CHICAGO (MCT) - When Maickel Melamed was born, he said his family was told he wouldn't live more than seven days. After a week, doctors said he would never speak, walk or climb.
But early Monday morning, Melamed, a 38-year-old from Caracas, Venezuela, who has a rare muscular disorder, crossed the finish line in his third marathon nearly 17 hours after beginning the race.
"(My message is) to convince anyone of their own greatness, their own possibility," said Melamed, a small man with wide green eyes who stood with his feet slightly splayed.
When he reached mile 21, he said, he was ready to give up. By then, about 40,000 other participants had finished, and the marathon had officially ended hours earlier. With five miles to go, his doubt grew with each step.
"This marathon has been the hardest of the three," said Melamed, who said he had to make his way on the concrete sidelines after marathon organizers tore down the timing mats and medical tents. "We had to go up and down on each sidewalk and it wasn't flat, you know. It has a different inclination."
With encouragement from his friend Perla Sananes, who said she accompanied him the entire way, Melamed said he reached the finish line 16 hours and 46 minutes after starting the previous morning "with a lot of pain, but more love." Dozens of family members and friends from Venezuela, Costa Rica and Florida greeted him at Grant Park with tearful congratulations and hugs in the dark, early morning hours Monday.
Chicago Marathon spokesman Jeremy Borling said Melamed's finish time wasn't recorded because the timing mats were removed about eight hours after the race began. There was no way to verify whether he stayed the course. Still, he commended Melamed's endeavor.
"You can't take away the effort," he said.
Melamed's challenges began at birth. He was born in Caracas with the umbilical cord wrapped around his neck, depriving him of oxygen and the damage to his nervous system led doctors to eventually diagnose him with myopathy, Melamed said.
Melamed received a degree in economics from Andres Bello Catholic University in Caracas and went on to study Gestalt psychotherapy, which focuses on helping people become more self-aware, according to a biography supplied by his publicist. Before participating in his first marathon in New York City in 2011, he launched Vamos a Venezuelan organization that provides resources to help people achieve their goals.
And Melamed knows a few things about achievement.
In 2006, Melamed said he climbed Bolivar Peak, which at about 16,000 feet is the highest mountain in Venezuela. In 2010 and 2011, he did half-marathons in Bogota and Miami. And he said he's been known to skydive and go scuba diving.
Melamed's coach, Federico Pisani, a personal trainer in Venezuela, said Melamed's 50-hour-a-week training schedule was rigorous, but necessary. A lot of training was done in a swimming pool.
"His muscles can't develop properly," Pisani said. "His muscle mass is really limited."
When they started training four years ago, Pisani said, Melamed could walk only 500 meters at a time.
"We had to develop first his strength with training and with a physical therapist," Pisani said. "It took a bit of time to develop his strength for some muscle groups and then he could start walking longer distances."
Even Pisani had doubts when they began training for the first marathon. Those misgivings crept in Sunday too.
"He really has a hard time doing marathons," said Pisani, who was with him much of the race. "He did yesterday almost 17 hours nonstop. So it's stressful watching him. ... It's incredible."
Melamed said he has participated in the New York, Berlin and Chicago marathons, and plans to tackle races in Tokyo and Boston, also World Marathon Majors. His unofficial times in New York and Berlin were better than in Chicago at 151/2 and 141/2 hours respectively, Pisani said.
Physically exhausted and operating on little sleep after the marathon, Melamed traveled by wheelchair Monday morning. Before he made it a block from his downtown hotel, tourists stopped him for pictures.
"Inspiracion!" a family from Costa Rica declared before asking to take a photo with him. Kevin Callis, from Bloomington, Ill., who also ran the marathon on Sunday, stopped to thank him and pose with him on the State Street bridge.
"The message is, 'If you dream it, make it happen,'" Melamed told reporters right after he crossed the finish line. "Because your life is the most beautiful thing that could happen to you. So make the best of it."
- Tribune reporter Adam Sege contributed.
(c)2013 the Chicago Tribune Distributed by MCT Information Services