Culture TED Talks

Why I’m running the New York City Marathon (thanks in part to a TED Talk)

May El-Khalil spoke on the power of marathons at TEDGlobal 2013. Her talk inspired me to get back to my life as a marathoner. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

May El-Khalil spoke on the power of marathons at TEDGlobal 2013. Her talk inspired me to get back to my life as a marathoner. Photo: James Duncan Davidson

Every runner has a story.

Five years ago, I would never have imagined using the word “marathoner” to describe myself; I could barely run around the block, much less 26.2 miles. But one autumn Sunday, I woke up to the sounds of cheering and live music; the New York City Marathon was passing right outside my apartment building, and, for the first time in years of living in Brooklyn, I decided to see what the fuss was about. As soon as I walked up to Bedford Avenue, one of the longer stretches of the race, there was an energy in the air unlike anything I’d ever felt. I locked eyes with my first runner, a woman into her early 80s with the largest smile I’d ever seen — she looked so happy and she was crossing into Mile 14. In that moment, beyond all logic and fear, I decided to run those 26.2 miles myself.

Earlier that year, my father had been diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease, and my family was feeling heartbroken and helpless. I committed myself to helping find a cure, and signed up to run with the Michael J Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research.

Since that day five years ago, I’ve run three NYC marathons for Team Fox, two of them with a camera strapped to my head. (Watch the video below to see the result.) I’ve raised nearly $20K for a cause that’s important to me, I’ve joined clinical trials for PD research and mentored others to get started in their own running or fundraising.

But in 2011, I started to grow tired of running and all the training; I lost my oomph for it. Until I worked at TEDGlobal last summer.

On day two of the conference, May El-Khalil shared her running story. May El-Khalil: Making peace is a marathon May El-Khalil: Making peace is a marathon A marathon runner herself, she spoke about overcoming the odds after she was struck by a car and her doctor told her she might never run again. She endured 36 surgeries and ultimately came back to the sport of running, founding the Beirut Marathon. She spoke about the power of the marathon to create a better future. Her words went straight to my heart — perhaps I wasn’t done with running after all?

Just a few weeks after hearing May’s talk, I learned that my good friend John Ryan had decided to run this year’s NYC Marathon. He has early-onset Parkinson’s … and I knew I had to run with him. John is undaunted; as he puts it, he’s merely “living with Parkinson’s,” not falling victim to it. With May’s talk echoing in my head, John’s mantra — “don’t cheer from the sidelines if you can run the race” — got me to sign up for the 43rd NYC Marathon with 47,000 other runners.

May’s and John’s story reminded me why I started running in the first place. Runner stories are what make marathons so special to me: What other event brings together so many of humanity’s greatest triumphs? Disabled veterans, wheelchair racers, seniors, my friends with Parkinson’s — these runners push me to keep going when my body starts to tell me I’m finished. In Lebanon, runner stories are so powerful that people can set aside years of conflict to run and cheer together — and that gives me hope for a better future. In New York, the relentless optimists that I’ve met through Team Fox enrich my life to no end. In the face of the tragic events in Boston earlier this year or Hurricane Sandy last year, our communities shine through, supporting each other in this feat of human endurance. Marathons truly bring us together in the most incredible ways.

This Sunday I will run my fourth marathon, and I’ll hear new stories that will challenge me in all new ways. And I’ve set my sights on a new crazy goal — qualifying for Boston. What a difference five years can make. I think it’s probably safe to say that I’m a marathoner now.