signed up for his first marathon, the 2016 Baystate Marathon in Lowell, Massachusetts. He’d run only sporadically beforehand, finished in 4:19:12, and told Jen immediately afterward he’d never run another.

In 2018, he was 27 and at a crossroads, between jobs and pondering a cross-country move. In all the uncertainty, something once again compelled him to click “register.” He pledged to run the New York City Marathon that November, with the Team for Kids charity group.

Kaplan was living in Boston with two friends at the time. At 2 p.m. on September 14, he’d messaged one of them to say he was heading out for a run, promising to pick up some Thai food on the way home.

But he never made it past the intersection of Ames Street and Memorial Drive in Cambridge. Witnesses said one driver had stopped their car, but another driver kept going—and hit Kaplan at an estimated 37 miles per hour. He collided with the driver’s windshield and flew to the next crosswalk, possibly hitting his head again.

He was rushed to Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center (BIMDC) in Boston, where he immediately had the craniectomy to relieve pressure on his brain.

Jen, now 24, was a senior at Brown University, in the aftermath of a bad breakup. She got out of a workout class in downtown Providence, Rhode Island, and found her phone full of missed calls and hundreds of texts. Her eyes focused on one from another of her four brothers, Jeremy: “Something really bad happened to Jeff. He got hit by a car, and he might not be okay.” Too emotional to drive, she asked her ex to take her to Boston.

At the hospital, the surgeon—still covered in Kaplan’s blood—told the family he might not make it through the next day. If he did, there was a chance he’d remain in a vegetative state.

For the next two weeks, the Kaplans kept vigil. “We didn’t sleep at all,” Jen said. “We had a rotation of staying in the hospital, just basically staring at him.”

When he finally did wake up two weeks later, he couldn’t speak, and didn’t know where he was. The situation remained tenuous, but slowly, his functionality and personality began to return.

“For a long time—for a couple of weeks or even a couple months—he was, like, not really Jeff. It felt like I lost my brother in a different way,” Jen said.

Running, she believes, has helped restore him. “Slowly, over the years, he’s come back to full Jeff. I really didn’t think that was going to happen for a long time.”

Kaplan stayed at BIMDC for 35 days total, then transferred to Spaulding Rehabilitation Hospital in nearby Charlestown (with a brief return for his cranioplasty, in which surgeons replaced his missing skull bone with plastic). During his 45 days at Spaulding, he started relearning everything—how to talk, eat, and walk.

The day after he returned to his parents’ house, he had a seizure. So he returned to the hospital for a third brain surgery to drain fluid.

Back home again, he combined five days of outpatient rehab per week with brain therapy apps, neurofeedback, yoga, and training with DeGroat, a strength and conditioning coach and massage therapist.

The two had worked together when Kaplan was a teen basketball player, and DeGroat has had other clients with injuries, including TBIs. Still, he was taken aback the first time Kaplan walked into the studio after the accident wearing adult diapers, with two helpers to steady him.

But DeGroat noticed positive changes too, including a broad smile and more gratitude. He was the person who introduced the concept of Jeff 2.0. “I wanted to get into his head that it wasn’t about getting back to who he was,” DeGroat said. “Instead, it’s Jeff 2.0: What are we building? Who do you want him to be?”

Coordinating with his therapists, they set to work on Kaplan’s personal reconstruction project. Rather than following a master plan, DeGroat created a safe environment where Kaplan could re-learn skills like climbing, pushing, and throwing.

At home, Kaplan walked on a treadmill in the basement, equipped with a baby monitor so his parents could keep an eye on his safety. As the days went on, he pushed the pace. On January 20, 2019—a date he has recorded, with many other important facts, in a note on his phone—he called his mom and dad down and showed them his first running steps.

Within weeks, he knew what he had to do: return to run the New York City Marathon that fall.

DeGroat learned about this ambitious goal soon afterward. He wasn’t sure it was achievable, at least so soon. “But I saw the hope that came into his eyes, and the drive it gave him,” he said. If nothing else, he thought, the training could propel Kaplan forward. He wrote up a plan.

From early spring onward, Kaplan focused on the race. With his outpatient physical therapist Audrey Hatas—a runner who was also training for the marathon—he worked on skills like balancing on one leg and curling his left toes.

At first, he barely swung his arms at all while running. Then, he overcompensated, clenching his fists so hard his weaker left shoulder went numb. With help from Hatas and YouTube videos, he refined his form.

Some days, he’d stick to the basement treadmill. Other times, he ran outside, his dad following him in the car. On the weekends, he, Jen, and sometimes DeGroat and another friend would go for long training runs on Commonwealth Avenue.

His guides would watch carefully for obstacles and guide him back if he drifted. The left-side neglect he’d developed meant he sometimes couldn’t even see cracks in the road or tree branches—Jen recalls a painting class they took together where Kaplan only covered half the page. “That was when it really hit me; he can’t see that the paper extends past this point,” she said.

Week by week, they built up mileage, until Jen and DeGroat felt confident they could go the distance. Making it through the race without incident, though, was a whole other challenge. Jen’s anxiety spiked not far from the start, when they saw another runner step in a grate and lose her shoe. “I was like, okay, we are getting through this, but we have to be so careful,” she said.

As the hours clicked by, the energy of the crowd carried them, and the enormity of what they were about to accomplish became apparent. Kaplan’s tears started flowing about two miles before the finish, when he saw Hatas, who told him, “You did it!” When they crossed the line—in a time of 6:08:48—everyone else cried, too.

“The New York Marathon was just this huge mountain that I failed at, I didn’t finish climbing,” he said. Once he’d ascended that peak, “that was when I actually started my life again.”

Racing for a Reason

Running is an inextricable part of his new identity. Not long after New York, he told Jen, “Get ready for the next one.” He figured they’d knock off the Abbott World Marathon Majors, one per year.

The pandemic altered some of his plans, but made virtual Boston a possibility. On September 14, 2020—two years to the day after his accident—he, Jen, and DeGroat completed the race on their own. They ran the normal Boston Marathon course, but diverted at the end, adding an extra mile to finish at the intersection of Memorial Drive and Ames Street.

After their 5:39:25 finish, Kaplan made an emotional finish-line speech, quoting Langston Hughes about “a dream deferred,” thanking his doctors and BIDMC (for whom he’d fundraised), and mentioning the estimated 3 million other Americans who’d sustained a TBI since he did.

Courtesy of Jeff Kaplan

For some people, facing the site of a near-death experience would be traumatic. Kaplan returned with his support system—along with a group of police offers to stop traffic—and felt empowered. “It was such a special moment, where you’re conquering something horrible that happened to you in the exact space that it happened,” Jen said.

With that goal achieved, Kaplan looked to the next one: Chicago.

DeGroat retired from running long distances due to knee pain, and Jen recently moved to Brooklyn for a new job—so while she’ll join him for the race, they can only occasionally do long runs together. Fortunately, Kaplan can now run on his own or with the Midnight Runners, a group he joined during COVID.

Where he once struggled to see anything on this left side, now, his perception is heightened. “Now I’m bulletproof with running the streets,” he said. “I quadruple-check everything, and I’m very cautious.”

And, he’s picked up speed. On September 19, 2021, he ran the Half Marathon-by-the-Sea in 1:56:16—an 8:52 pace. Ideally, he’d like to finish Chicago in around 4:30, more than an hour faster than Boston.

Eventually, he wants to match—and beat—his best marathon time from before the accident. More than anything else, though, he wants to help as many people as possible through running, writing, and other pursuits, something he says the old Jeff wouldn’t have considered.

“I don’t know my next steps—hell, I’ll probably not know what I ate today, tomorrow,” he joked in his Boston speech. “But if TBI survivors, runners, doctors, anyone can gain just a tiny piece of hope or inspiration out of my recovery story, and it benefits or touches them, this has all been worth it.”

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