At first, Todd Keller was frustrated.
He was used to running being a natural, easy feeling. Instead, he weaved back and forth and lunged. No more gliding, only a falling sensation.
Keller, 48, had survived three surgeries to remove a brain tumor. Antibiotics needed to fight a resulting infection severely damaged his inner ears -- the body's balancing mechanisms -- leaving Keller learning to walk and run again.
For Keller, described as always happy, the aggravation slowly turned into appreciation.
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By the time he crossed the finish line of the 2011 Cowtown half marathon, a year later, his smile was back.
"Last year at the Cowtown, I was so very happy to be there," Keller said. "I love life and I didn't take it for granted before, but I just remember toward the end of that race how happy I was to be alive.
"It was very hard to keep from crying. I felt like one of the luckiest guys alive."
Keller grew up in the Fort Worth area and graduated from Richland High School. He began working out and running while attending the University of North Texas, turning into a "health nut."
Though he has moved a few times and lives near San Antonio now, Keller has returned to run the Cowtown as often as possible.
Keller ran the half in 2009 to earn the first of a five-year finisher medal series that, when complete, will combine to make a star.
He was signed up for the 2010 race, but instead of driving to Fort Worth, he spent that weekend, and many others, in the hospital.
Keller had passed out at work. It was nothing new -- he had fainted many times before but always at high altitudes.
This time, he was at work and was taken to a hospital where doctors discovered a tumor that had been growing since his childhood.
Because of the placement, the doctors needed to remove as much of the growth as possible -- it had begun blocking his spinal fluid, jeopardizing Keller's short-term memory. Keller's wife, Gloria, envisioned having to treat her husband like Drew Barrymore in 50 First Dates.
A few days later, Keller underwent his first surgery.
"I don't think it really registered for him as much. He was in shock," Gloria said. "I think it was shocking for everyone else because he's so healthy. He's a vegetarian, a marathoner. No one thought this would happen to him."
Keller, who doesn't remember much of his hospital time, emerged from his 40-day hospital stay with a titanium plate in his head.
Much of the tumor (which was benign) was gone after hours of surgery. Before he left his hospital bed, he was talking of running again.
He even tried to persuade nurses to release him early so he could make Cowtown.
"It's my hometown race, and I just didn't want to miss it," Keller said.
Gloria contacted the Cowtown staff to explain her husband's condition. Race organizers agreed to give Keller his much-desired finisher medal and shirt if he would complete the 13.1 miles on his own.
That proved difficult.
"At first, he didn't make it out of the driveway," Gloria said. "We did that for about a week before we started walking down to the corner. It was probably three weeks before he made it around our neighborhood three-fourths of a mile loop."
Keller learned to use objects to balance himself, fixing a stare on them to keep his body upright.
"We were all over the street," Gloria said, "rolling from one side to the other. It was like Frankenstein's staggering around."
Even now, almost two years later, Keller can find himself drifting in the middle of a run.
"It's worse on rainy or cloudy days or in the evening. That's when I have the most trouble walking straight," said Keller, who leaned on Gloria as he learned to walk and run again. "I could have never recuperated without her."
Before his surgeries, Keller ran five marathons and too many halves to count. None brought more joy than last year's Cowtown half. Twice he bumped into other runners. It didn't matter.
As some grimaced through the final stretch, Keller grinned.
"I just had this huge smile on my face and was close to having tears in my eyes," he said.
Keller had been registered for another race in 2010 as well. That race's executives didn't respond when Gloria contacted them.
But the Cowtown officials sent Keller a note on labeled cardstock saying: "Hello Todd, we are keeping you in our thoughts and prayers. We want you to get well and come back for 2011."
Cowtown executive director Heidi Swartz, communications liaison Bill Palmer, former race director Tera Galindo and official timer Raul Najera all signed the letter.
When Keller did return in 2011 to pick up his race packet, he sought out each person to say thanks.
"This lifted my spirits. This is why I love Fort Worth and the Cowtown so much," said Keller, holding the letter. "It's the people. The Cowtown and Fort Worth have gotten so huge, yet they have the friendliest people still running it."
Keller now has no sense of direction; north is south, what he thinks should be a left turn is almost always a right.
Gloria, who calls herself Keller's personal calendar, helps him remember appointments by writing on sticky notes. But for the most part, Keller has regained his memory and motor skills.
Like the 2011 race, Keller expects to feel overwhelming gratitude and happiness Feb. 26 when he finishes his 13.1 miles to earn his fourth point of the Cowtown finisher series.
After he completes the star in 2013, he will return to run the Cowtown each year he is able.
Brent Shirley, 817-390-7760