Road to the NYC Marathon: Runners tell their stories
On Sunday, nearly 50,000 runners hope to complete the New York City marathon. After events like Hurricane Sandy, the cancelation of last year's race, and the Boston Marathon Bombing, each runner has a story to tell.
New York — The New York City Marathon starts Sunday, tangled up in the events of the past year. The 2012 race never happened, canceled because of the destruction of Superstorm Sandy. In April came the Boston Marathon bombings. For some of the nearly 50,000 runners hoping to complete the 26.2-mile course, those and other stories are their personal ones.
Jen Correa remembers thinking that the oncoming storm made for good timing. She had already completed her 20-mile training run for what would be her long-awaited first NYC Marathon. So if she missed a few shorter distances during her taper because of bad weather, no big deal.
Living three houses from the ocean in Oakwood Beach on Staten Island, Correa was used to evacuating. She had the routine down: take two days of clothes for herself and the kids, the lockbox, her wedding album. They'd always returned to an undamaged home.
She and her two children, ages 6 and 2, went to a friend's in Brooklyn while her husband stayed behind to start the generator. She figured maybe the big tree next to the house would smash through some windows.
As Sandy bore down on the city, the worst news was the lack of news coming out of Staten Island. They lost power in Brooklyn.
At 7 p.m., Correa received a voicemail from her husband. He said he loved her, loved the kids.
"That's never a good voicemail," she says quietly.
Two more hours passed before another voicemail came: "I'm alive."
There would be more to tell when she finally got him on the phone. He tried to explain, "Everything's gone."
"It doesn't make sense," she says now. "You don't understand what that means."
The house had been swept off its foundation. He had managed to jump on a neighbor's roof that was floating by, then swam into a house that was elevated higher off the ground.
In the shock of the next few days, of staring at a pile of debris that used to be home, Correa didn't think of the marathon until her mother mentioned something. She had barely eaten or slept, no longer owned a pair of sneakers, but a part of her couldn't let go of that plan to run.
The Brooklyn native, who writes a blog around running as a mom, had done two marathons — but never the one in her hometown. The first time she was supposed to enter New York, she got pregnant that year. In 2011, she hurt herself on an 18-mile training run.
The cancellation was a relief. It also etched a goal in her mind. For all the uncertainty that stretched out before her family, Correa knew one thing for sure: She would be running the NYC Marathon in a year.
Within days, with the help of family and friends, they were able to find an apartment on Staten Island. They moved in with three air mattresses. Another blogger set up an online registry, and strangers would send packages of necessities.
The family is taking a government buyout, hoping to find a new place by the summer.
On Sunday, Correa wants to show all those strangers who did so much for them: "Look what I'm able to do."
Dr. David King didn't need anybody to tell him what had happened. He had seen those injuries "a zillion" times before.
But the other shrapnel wounds and severed limbs from an improvised explosive device had occurred in Iraq, in Afghanistan. Not down the street from his Boston condo. Not 100 yards from where his family had stood an hour earlier. Not right after he finished running a marathon.
King was in a cab heading home after completing April's race in 3 hours, 12 minutes, when he noticed all the text messages. Too many for the normal "How did it go?" Instead, friends were asking, "Are you OK?"
He tried five different news sites on his phone. None of them would load. Whatever had taken place, it was bad. King told his wife he was heading to Massachusetts General Hospital, where he is a trauma surgeon.
When he initially walked in, everything looked normal. Then he saw the first few victims who had arrived. Within 90 seconds, King was going into surgery.
For the next couple of weeks, there was no time to analyze what had happened. The injured needed multiple surgeries. King met President Obama, who came to visit the bombing victims.
Once he finally had a chance to reflect, the attacks seemed almost "genetically insulting to me."
A lieutenant colonel in the Army Reserve, King served in Iraq in 2008 and Afghanistan in 2011. He was used to the horror of people trying to blow him up.
But at those moments on deployment when he questioned the sanity of choosing harm's way, he always told himself he was making sure this violence wouldn't reach his wife and kids back home.
King had joined the Army in 2000 when he was starting his residency. So he didn't do it because of anger over 9-11, or to pay for medical school. It just seemed to make sense to take on that responsibility when he knew he could.
Maybe that's also why he's run "about" 50 marathons in a little over a decade — he didn't know when he started that you're supposed to keep track of the total. Those include some Ironman triathlons: a full marathon plus a long bike and swim.
King relishes everything about these endurance events.
"I love going to the expo. I love the buzz, the feeling, the excitement on the start line," he says.
He was signed up to run New York for the second time last year but decided not to come because of Superstorm Sandy even before the race was canceled. After Boston, he's looking to Sunday to recapture "the warm fuzziness I feel at the start line of a marathon."
"I don't want it to be contaminated by a single bad event," he says. "I want this to be the rebirth of marathoning goodness."
Vicki Pellicciotti will paint her fingers and toes with green nail polish, Ben Wheeler's favorite color.
She's always looking for signs, and when Ben's parents asked her to run the NYC Marathon, one was flashing as brightly as the vibrant pants she plans to wear Sunday.
Pellicciotti had recently registered for her first marathon, in Florida in January. She looked at her training plan posted on the fridge, and on Nov. 3, she was supposed to do a 20-mile run.
"This is just too much of a coincidence," she says. "It's just meant to be."
Ben, her 6-year-old godson, was one of the 20 first-graders killed in Newtown, Conn., in December. Pellicciotti will raise money for Ben's Lighthouse, a charity that helps the community's children heal.
She and Ben's mom grew up together in Pennsylvania. Francine Wheeler has started running, too — seeking some structure, some peacefulness. She entered her first 5-kilometer race in Fairfield, Conn., in June, and Pellicciotti came up from Maryland to run with her.
Running, Pellicciotti says, "has saved so many people's lives on so many levels."
The mother of four boys between the ages of 8 and 14, she began running not long after the youngest was born. Pellicciotti wasn't working, and running was a tangible daily accomplishment when the dishes and the laundry seemed never-ending.
"It's tough. You don't have that at the end of the day," she says. "The proof isn't in the pudding for 18 years."
Now a substitute teacher at her younger sons' elementary school and an assistant track coach at the oldest's high school, Pellicciotti often treks out at 4:30 a.m. for training runs in Marriottsville, Md. In June, on a bit of a whim, she signed up for the Disney World Marathon. A month later, Pellicciotti got a text message from Fran about the spots in New York reserved for Newtown charities, and suddenly her first 26.2-mile race would be the world-famous one in November.
She panicked when her hip started hurting in late August, but rest and a cortisone shot got her through. Pellicciotti will carry a photo of Ben with her and think of his perfect-pitch voice, his artistic streak, his boundless energy.
"Here I am running this marathon for him. I tell you, I bet he could finish the marathon himself if he was still here," she says.
Her boys all play sports but the family had never taken part in a race together until two weeks after the Sandy Hook shooting, when they all entered a run in her hometown that raised money for the foundation in Ben's name. It was Dec. 30, her birthday. She calls it the best present ever — and knows it was a gift from Ben.
Bill McCabe heard the first boom as he approached Mile 26 of the Boston Marathon.
He turned the corner onto Boylston Street, not quite processing what that noise might portend. Then he heard another.
"You get this bad feeling in your heart," he says. "The first one didn't connect; the second one did."
Security personnel stopped the runners, directing them to safety. But McCabe knew his children and grandchildren — 10 family members in all — were a few blocks away, near that horrific sound. He found some people to help him climb over the barricade.
Somehow he quickly found everyone. Somehow they were all OK though standing just 100 yards from the second bomb.
But as the family returned home to Stoneham, Mass., the news about friends started trickling in through smartphones and social media. From Stoneham, a town of around 22,000, six people were injured. Four lost limbs.
Five weeks later, McCabe completed the entire 26.2 miles. He led a group of about 60 people who raised $20,000 for Stoneham Strong, the charity created to aid the "Stoneham Survivors."
"I don't want to call them victims," says McCabe, a heavy equipment operator for the town 10 miles north of Boston. "They're on the comeback trail."
He also happened to have some unfinished business in New York. McCabe, who has run seven marathons, was signed up for his first NYC Marathon last year. He was already in the city, torn by mixed emotions about racing amid such devastation, when the event was canceled.
He knew he'd be back this year. He just didn't know then how much more he'd be running for.
The 60-year-old McCabe will again be supporting Stoneham Strong on Sunday. Is there some fear of another attack? It's impossible not to feel that. But he figures a healthy sort of stubbornness bonds Bostonians and New Yorkers.
"For people that know, that's just who we are," he says.
Even with her house flooded, Elizabeth Bishop felt a bit guilty she didn't do more.
Other members of Rockaway Women Inspired to Support and Help handed out supplies to victims of Superstorm Sandy for months. Bishop and her children were staying with her aunt in Florida.
So when she saw the call for runners to enter the NYC Marathon to raise money for W.I.S.H., it just felt right. Even if she hadn't even done a half-marathon at that point, when 5 miles was a long run.
"All these women gave their time," she says.
Bishop's bungalow in the Roxbury community on the Rockaway peninsula is still unlivable a year later as they wait on permits to rebuild. Her parents' and grandmother's homes in the same neighborhood were also badly damaged.
"My whole family didn't have anywhere to go," she says.
With her grandmother and three young sons, Bishop was able to relocate to Melbourne, Fla., a few days after the storm. Her husband, a firefighter, stayed in New York.
"I came back with the boys on Halloween, took what we could from my mom's upstairs, and flew down the next day," she says.
They stayed there for two months, then at her husband's colleague's apartment for six.
Her parents' home is repaired enough that they can now live there. The grandparents help watch her boys when she trains.
She remembers hearing about how the 2012 marathon was still scheduled to go on, about generators being used for the race when there was no heat in the Rockaways. Finally it was canceled, and now she can use this year's event to boost her community. The five women running for W.I.S.H. have already raised more than $16,000.
Emidio Cacciapuoti had watched the images many times on TV, on the Internet. He had heard friends talk about it.
The moment when runners at the NYC Marathon emerge from the quiet of the Queensboro Bridge into the roar of the massive crowds lining First Avenue.
So he signed up for last year's race as his first marathon. Concerned when he left Italy about the damage from Superstorm Sandy, he was assured by city and race officials' insistence that the race would go on.
"We were excited we could be a sign of regeneration," he says.
His flight landed in New York on Thursday of race week, and he picked up his bib number. The next day, the marathon was canceled. As for many other international runners: so much training, so much money spent, so far from home. And now no race to run.
"It was a huge disappointment," he says.
But there was never any doubt that he would try again this year.
He ran half the course that Saturday then joined other entrants in Central Park on Sunday. In April, Cacciapuoti completed his first marathon in his hometown of Milan, but he considered that a training run. After a year-and-a-half of preparation, now he'll finally experience the cacophony of First Avenue.
Wesley Korir was the defending champion at this year's Boston Marathon. His perspective on the bombings was different than that of any other runner.
Korir had recently been elected to Parliament in his native Kenya. Thinking about anti-terrorism policy is part of his job.
In September, 67 people were killed in a siege on a mall in Nairobi, Kenya's capital.
"We are connected as a world," Korir says.
He sees how ordinary citizens reaching out to the police helped apprehend the suspects in the Boston attack. He's trying to create that same sort of culture in Kenya.
Korir's policy goals also include preventing international agents from taking advantage of young Kenyan runners. He graduated from the University of Louisville, and when he turned pro in the U.S., he controlled his own career. He wants the same for his countrymen.
"What America did was you woke up that lion in me," he says.
His athletic achievements earn Korir respect in Parliament, where they brought in engineers to speed up the treadmill in the gym so he can train. He believes he can be an elite runner and politician at the same time. Korir is logging about 80 miles a week these days — not as much as he used to, but enough, he says, to contend Sunday.