MINNEAPOLIS (WCCO) — Tens of thousands of people are a night’s sleep away Saturday from doing something less than 1 percent of the U.S. population ever does: finishing a marathon.

Runners of the 26.2-mile race and 10-mile race picked up their race packets in St. Paul Saturday. More than 300,000 spectators are expected to cheer on the runners.

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For one of those runners, Jeff Pert, it was a much more grueling path to the starting line than long training runs. Every pair of marathon shoes has a story, but few are like his.

“I was always the person who got picked last for teams in Phys Ed,” he said. “No one wanted me on their team. I was basically a hopeless athlete.”

Hardship has marked his 59 years — the veteran lost his home January and ended up in a shelter later that month.

“Those are the two most important things that I would tell anyone going through any type of adversity,” Pert said. “Never feel sorry for yourself, and never give up.”

On Sunday, he will cross a line he never has.

“In March, I couldn’t run a mile and now I’m running a marathon at a 9:30 pace,” he said.

He spotted a flier a few months back about a group called Mile In My Shoes, who trains and outfits homeless locals to run. Now, instead of eating free shelter dinners, he’s carbing up with his formerly homeless runner friend, Dave.

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“Something happened to me that I didn’t expect. I thought that I would just get to be in better shape and that would be the end of it, but it turns out that was only the beginning of it,” Pert said. “The best thing about being a distance runner is the people you meet,” he said. “Distance runners are the greatest people in the world.”

Those friends were with him as he finished his first half marathon, and they’ll be with him for the full, too.

“I think in the situation we are in, attitude is everything,” Pert’s friend Dave Baker said. “Jeff has a ‘I-won’t-be-denied’ kind of attitude.”

Pert says he has plenty of strength to draw from during those 26.2 miles.

“The marathon tomorrow will not be my first experience with adversity,” he said. “I’ll be thinking, ‘Well, I’ve done harder things than this before.'”

Even though others have walked in similar shoes, few have run this far in them.

Jeff does have a place to live now, through the VA. He says brownies will be his race fuel, and he’s already planning on doing another marathon next year.

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If you’d like to watch the race, race organized created a handy spectator map of great viewing areas.

Susan-Elizabeth Littlefield