The crushed limestone path crunches under her bright blue Topo Athletic shoes, her pace is slow and steady.
Melinda Howard, of Dubuque, Iowa, started running in 2011 to lose weight. She ran her first marathon in 2013. Since, she has run three world major marathons including Chicago, Berlin and London. The New York City Marathon will be her fourth major marathon. But Howard, like many runners, isn’t running for the satisfaction of the race.
Howard runs for 10-year-old Aiden Smith who lives with numerous life-threatening illnesses.
“Aiden and I are just over the moon excited. It’s just, I can’t even put it into words,” Howard said. “Race Day is coming.”
Runners come from all over the world to run in the TCS New York City Marathon. This year marks the 50th run of the New York City Marathon since it began in 1970. The marathon is part of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors, the largest and most renowned marathons in the world. The other majors include the Tokyo Marathon, Boston Marathon, TCS London Marathon, BMW Berlin Marathon, Bank of America Chicago Marathon. This year 30,000 runners will trek the 26.2 miles across the five boroughs, each with a different purpose and goal.
Howard has been running for Smith since he was three years old after matching with him through the IRun4Michael Facebook group. Howard and Smith’s mom emailed back and forth after the two matched. Once Howard saw Smith’s “megawatt” smile in her inbox, she was in love.
Matching with Smith changed Howard’s running.
“Running can be a very selfish sport, if you let it be,” Howard said. “A lot of people are chasing podium finishes and PRs and all that kind of thing. I’m not an especially gifted or talented runner, but I am about as tenacious as you can get. I don’t give up. So being able to give back to someone was a very important thing to me.”
Smith is currently in the hospital.
“Aiden is in the hospital right now, and so this race has taken on even more significance than a normal race would be because we have to go and really not necessarily run our fastest race ever, but we want to soak in the whole experience for him,” Howard said.
The two talk almost every day and every mile Howard runs is for Aiden.
“Every run, every race, every time I go outside and do a training run, those miles are dedicated to Aiden,” Howard said. “They’re not my miles, they’re Aiden’s miles, we run together; he’s in my heart. And every race I’m running because Aiden just can’t. And so I want to be the best runner for him that I possibly can be.”
Jason Booher, of Pikesville, Kentucky, also dedicates his miles to others.
He wears a bright yellow jersey with bold, red letters reading, “Don’t Drink & Drive” on the front. A list of names fills the back of the jersey and more red letters read “#27 Reasons.”
Booher is a survivor of the 1988 Carrollton bus crash, the nation’s deadliest drinking and driving crash, that claimed the lives of 24 kids, including Booher’s best friend, and three chaperones.
“I’m trying to turn a negative into a positive and one of those ways is to raise awareness,” Booher said. “Through marathon running, I’m able to dedicate each one of those miles to one of the victims that didn’t make it out of the bus including that last .2 that sprint to the finish for Chad, my best friend.”
Booher plans to run all six world major marathons to use running as a platform to raise awareness of the consequences of drinking and driving. So far, he has run in Berlin and London. New York will be his third world major.
Sara Kate Gillingham, of Brooklyn, New York, is also using running to raise awareness.
On Valentine’s day in 2017 Gillingham was in the hospital ready to donate a part of her liver to David Kane who was going to die without the surgery.
Gillingham said participating in the race is a chance to bring up the conversation of live organ donation.
“It’s been really wonderful to be able to kind of use this as like a little tiny mini platform to shine a light on this amazing thing you can do to help someone,” Gillingham said.
Kane and Gillingham will run together for the American Liver Foundation. The New York City marathon will be both Kane and Gillingham’s very first 26.2 mile feat.
Gillingham will ride the 5 a.m. bus from midtown to Fort Wadsworth to start the race with Kane in the first wave of runners.
Laminated cards with positive mantras like “pride lasts longer than the pain” and “dig deep” will fill Gillingham’s pockets on race day.
“All of your blood and your energy goes to your legs, and so at a certain point you actually don’t really think that straight, so you have to have something either written down, or written on a piece of tape or just reminders of why I’m doing it,” Gillingham said.
Aaron Burros, of Houston, Texas, runs because he’s on a mission.
On January 15, 2021 Burros decided he would run 50 marathons in 50 weeks in 50 states to raise $50K for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. Because of race and flight cancellations, he is not going to make the 50 week goal, but he is still going to complete his goal of running 50 marathons. The New York Marathon is number 39.
“I feel like I’ve been on the amazing race,” Burros said.
Burros weighed almost 394 pounds before he started running in 2010.
His doctor told him he was going to die if he didn’t lose 40 pounds. After a year of running, Burros lost 100 pounds.
“So I just started running or biking everywhere,” Burros said. “I got up to where I was running my long runs on the weekend. I was running anywhere between 18 to 30 miles on a regular basis on Saturday.”
But, Burros stopped running for over four years after he was involved in a work place shooting on October 28, 2015. He was shot in the gluteus maximus and a bullet missed his femoral artery by one millimeter, he said. After the shooting, Burros said he lost all hope in humanity. He withdrew from life and from people. Everyday he drove to the Starbucks a quarter of a mile from his house to sit and wait for the day to end.
Burros decided to run in the 2019 New York City Marathon as part of his plan for therapy, to reconnect with society and reestablish hope in humanity. After completing that marathon, Burros said God put it on his heart to run all six world major marathons. Now, he runs full-time.
He’s run in London, Berlin, Chicago and was scheduled to run Tokyo and Boston in 2020, which would have allowed him to complete all six marathons in under 12 months, but the pandemic changed his plans. He ran in the first ever virtual Boston Marathon in 2020 and ran it again, in-person, last month. He still has plans to run in Tokyo once he is allowed.
Burros runs with Team For Kids. He said doing something for kids has motivated him to cope with life after the shooting. Burros still deals with physical pain from the shooting and lives with post traumatic stress disorder.
“I’ll be able to cheer people on because the pain that I’m in, it makes me want to scream,” Burros said.
Andrea Strong also got back into running as a way to cope.
Strong’s white Brooks Ghost running shoes decorated with red and black stripes smack the pavement as she rounds the bend on the Brooklyn Bridge Park Esplanade. She darts over the Manhattan Bridge and back over the Brooklyn Bridge off the West Side Highway. Strong likes to run near the water.
“Running changes your body, it changes your mind, it helps you get through, at least for me, it helped me process and survive the pandemic,” Strong said.
Strong ran the 1999 New York City Marathon 22 years ago when she was 30-years-old.
“It’s something I never dreamed I would do again,” Strong said.
Strong had stopped running but picked it up again during the pandemic. Rain or shine, she laced up her shoes each day just to get out of the house.
Strong is running with team ROAR, which stands for restaurants organizing, advocating, rebuilding. The organization was founded in the wake of COVID-19 to support the health and wellness of restaurant workers in New York City so that they can not only survive in the industry but thrive. ROAR’s team of 10 is aiming to raise $100,000 for the restaurant industry this weekend.
Strong spent 20 years reporting on and being a part of the food and restaurant industry before becoming the executive director of ROAR.
“Being a part of this industry, that I think is the beating heart of our city, and to be a part of advocating for its future, its strength, its success and its transformation so that it becomes an industry that can really support workers and also bring our city back to life is incredibly meaningful to me,” Strong said.
The sound of a canon will pierce the air and Frank Sinatra’s tunes will blast over speakers as the first wave of runners takes off just south of the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge in Staten Island at 9:10 a.m. on Sunday.
“To be running the New York City Marathon in its 50th year, in its first year since the pandemic, to watch the city come back to life and to be a part of that energy and movement, it’s just so humbling and such an honor, and I am so excited,” Strong said. “I can’t wait.”