On Sunday, the New York Marathon will feature a superb, elite field of Olympians and prospective champions, including defending champ Meb Keflezighi of the U.S., Ethiopian legend Haile Gebrselassie, Boston Marathon winner Teyba Erkesso, world half-marathon champ Mary Keitany and a slew of other international runners. But the field is also loaded with stories. Even the well known are no more or less steeled than the unknown on race day. Here are some of the stories that make marathon day the best day in New York every year.
Justin Gimelstob was an ace on the tennis court. He won the French and Australian Open mixed doubles crowns along with Venus Williams. Though he's retired now at age 33, you would certainly think of him as an athlete by sight. But on the roads, think again.
"I'm really poor at anything cardiovascular," he says. "For me, running a [440-yard course] is like someone else running a 220. I'm not really a fit guy."
Well it's relative, but Gimelstob will be out there trying to win a bet, help a cause and prove that he can "pull off this insanity."
When an older friend of Gimelstob, Jeff Warnick, passed away from a heart attack while running, Gimelstob thought of running a marathon to honor him. But his plan never materialized.
"I never got running," he says. "I'm the consummate multi-tasker. It didn't appeal to me in any way."
Later, Gimelstob was chatting at the U.S. Open with Andy Roddick. The two were tennis pals who had always supported each other's charity initiatives. Forget the standard five-set rigors; their conversation was developing into real drama, and into a wager. If Gimelstob could finish the New York Marathon in 4:45 or less, Roddick would contribute $10,000 to the Gimelstob Children's Fund, a fine cause that supports a pediatric cancer hospital. If Gimelstob's finish time was 4:46 or slower, he would donate $10,000 to Roddick's charity, the Andy Roddick Foundation that supports children.
This was a true commitment for Gimelstob, who has a pin in his foot, and has had 29 cortisone injections through the years from the grind on his body.
"Now I get [running]," he says. "That's a gift Jeff gave me. It has and will enhance my life forever: It provides a clarity of life, a purpose, it's therapeutic, medicinal. I would never have been aware of that if I hadn't been exposed to running."
Serena Burla's story is less about marathon running and more about survival. As a 1:10 half-marathoner, Burla was usually in the mix of most races she entered. She had been a standout runner at Missouri, married a shot putter, become a young mother and was hoping for a long running career.
Then in February she underwent surgery to remove a malignant tumor that had formed on her right leg. NYRR President Mary Wittenberg visited Burla in the hospital.
"It took part of her bicep and it was just so unfair," Wittenberg recalls. "We were just praying her story would have a good outcome."
Burla, 28, started elliptical therapy within weeks, but had no sense of whether her elite running career was done. In July, she won a 10-kilometer race in Boston, and kept her eyes on New York for a debut marathon. With modest goals, Burla is looking for the day when she can be back in the running. For now, she is just glad to be back running.
When he was trapped half a mile below ground for 69 days with 32 of his colleagues, Edison Pena used to stay in shape by running three to six miles within tight-tunneled confines. To the world he became known as The Running Miner. On Sunday, the 34-year-old will have a little more space and many more cheering spectators as he attempts to finish the New York Marathon.
According to Wittenberg, when New York Road Runners learned of Pena's background, they invited him to view the race as a guest. But the determined miner asked into the actual race, where he will be joined by a number of his countrymen who had already received entry.
"He demonstrated how running can play an important role in our physical and emotional well being under any circumstances," she says.
When superstar chef Bobby Flay, 45, needs to clear his mind, he leaves the kitchen behind and heads for the pavement along New York's West Side Highway.
"It's great," he says. "There are no phones, no people screaming at you, trying to grab your attention. It's just a quiet place I can breathe and I can think."
A cross-country runner at Xavier High School in New York City, Flay always dreamed of running the New York Marathon.
"Growing up on the East Side, I used to go down with my mom to watch the runners pass by each year," he says. "This was such a great day in New York. It was always a highlight of the year."
Flay ran the New York Marathon twice before, each time finishing in four hours, eight minutes after fading at the end.
"I really want to break four hours," he says. "I didn't train properly the last two times and I paid for it. This year I've used the training program on the Road Runners website and I've just made time."
A Culinary empire notwithstanding, Flay doesn't have any fueling secrets in his kitchen.
"I'll make a simple sauce with pasta the night before," he says. "The next day I'll have a bagel and coconut water. I love that stuff."
His wife will provide the bananas and cheers along the course.
"It doesn't matter what your background is or what your time goal is," Flay says. "When you set your mind to a goal, you can't get away from it."
At his most perilous and dangerous moments of overindulgence, Al Roker weighed in at 320 pounds. His health and his future at stake, the popular weatherman underwent gastric-bypass surgery in 2002 to reduce the size of his stomach and ultimately to lesson the tax on his heart, thereby extending his lifespan. At the time, Roker just hoped for longevity and a better quality of life.
On Sunday, the 56-year-old will complete a personal journey that has allowed him to shed more than 100 pounds and run several hundred miles. He has the support of his wife, Deborah Roberts, who is an avid runner, and he has his dreaded 20-miler out of the way.
But he is still nervous about how he will fare on Sunday. His mile time, he says, hovers around 13 minutes, an impressive achievement given the challenges gastric-bypass patients sometimes have in undertaking strenuous exercise even years after such a jolting surgery. At least Roker is likely to have an inside track on knowing how to dress for the weather.
When New York Road Runners held its much-anticipated lottery to help narrow the field of 120,000 applicants to fewer than 40,000 runners, Evan Diker wasn't one of the lucky ones.
"I thought I just had to wait until next year," he says. "Then everything happened."
In April, the 35-year-old meeting and event planner for a pharmaceutical company donated a kidney to his 65-year-old father who had suffered from diabetes.
"I could barely move after the surgery," he recalls. "I think my discomfort was worse than most."
The surgery was a success. Diker's running? Not so much. He didn't get on the road until June and didn't go on a full-fledged training run for another month.
"I was hesitant because I had this big scar," he recalls. "I was trying to protect it a little." He was also extra careful to hydrate properly given the donated kidney.
Because Diker subsequently signed up to run for charity, he was able to gain entry into the race. His choice was Team For Kids, the Road Runners' organization that provides fitness programs to children who might not otherwise have the means to afford them.
Diker's inspiration will be pulling for him.
"Before it was kind of just for me," he says. "Now it's for my dad. I think mentally when you go through something like that," he says, "it just makes you stronger, like you can do more than you think you can."