In 2012, at the age of 38, Matthew Barnett almost died. The 5-foot-11 Los Angeles pastor, with thin blond hair and piercing blue eyes, weighed 230 pounds. His stomach paunch hung over his belt, he rarely exercised except for church league softball games and he ate three meals a day at his favorite fast-food haunts: McDonald's, In-N-Out Burger and Jack in the Box.
One morning, he woke up and found himself struggling to breathe. He rushed to the hospital, where a doctor informed Barnett that he had a pulmonary embolism -- "like Chris Bosh," Barnett says, comparing his condition to that of the former Miami Heat All-Star, who failed a team physical in September and hasn't played in the NBA since February.
While Barnett could manage the clots in his lungs with blood thinners, the doctor said his condition prevented other activities. "You'll live through this, but you'll never run a marathon," the doctor told him. Barnett returned home, thinking about that declaration. "I never had a desire to run [a marathon] before, but when he said that, something in me just said, 'I want to do this,'" Barnett says.
He walked outside of his house and managed a slow jog around the block, gasping for breath the entire time. He started a steady regimen of blood thinners and spent the next year learning how to run, balancing his newfound athletic endeavor alongside his full-time role as the cofounder and head pastor of the Dream Center and Angelus Temple in Los Angeles.
In 2014, Barnett ran the Los Angeles Marathon to raise money for the Dream Center. He crossed the finish line in 4:29.08. "When I finished, I thought, 'This was wonderful. I'll never run a marathon again,'" Barnett says. But the Dream Center fundraising team kept asking him to run on behalf of the center. And he kept saying yes. He ran three more marathons over the next two years.
In March 2016, a friend sent him a text about the 2017 World Marathon Challenge (Jan. 23-30), encouraging Barnett to sign up. He read the details: Participants ran seven marathons, on seven continents -- in seven consecutive days. The challenge began in 2015 with 10 participants, grew to 15 runners in 2016 and boasts a roster of 33 international participants from 13 countries this year, all of whom will begin their challenge in Union Glacier, Antarctica, where it's projected to be -23 degrees on Jan. 23. Marathon No. 2 takes place in Punta Arenas, Chile, followed by Miami, then Madrid; Marrakesh, Morocco; Dubai, UAE; and finally Sydney, on Jan. 30.
Barnett, now 42, laughed off the text from his friend. A few weeks later, while talking with Dream Center donor Phil Liberatore, Barnett showed him the Challenge information. '"If you run this as a fundraiser for the Dream Center, I'll pay your entry fee [$38,000] and donate $100,000 to the Center," Liberatore told him.
And with that offer, the least-experienced marathoner of the 2017 World Marathon Challenge was on his way.
The Dream Center is a 15-floor, 400,000-square-foot former hospital located in downtown Los Angeles. Situated several city blocks from Dodger Stadium, the center was founded in 1996 by Barnett. He'd arrived in Los Angeles from Phoenix two years earlier at the request of his father, Pastor Tommy Barnett, who had inherited the Bethel Temple, a small church next to a liquor store near the intersection of Sunset Boulevard and downtown L.A. Matthew, then 20 years old, agreed to be the interim pastor until Tommy could find someone to fill the position permanently.
The church had whittled down to a dozen or so elderly congregants due, in large part, to neighborhood violence. Still, Barnett, who had no ministry experience, decided he wanted to be more involved in the community. He moved his desk from inside his church office to outside onto the sidewalk; he bought basketball hoops and installed them on dead-end streets throughout the neighborhood. He didn't want church to be a place people only came on Sunday mornings, so he used one of the small church properties as a makeshift homeless shelter, taking in a drug addict who was trying to rehabilitate. "That's how it started: We started reaching the unreachable, people who were broken, and a whole new generation started coming to us," Barnett says.
Initially, neighborhood residents were skeptical, and Barnett struggled to raise enough funds to maintain the church. "We had a lot of people that just didn't want any part of what we were offering," Barnett says. "We learned that longevity is what proves your love. We kept staying and serving."
Barnett, who was living in his father's apartment in downtown L.A., envisioned a 24-hour-a-day, seven-day-a-week church. He wanted to help addicts, battered women and former convicts, and to offer transitional housing and overnight shelter. Driving down the Hollywood freeway one day in his red Nissan Sentra, Barnett saw a sign that the Queen of Angels hospital was for sale.
Over the next 18 months, he raised $4 million to buy the hospital. In September 1996, he began the Dream Center, with a total of 39 members. Twenty-three years later, the Center offers myriad services to more than 50,000 people each week. Eight hundred residents receive free food and services on the Dream Center's campus every day, taking part in everything from drug and alcohol rehabilitation programs to mobile food trucks delivering meals to elementary schools. Staff, volunteers, graduate students and interns assist with every aspect of the center.
During the 1995 fundraising campaign to buy the hospital, Tommy, now 78, ran from Phoenix to L.A., raising more than $1 million (and sustaining injuries that still linger today). He and Matthew realized that by participating in crazy athletic challenges, they could increase donations and awareness. In 2006, Barnett took part in a 24-hour free-throw contest as a center fundraiser, taking only two 15-minute breaks throughout.
"This run, this challenge, is symbolic of the fight we've had for 23 years," Barnett says. "It's never been easy, and this run is symbolic of all that it takes to weather a lot of storms, to keep this place standing in the community."
The World Marathon Challenge is the brainchild of event director Richard Donovan, an ultrarunner and international race organizer. In 2012, Donovan ran seven marathons on seven continents in four days, 22 hours and three minutes, flying economy on commercial flights the entire way. "Once I had confidence in the necessary logistics, I launched the first competitive event in 2015, with the goal of running it in just under 7 days, and with the fastest average marathon time determining the outright winners," Donovan says.
On each continent, the marathon route is typically three or four loops throughout the city; with this format, runners can offer encouragement as they pass one another. It also keeps costs down, as Donovan and the WMC team don't have to block off entire streets or areas. His staff is minimal, and Donovan himself manages most of the logistics. Antarctica, Donovan says, is the biggest hurdle, as weather conditions dictate what day and time the race can begin. The Challenge boasts a 100 percent finish line success rate, including runners who'd never run a marathon before as well as runners who don't train by traditional methodologies.
For the 2017 Challenge, Donovan chartered a private plane, which allows him to set the group's arrival and departure schedules -- and to afford the runners some sleep en route to one continent from another, as races can start at any time, day or night, as set by Donovan.
"It typically takes me three weeks to fully recover from one marathon, so I don't see how this is possible, to be honest," says Barnett, who is down to 170 pounds. He packed seven pairs of shoes -- one for each continent -- and said he expected his feet to swell up an entire size. He's hoping to average a 4:15 or 4:30 marathon on each continent, a finish time fairly consistent with his official marathon times in recent years.
While the participants have varying levels of experience, several are regulars on the international running circuit. This year's roster will also include a former U.S. Olympic marathon runner -- one who, ironically, gave up the sport almost exactly a year ago.
After Barnett signed up, he texted his friend Ryan Hall, the 2008 U.S. Olympic Trials marathon winner. Hall, who retired from running in January 2016, had subsequently taken up weightlifting, transitioning from a 137-pound 5-foot-10 runner to close to 175 pounds. "The way things ended with me and running wasn't great," Hall says. "I got extremely fatigued, and I was hating running at the time."
Hall was in the weight room when his phone buzzed with a text from Barnett about the Challenge. Hall talked to his wife, Sara, a professional runner, and three days later, he texted Barnett back: "Let me know if you want company -- I'd love to support you and the Dream Center." Barnett texted him again in response: There was a spot for Hall if he wanted it.
"There was something about it, both in the cause, the Dream Center, coupled with this epic challenge that doesn't even seem logistically possible," Hall says. "Plus, I love traveling, so it's combining a lot of my different passions."
Hall has been running an hour or two a day and continued his weightlifting regimen, but he admitted he has prepared "far less" for this race than past competitions. He's also never run at this weight before. "The sensation of running is completely different," Hall says. "I don't feel like a gazelle floating on the ground; I feel like a massive elephant."
Barnett has trained consistently over the past year, led by a former Dream Center resident-turned-Dream Center athletic trainer Jarrett Gautreau.
Gautreau arrived at the Dream Center in 2011 after an opiate and alcohol addiction landed the former semiprofessional soccer player in prison. Following a two-year rehabilitation stay at the Dream Center, Gautreau accepted a position managing the site's athletic facility. Over the next six months, he was certified as a personal trainer; now, Gautreau trains residents, staff and community members inside the center's gym.
In 2016, after Barnett had signed up for the Challenge, he asked Gautreau to train him. "We started just by building him from the foundation up," Gautreau says. "He was overweight, out of shape, having health problems and at risk of blood clots. It's been cool to see him go from unhealthy to an elite athlete running 10 to 15 miles a day."
Gautreau designed a program that increased weekly running mileage while also incorporating strength and conditioning, corrective exercises and stretching. Barnett also modified his diet, increasing his calorie count and focusing on healthy foods. As the Challenge date drew closer, they decreased Barnett's mileage (which had maxed out at around 100 miles/week) and increased his yoga and corrective exercises to stave off injury.
"Every day of my life, I'm sore," Barnett says. "There's not a day that goes by that I'm not in pain."
During his training, Barnett and the Dream Center created the Face Yourself campaign, encouraging Dream Center residents to confront the obstacles in their life. Barnett pledged that he wouldn't give up on training for the Challenge; in turn, he asked participants to stick with their respective rehabilitations of mind, body and spirit.
"All the people in our rehab program have work assignments within the center, and by the time I get to my office in the morning, I'm already encouraged by the 40 or 50 people that I walk by," Barnett says. "They'll say, 'Thank you for running for us!' or 'You're an inspiration!' It's been shocking how this has awakened so many others to take on their own personal challenges."
Through his training, Barnett has already raised more than $1 million for the Dream Center. The donations will go toward the new floor the Dream Center added this year -- a 35-bed facility for homeless veterans.
He is traveling with a supply of blood thinners and his doctor's permission; still, he is cognizant of the dangers, particularly of spending more than 55 hours on plane flights. His wife, Caroline, will meet him in Sydney, and his 13-year-old daughter, Mia, a cross-country standout at her school, hopes to run the Miami marathon alongside him. (Matthew and Caroline also have a 10-year-old son, Caden.)
"I'm scared out of my mind right now, honestly," Barnett says, a few days before departing. "Some of these people have run 85 marathons. I've run four, total, in my life. But if I have to roll to the finish line, I will."
As he runs, Barnett said he hopes to focus on why he is running. "Maybe pain will take over, and I'll be in survival mode. But I want this run to change me," Barnett says. "This has become much bigger than I thought, as far as excitement and expectation. I always tell people, 'Don't quit. Your breakthrough is in that next mile.' I want to live it out, to show that wasn't just words."
The Dream Center threw Barnett a send-off party on Jan. 17. During the gathering, he was presented with an audio file to listen to as he runs. The podcast-style piece is full of testimonials, inspiration and encouragement from the thousands of people whose lives have been impacted -- and in many cases, saved -- by Barnett's work at the Dream Center.
"So many people doubted us in the beginning of starting the Dream Center because it doesn't make sense on paper, so this run is a fitting tribute," Barnett says. "Some days, you don't have the vision to see a week down the road. But you just have to give it one more day."