Running with faith: an Airman’s journey to redemption

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Master Sgt. Brandan Keel, 413th Force Support Flight force management NCO in charge, runs June 5, 2019, at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia. Before taking running seriously in 2013, Keel struggled with Air Force physical training tests and was on the verge of separation from the Air Force Reserve. Nearly a year after he began his running training, he scored his first 90 on a PT test. Since then, he hasn’t scored below a 90. (U.S. Air Force photo by Jamal D. Sutter)

ROBINS AIR FORCE BASE, Ga. — Standing there with a knife in hand and cold-hearted from the most devastating news of his life, Master Sgt. Brandan “Troy” Keel contemplated an irreversible decision. Looking into his wife’s eyes after learning she was pregnant with another man’s baby, he couldn’t fathom living anymore. Suicide, he thought, was imminent.

Six years later, Keel is not only alive, but is in a good a place mentally and spiritually, he said. Since that dark moment in July 2013, the Reserve Airman has a new outlook on life altogether, and he owes it all to running.

A month after learning of his wife’s betrayal, and in a deep depression, Keel, then 38, said he was going through one of his social media newsfeeds when he saw a post promoting a local running group. Needing something to help relieve his stress, he decided to give it a try.

Keel felt welcomed immediately. Group members showered him with belonging and encouragement; and from that instant, he was sold.

“August 21, 2013, is what I call my ‘runiversary,’” Keel said. “That’s the day I joined a local running group. You can say that’s the day I started my running journey.”

In no time at all, he began his routines. While running with a friend, he found out about another group that hosted a 5-kilometer training class. The class offered a 12-week program that incorporated running training with Bible study.

“It was important because I didn’t realize how running and my spirituality go hand-in-hand,” he said. “Not only that, God has introduced me to people who I can turn to if I am struggling or anything like that.”

At first, Keel said he wasn’t sure what he’d gotten himself into. His new path of physical fitness was a far cry from anything he devoted himself to in the past.

“In the past, I hated it,” he said. “It was something that really didn’t interest me, I never considered myself athletic; I never played sports in high school or anything of the sort.”

But things were different now, and Keel got stronger; running got easier. On top of that, it gave him a peace of mind he desperately needed. And with a fresh perspective and new confidence in himself, Keel felt ready to get back on the dating scene. That’s when he met his current wife, Adney, on a blind date set up by friends. The two played mini golf, rode go-carts and did other activities.

“She had never played laser tag,” he said. “I had and she ended up whipping me.”

They had much in common and bonded quickly. She, too, experienced a rough first marriage, and they both felt like they should have married each other in the beginning. It was nearly two years later when they tied the knot, but from the beginning, Adney played a significant factor in Keel’s pastime.

“She has been an instrumental part of my running ministry,” he said. “She’s always been there for me. She’s been very supportive. She’s been out to several races to either cheer me on or cheer my fellow runners on.”

Keel said he sometimes feels guilty for spending so much time with his running group. But Adney said his time with them makes the time he spends with her that much more special.

“It’s important to a relationship when we each have something that’s, kind of, just our own — something that is individual for each person,” she said. “Running is his thing, and when he has that thing, and when he has that freedom to be himself, then our time together is quality.”

In addition to gaining new friendships through his groups and helping build confidence to once again find love, running has also saved Keel’s professional career. Before taking running seriously, Keel struggled with Air Force physical training tests. He failed a few due to the running portion and was on the verge of separating from the Air Force Reserve if his scores didn’t improve. Keel said he knew it all paid off when he scored his first 90 on a PT test, nearly a year after he began his running training.

“I remember that run,” he said. “It was really easy. It seemed like a walk in the park. I look at my fitness scores from when I was failing and I’m like, ‘I was that slow, but now I’m running this fast?’ So that was a turning point and ever since then, I haven’t scored below a 90.”

Now, Keel is a source of inspiration for Airmen at his office within the 413th Force Support Flight at Robins Air Force Base. He sometimes provides running advice or paces individuals looking to improve their running times. When it comes to his running group, he’s a trainer, organizer and overall spiritual motivator.

“He’s just a very encouraging person, and he’s very, very deep into his faith,” said Ali Stubbs, one of Keel’s friends from the running group. “It’s not about Troy. It’s about all of us, and he just wants us to have the same passion for running.”

Keel’s desire to serve and spread good faith is what led him to another selfless opportunity; one that matched him with a special-needs child named Hunter. Through a non-profit organization, Keel is able to run in Hunter’s honor and communicate with him and his family on his running progress. In May 2015, Keel traveled to Hunter’s hometown in Ohio to participate in a half-marathon and meet his family for the first time in person.

“I’ll tell you this,” he said, “that was just an emotional experience—running 13.1 miles in Columbus, Ohio, thinking that I’m doing this for my buddy on his home turf. I’ll admit, I was almost in tears running that route.”

Keel has participated in more than 80 organized running events, ranging from 5ks to full marathons. He said he doesn’t have any grand, long-term goals when it comes to running; he just wants to continue helping those in need.

“I want to be there for other people,” he said. “It gives me high satisfaction knowing that using my experiences of what I’ve been through and what I’ve learned gives me the ability to help my running group or help my fellow (Airmen) meet their goals.”