Walt Liebman is a psychologist, a profession that uses words as therapy.
His son, Josh, has a different method of therapy, one that is more physically strenuous.
“There’s a slogan: Running’s cheaper than therapy,” the younger Liebman said. “There’s no better time to think, your blood’s flowing and it’s the loneliness of the long-distance runner. I think clearest when I’m running.”
Josh, the vice mayor of South Miami, will be running his 100th marathon Sunday at the Life Time Miami Marathon, and while that is an impressive accomplishment, the 39-year-old’s focus has been elsewhere in the week leading up to the race. Walt, 71, has throat cancer and underwent a 14-hour surgery in Miami on Tuesday, leaving him in intensive care on a respirator without a tongue or voice box.
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Liebman’s marathon career began when he was studying for his MBA at the University of Florida in 2001. An avid runner, Liebman was asked by his friend and classmate, Chris McGibbon, to help McGibbon’s wife, Stephanie, train for the Country Music Marathon in Nashville. At the time, Liebman had no intention to run the marathon, but he eventually signed up as the registration deadline got closer.
The first long training run he did with Stephanie was 10 or 11 miles. At the end of the run, Liebman’s thighs were chaffed, and he had tendonitis. Luckily, that has been the worst injury Liebman has sustained while training or running a marathon. Liebman finished his first marathon in a little less than five hours.
His best time came in his sixth or seventh marathon, when he ran the 26.2 miles in 3 hours 40 minutes at the Austin Marathon. However, his greatest accomplishment came at the Space Coast Marathon in 2005 when he won his age group and was presented with his award by legendary American runner Bill Rodgers.
Although his 100th marathon is a tremendous achievement, Liebman’s focus has shifted in the past several years toward helping others finish their first race. He has led training groups for Team Diabetes, Team in Training and now TeamFootworks, the nonprofit arm of the FootWorks store in South Miami.
He said there’s a unique feeling to knowing you helped someone get off the couch and run 26.2 miles for the first time.
“I could go out and focus on my own goals, try to become faster, more competitive, but it’s so much more rewarding to help other people reach their goals,” Liebman said. “I’m more motivated by helping other people.”
Liebman has also coordinated the pace teams for past Miami Marathons and been on the pace teams for the Chicago and New York City marathons. The pace teams and coaching are a part of Liebman’s desire to give back to the community, a characteristic his father instilled in him early on.
Hans Huseby, one of the co-owners of FootWorks, said what Liebman does is extraordinary and only for people who truly enjoy running and giving back.
“Nobody gets paid for that kind of stuff,” Huseby said. “They do it for the love of the sport and helping people get from the start to the finish line.”
To help him get through Sunday’s 26.2 miles, Liebman will be surrounded by his friends for most of the race. One of those people will be Alexis Delgado, who worked her way up from a participant in the TeamFootWorks training program five years ago to now being one of the group leaders. She met Liebman through the program and praised his organizational skills. She said he has given the group leaders guidance through weekly emails.
Delgado said it will be special for her to join Liebman for this monumental occasion. She called him a “symbol of inspiration” and a big reason why she has run six marathons.
“It’s definitely going to be very special for me,” Delgado said. “I wasn’t planning on doing the [full] marathon, only the half at the beginning of the year, but I decided I have to do it because it’s Josh’s 100th and how could I not [join him].”
Liebman has had very little time to actually train for Sunday’s race. Besides caring for his father, he has numerous other roles he needs to fulfill with his various nonprofits and business ventures, not to mention his obligations as vice mayor.
He can’t even train on Saturdays when he leads the TeamFootWorks group because he rides around the pack on a motorized scooter so he is accessible to any of the almost 750 people who might need help. If he is able to get in some running, it’s in the mornings before he starts his workload, but that’s not a daily occurrence.
Despite all the hardships his father has endured over the past few months, Liebman said he never considered altering his plans. He said the therapeutic benefits of running allow him to deal with anything.
“Whenever that time comes, I’m sure I’m going to have a lot to deal with, but as soon as I can, I’m going to go for a run,” Liebman said. “At least when I run I can block things out and focus on my thoughts.”
Expo starts Friday
The Nissan Health & Fitness Expo, presented by the Miami Herald and El Nuevo Herald, runs from noon to 7 p.m. Friday and 10 a.m. to 6 p.m, Saturday at the Miami Beach Convention Center.