Inspiring Stories: Running to Overcome Challenges

So, I know me losing 50 pounds and running marathons is inspiring to some, but this morning, I heard from some actual inspiring people.

The Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge is a race within the marathon. Each borough is represented by one runner who has used running to help them overcome a major challenge in their lives. They’re not the fastest runners (although they are fast–they’re hoping to keep an 8-minute pace), but they will run together for the first half, and then race each other to the finish. The fastest runner becomes the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge winner, and gets this snazzy Tiffany platter.



[photo via NYRR]

I arrived a bit late and missed her talking, but Michele King Gonzalez is the athlete representing Staten Island. Deployed to Iraq three times, she used running to manage the stress of her life there.


Andrew Rausa, from Brooklyn, started running a few years ago when his dad, Sam, was diagnosed with cancer and told he wouldn’t have more than two years to live. The two became depressed at that prospect and started running, since that was something they could control. Three years later, Sam has run six marathons and is in remission.


Elizabeth Maiuolo, from Manhattan (but originally from Argentina), had two major heart attacks at the age of 28 and was in the hospital for 9 days. She felt completely helpless in the face of all that, and thought, “If I start running, they [the doctors] will leave me alone.” Like most runners, she hated it at first, but slowly she felt like she was back in control of her body. At first, doctors told her she was pushing herself too much, but eventually, they saw how much it was helping her, and finally told her that most people don’t recover from the double heart attacks like she had, and that the running was helping heal her. Things might seem scary, she says, but find a way to push through your fears. She did, and she’s run approximately a gazillion races since then.

She’s volunteered at the marathon every year since 2005 and saw that post-finish glow everyone had about them and thought, “I need to do this.”


Salvatore Polizzi, from Queens, says, “We each have a story to tell.” His story is his mom’s diagnosis of cervical cancer. He was terrified of losing her. He’s run the NYCM every year since 2009 on Fred’s Team, to raise money for a cure. I just stalked him on Athlinks, and he did the Staten Island Half in 1:24:49. The man is FAST!


The last athlete we heard from was Rob Vassilarakis, from the Bronx. My stalker, Jess, and I definitely teared up at his story.

He says he always had poor self-image as a kid, and he was always running from something. Running from rejection, running from his self-identity issues. At the age of 17, he came out, and his family disowned him for being gay. He lived on the streets, and he battled crystal meth from 1991-2006. Before he turned his life around, he thought he was at the end of the world, that he’d die on the streets. But he kept trying to make his life better. “Don’t quit until the miracle happens,” he says.

Until he started running, he’d still had relapses in his recovery, but now, running has become not only part of his lifestyle, but part of his recovery.

A few years ago, he went to spectate a friend running the marathon, and got off the subway and was “hit with runner’s high.”

“I saw young people and old people. I saw a man in his 70s running and juggling. Everyone looked so beautiful to me.” I don’t want to just feel this, he thought, I want to be a part of it, running it.


As if I wasn’t excited enough already, their excitement and passion was so inspiring, and this is how I feel on the inside.



Although, as a former reporter, being allowed special media access is nothing new for me, it was something totally different being behind-the-scenes of an event I’m about to take part in that means so much to me.


After the event, I walked through the park a bit. (That is not a yawn, that is shock and fear on my face.)

THE FINISH LINE IS UP. I will be crossing that just a few days from now, likely on the verge of tears or crying big, fat happy tears.


The grandstands are going up!


And the weather is perfect in NYC right now.


I also got this awesome media guide, which I’m excited to devour and share interesting facts with you.

For example…

36.8 percent of runners are single–that’s 15,044 single runners. 15,043 if you take me out of that.

62 percent of runners are men.

That means, there are thousands of single men running this race. Those, my friends, are stats relevant to my life.

Why do you run?

27 comments on “Inspiring Stories: Running to Overcome Challenges

  1. Erica Sara

    Love it! I cannot believe I’m admitting this, but back when I was single, I would note the bib #s of hot runners at races and then look them up after to see what their story was. Hey, I met my guy at a race so you never know, right? 😉

  2. Kimra

    I run to get myself outside! (I wasn’t an “outdoorsy” child, so this is a new thing in my adult life.) And as my RoadID says, I run to see the world. It’s my favorite way to get to know a place or to check back in on one I already know well.

  3. tracey

    I run because I can. I can do it today. And next year I might not be able to. And a year and a half ago I couldn’t do it either. But today, I can. So I do it. And hopefully will continue to be able to do so for a very long time.

  4. Michelle

    This is amazing! I almost cried looking at your pictures of the finish line!

    And not gonna lie… I am really nervous about waiting in the athletes village and taking the bus with my charity since i don’t know a single other soul running the race but it did cross my mind that maybe there would be a cute guy there…

  5. Mads

    I’m so excited now having read your post and all those inspirational stories. And how cool to see the finish line! Starting to think about packing now 🙂

    Can you recommend any good Bagel places (I know how you love them!) near the finish/Times Square? I know I will want one when I finish and would love to try and authentic NY bagel.

  6. April

    I love, love the fact that you paid special attention to the number of single males running! I was a cheerer for friends at a triathalon and I kept looking at people’s calves for their ages and to see if they were wearing a wedding ring 🙂

  7. AliCat

    Your marathon preparation is so inspiring! I’ve never been a runner – I had no interest when I was younger and now I suffer from bad shin splints. But I was a dancer for a long time and I can only imagine that a long run in beautiful weather is as freeing as losing yourself in the music on the stage. Good luck for the marathon – I look forward to reading all about it afterwards.

  8. cindylu

    I run simply because I enjoy it and feel off when I don’t. I really do need those endorphins from working out. At the end of my first marathon, I started to think of my uncle who ran the same race several years before in memory of my grandfather. Then I thought of both of my grandparents who passed away in ’96 and 2000. Just thinking of them made me emotional, but it also gave me a surge of energy. As weird as it sounds, I felt both of them pushing me through miles 24-25.

  9. Cara E Bednar

    Hey Theodora- I am running NYC on Sunday too and beyond words excitied! I just burst out laughing at Erica Sara’s comments because I think every single girl runner checks out the hotties and casual looks them up after- aka stalks them ha.

  10. Elizabeth

    Loved this post! Thanks for sharing and for being there!!! Love your blog and I will catch up with it soon. Maybe we can even go for a run soon! 😉
    Good luck in your race this weekend!!!! Can’t wait to read (or hear???) all about it!

      1. Alison

        I am walking right now, working up to running through a team with the Crohn’s and Colitis foundation. Our half marathon is in June, in Chicago. I decided to become part of this group for the health challenge of getting in shape, to raise funds for the friends in my life that have one of the illnesses and to meet like minded people. It has definately been an inspiration! Now if I can actually lose some weight, haven’t had much luck thus far. But I am sure I will through time and the work I put in too.


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