As the fall leaves change color, the offices at the Portland Timbers have been humming with activity. Inaugural player signings were announced with Bright Dike, Steve Cronin, Ryan Pore and Eddie Johnson all making the team. Cranes move to and fro lifting massive pre-cast concrete risers into place while season ticket sales continue apace. The technical staff continues to scout new players from around the world as well as prepare for the upcoming Expansion Draft on November 24.
Amidst all these changes, another member of the Timbers staff has been preparing for a preeminent competition—the legendary New York City Marathon on November 7. Kelley “Rock” Slayton has worked in the stadium operations department as a housekeeper for the past four years. He also happens to be a sub-three hour elite runner in the over-40 age group. Proudly sponsored by the Timbers organization for this weekend's race, Slayton has a long and deeply personal connection to running.
Thirteen years ago, Slayton gave up an unhealthy lifestyle and was looking to further his recovery, “Running changed my life. It helped me turn my life around and I kind of fell in love with running," remembered Slayton. "I knew that I wanted to do better in my own way of life, and running helped me get in the right direction.”
He began to run regularly and occasionally compete in 5, 10, and 15K races. “I like the freedom of it,” said Slayton. “It’s kind of a freedom place. In a way, it’s meditation. I feel a lot more free in running than I ever have in regular life.”
Then three years ago, Slayton ran his own personal marathon here in Portland on a local track clocking in at a very respectable 3 hours and 18 minutes. Taking it a step further, Slayton entered the Portland Marathon in 2007 and improved to 3:16.
The Portland Marathon result also meant that he had qualified for the iconic Boston Marathon and while that race loomed, Slayton didn’t know if he wanted to enter. A close friend pushed him to enter saying he had to go. Said Slayton, “I was like, ‘Nah, I got my goal,’ but he said, ‘It’d be good for you.’”
So Slayton headed east. And he ran. To say that he ran fast would be an understatement as he obliterated his personal record.
“I was nursing an injury in that first official marathon [in Portland]. In Boston, I broke three hours. I ran 18 minutes faster in that second official marathon.”
This year, he hit another personal best in the Eugene Marathon with a 2:50—a full 20 minutes faster than the qualifying time for the over-40 group in the New York City Marathon. While Slayton is a devoted runner who finds inspiration in Oregon legend Steve Prefontaine, this increase in speed clearly surprises him.
“I’m 43 now,” Slayton said. “I put in my first marathon a little more than three years ago and I was 40. I didn’t think I was ever going to see any other personal records. I’ve improved all my running. When you get up there in age, you think you’re going to get slower but I haven’t.”
This increase in speed and a qualification for one of the world's most famous road races brought a new challenge: how to actually get to New York. Enter Timbers owner Merritt Paulson.
“I didn’t ask, actually Merritt offered. He pulled me aside one day,” explained Slayton. “Him saying, ‘Hey, we’d like to help you,’ was good enough for me which is nice just to have someone coming up to me and saying, ‘Hey, we appreciate you being here and we’re going to try to help you.’”
“Rock is a great runner and a great employee,” said Paulson. “We admire his dedication to distance running and are all pulling for him in NYC.”
And while you may see Slayton flying down Fifth Avenue on Sunday in Portland Timbers colors, Rock is also running to inspire.
“There’s a lot of other people who struggle in life,” said Slayton. “It’s not necessarily about just running a marathon but also about doing something and finishing something and actually accomplishing a goal. There’s a finish line in a marathon. In recovery, there’s not really a finish line. You have to live day by day to make it. You do the right thing because it’s the right thing to do.”