Senior Caroline Hughes was making her way down the Verrazano Bridge alongside 50,000 other runners on Sun., Nov. 4, when it hit her that she was not running her usual route on the Walkway Over the Hudson, but was participating in the New York City Marathon.
Although always an athlete, Hughes picked up running in college as a way to clear her mind and destress. Only four years later, she trained for her first marathon entirely by herself, and finished in an impressive 5 hours and 47 seconds.
“Running next to complete strangers who also have a passion for running was such an unbelievable motivation,” Hughes said. “It was really, really awesome.”
Hughes first began training last summer, but it became harder to increase her mileage when she returned to Marist as the school work piled on. During mid-semester break, however, Hughes finally had time to pick up the pace, and ran 18 and a half consecutive miles, her longest distance yet. After break, she hit the gym for strength training, and, with only a few weeks to go before the big day, focused on getting enough sleep and eating properly.
Hughes’ decision to run the marathon was inspired in part by the children she works with at Windham Mountain Adaptive Sports Foundation, where she volunteers in the winter. Many of the students she teaches there are a part of Special Olympics, an organization that helps children and adults with mental and physical handicaps participate in sports. While preparing for the race, Hughes fundraised alongside 15 other runners on the Special Olympics Team, collectively raising over $70,000 for the organization.
On that Saturday before the race, Hughes picked up her race number at the NYC Marathon Expo, where she saw runners of all different shapes and sizes, speaking a wide array of languages. The night before the race, she was sent a heartfelt video from her friends and family, who wished her luck. She also received a letter from a Special Olympics athlete with Down Syndrome, in which he thanked her for her fundraising efforts. By 11 a.m. the next morning, the day of the race, the few fears Hughes had experienced were well out of mind, and she was ready to go.
At the starting line, Hughes’ was greeted by the sound of Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York,” a special moment she said she will always remember. Neon signs in hand, her friends and family were scattered along the route, cheering her on. As she ran throughout the city’s five boroughs, Hughes noticed how although the crowds changed, each brought something new and exciting to the race, and every bystander, even members of the homeless, were there to support her.
“As a runner, I was running alone, but I never felt alone,” Hughes said. “There was just so many people cheering you on, even if they didn’t know you. It was such a moving experience to see all of the different people supporting you. It really unified the entire city.”
Hughes recalled mile 21 as her most challenging, but mentally related her pace to her route back home, to remind herself that she had completed similar distances before. For further motivation, she thought of the kids of Special Olympics, who had already gotten her this far.
When she reached Central Park, she realized she was almost done; after passing her family one last time, she crossed the finish line only a few miles away, and was instantly overcome with emotion.
“It was just a really unbelievable feeling, to know that I had just completed a marathon,” she said.
Despite the long day, and the lingering dehydration and leg pain, Hughes returned to Marist later that night. Her own reward for the once-in-a-lifetime accomplishment? Hughes skipped her 8 a.m. the next morning, and slept in until her 11 o’clock class.
“I didn’t want to give myself too much time to rest,” she said. “I had to keep going again.”
Hughes said her favorite part of the experience was running along 1st Avenue to “Empire State of Mind,” while passing her friends and family. In the future, Hughes intends to run more marathons, but wants to race in other cities to see how their environments differ from New York’s.
“At the end of the day, I was extremely proud of myself, because I was able to set a goal, and stick to a commitment, regardless of other things going on at the time,” Hughes said. “[Receiving letters from Special Olympic athletes] showed me that I am very blessed to run for something that is bigger than myself. It was really special, and something that I’ll never forget doing.”