I’m a baseball player.
It’s been years since I’ve played hardball, but I’ve never lost the competitive spirit I had from my days on the diamond.
No offense to my fellow baseball players, but it’s a mere fact that we’re not exactly known for our long-distance running ability.
Some people think baseball is just a bunch of players standing around for nine innings. While it’s much more than that to me, I can’t argue with that too much, since the only real running we ever do is running 90 feet from home plate to first base.
So when the outlandish thought came to me that I should run in the N.Y.C. Marathon, I had to quickly remind myself that baseball players don’t run marathons. However, something inside me – perhaps that competitive drive from my years playing baseball – told me that I could do it.
It all began a few years ago when I started taking an interest in long-distance running. At first, I could barely run a mile, but I kept at it and began to see some improvement. I trained for a 5K and a 10K and felt very good about the process afterwards. A year ago, I capped off weeks of training with my first-ever half-marathon.
I guess you could say I caught the bug – the running bug. Watching last year’s marathon in person also motivated me to give it a shot. I saw the excitement associated with competing in the race, and as a former athlete, I wanted to experience that for myself.
Still, it was a long shot for me to get a bib number this year. I entered the general lottery, knowing there was very little chance I’d be selected.
And sure enough, I was informed that my name was not picked. Running the marathon would remain just a thought instead of a reality.
Sometimes though, you just need the right people looking out for you.
My aunt Mary DeBernardo, a lifelong parishioner at Immaculate Heart of Mary, Windsor Terrace, and a regular on this sports page, ran the N.Y.C. Marathon in 2011 and is undoubtedly the running guru of our family. She saw a link online from Special Olympics New York calling for applications to join their marathon team.
My Cousin Vinny
All of a sudden my hope was restored. The application included a section asking why I should be chosen for the team, and I immediately thought of my cousin Vinny – not the hysterical comedy starring Joe Pesci and Marisa Tomei, but my actual cousin Vincent DeBernardo.
Vin, soon to be 22, was born with Down syndrome. Since he was young, he has played every sport imaginable through Special Olympics in Staten Island. I proudly display Vin’s Special Olympics baseball card on my refrigerator.
In my application, I wrote about how awesome it has been to see Vin get a chance to play sports through the organization. And wouldn’t you know it? They picked me!
This was back in March. Once confirmed, I immediately mapped out a training regimen: I would start July 1 and continue 18 weeks right up until Marathon Sunday. I’d alter my diet and commit myself to my training – always keeping in mind my cousin.
As part of the process, I had to raise $3,800 for Special Olympics. I am so grateful for the donations I received from family and friends. Before I even started my training, I reached my goal. Now it was time to focus on running.
Each week included three shorter runs and then a weekend long run. The program built up to 20 miles and then tapered down the last few weeks leading up to the big day.
In total, all the training runs added up to 436.1 miles. To put that in perspective, that’s roughly the distance from my home in Astoria to the border of Virginia and North Carolina.
And in baseball-player terms, that’s 25,584.5 dashes from the home plate to first base.
The journey took me all over the globe. I ran through the wooded paths of the Massapequa, L.I., Preserve; I enjoyed the charm of quaint seaside villages while running in the Hamptons, L.I.; the cool sea air refreshed me during runs on Long Beach Island, N.J.; I did my best to beat the heat while traversing the shores of the Guadalquivir River in Seville, Spain; I trotted along the rain-soaked, leaf-covered paths of St. Stephen’s Green in Dublin, Ireland; and I did an innumerable amount of laps around my hometown Astoria Park.
Finally, race day arrived. I have covered many local runners who have participated in the marathon, so I had a sense of what to expect. Yet the experience far outlived my expectations.
Seeing all the landmarks along the way was amazing – the Verrazano Bridge, the Williamsburgh Savings Bank Tower, the Queensboro Bridge, First and Fifth Avenues in Manhattan and of course Central Park for the finish.
While crowds in all the boroughs were energetic and encouraging, Brooklyn represented very well. The Bishop Loughlin H.S., Fort Greene, band provided some great tunes, and students from St. Francis College, Brooklyn Heights, handed out water and Gatorade.
I’ll never forget the sights and sounds of the course. However, seeing my family and friends along the way will be what I remember most.
Support from Loved Ones
I spoke to Vin and his family early that morning through FaceTime, and they wished me all the luck in the world. At Mile 8, I saw my fiancée Jackie, who throughout the whole journey was my source of strength – not to mention my part-time running partner.
Jackie coordinated the stops for my entire support team throughout the day. At Mile 18, my parents, brother, sister-in-law, goddaughter, Jackie’s parents, members of both our extended families and a few friends brought down the house on First Avenue, with their loud cheering and handcrafted signs. They made me feel like the only runner out there, and again I thoroughly appreciate the support.
Crossing the Finish Line
I saw this group again as I made my way down Fifth Avenue at Mile 23, and they gave me the final boost I needed to finish strong.
When I crossed the finish line 4:28:19 after I started, I pointed skyward. This was truly a team effort: myself, Jackie, Vincent, my family, my friends, all those who donated to the cause and of course God.
Just like that, it was over. I did it. All of that hard work paid off.
The memories are still very fresh, but as I look back at the journey, I realize how blessed I am to have such a loving fiancée, family and friends. They made this experience all the more worth it for me, and I hope they know how much their support means to me.
Given the time it took to properly train, I’m thinking this will be my one and only marathon, but I’m totally open to continuing my newfound passion for long-distance running. A late spring half-marathon is already on my radar.
There was a time when I would never use the words “passion” and “running” in the same sentence, but I guess I’ve come a long way. You could say it’s been a “marathon,” not a home-to-first sprint.
After barely being able to complete a mile, running 26.2 consecutive miles is not too shabby for this baseball player.
Contact Jim Mancari via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.