Run, With Or Without The Race

People look to maintain their mental health in various ways. Some veg out in front the tube after work. Others take up a kickboxing class at the local gym. Katie Lesko runs marathons.

Katie Lesko, left, competing in the 2011 Marine Corps Marathon with her sister, Bethany.

As an UNC-Chapel Hill epidemiology graduate student with one semester of coursework remaining before beginning her dissertation, Lesko, 29, spends her free time pounding the pavement in her Asics GEL-Nimbus running shoes. This fall she ran the streets of downtown Chapel Hill with one goal in mind: completing the 2012 ING New York City Marathon on Sunday, Nov. 4, in three hours and 20 minutes. Unfortunately, race organizers cancelled the marathon Friday due to the controversial allocation of relief resources in the aftermath of Hurricane Sandy.

Lesko’s plane to New York was in mid-flight Friday when authorities cancelled the race. “I trust that the race wouldn’t have diverted resources from the relief effort, and it’s unfortunate for everyone who came from long distances, paid a lot of money and trained really hard. But it really is a no-win situation across the board,” said Lesko.

A native of Dayton, Ohio, Lesko is a natural-born athlete with only one shortcoming: a lack of hand-eye coordination. After ending her high school soccer career as soon as it began, Lesko discovered her love of rowing and raced competitively throughout her undergraduate years. Her sister, Bethany, 26, followed a similar path. As the girls graduated and left the accessibility of team sports behind, they both picked up running as a replacement. When Bethany decided she wanted to run a marathon, she instinctively asked Lesko to join her. The sisters selected a race within 45 minutes of their hometown, the 2007 Flying Pig Marathon in Cincinnati, Ohio, making the event a family affair.

Lesko completed the marathon in three hours and 48 minutes, and enjoyed it more than she anticipated. “My experience is if you can cross the finish line, you wonder what in the hell you were thinking for about a half hour or so after the race, and then you think it wasn’t so bad and get excited about doing it again,” said Lesko.

Five years later, the girls continue running marathons together with hopes of joining the 50 States Marathon Club. They have run 11 marathons in 10 different states together since May 2007.

Sunday’s marathon would have marked their 12th race in 11 states. Bethany lives in Brooklyn, N.Y., with her husband, Matt, and works as a graphic designer in Manhattan. The marathon created a perfect excuse for the sisters to reunite and cross one more state off their list. They earned qualifying half-marathon times of one hour and 32 minutes, three minutes under the cutoff, earlier this year.

The sisters run between one and three marathons together each year, inching their way toward their 50-state quota. The farthest Lesko has traveled thus far to run is San Francisco, Calif., for the San Francisco Marathon in 2008.

Lesko and Bethany spread their marathon fever throughout their family as well. Lesko’s husband, Greg, ran with the sisters in the Detroit Marathon, and Bethany’s husband joined in the Marine Corps Marathon. Even Connie, the girls’ mother, ran in the Marine Corps Marathon on her 60th birthday. A true champion, their mother powered through training injuries to compete in the race. “She’s a champ. She has always been an active mom and great role model,” said Lesko.

Despite her competitive nature, Lesko really runs for her personal wellbeing. “I race for fun, and if the time improves, then that’s just a bonus,” said Lesko. She focused on her time during her qualifying race for New York; but otherwise, she makes each race a new adventure. She finds her groove in longer distance training runs by listening to NPR podcasts, taking necessary breaks from reading epidemiology textbooks.

Lesko considers herself pretty laid back when it comes to pre-race rituals. She enjoys the stereotypical pasta dinner with her family the night before a race, makes a peanut butter bagel for breakfast, and splits gel fuel packs during the races with her sister. However, she opts for her old college rowing unisuit instead of traditional runner attire as she makes her 26.2-mile treks through various states. “I don’t pull it up all the way and just wear the shorts. I use the extra folded fabric around my waist as a pouch,” said Lesko. “I turn into the packrat for the two of us.”

While she loves racing in the fall, when the temperature lingers between 40 and 55 degrees and humidity is virtually nonexistent, Lesko loves training in the rain. “It’s like being a little kid again,” said Lesko. “Running in the rain is like playing in the rain. You can jump in all the mud puddles!”

The sisters ran in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park Sunday morning instead of the anticipated marathon, but rest assured, their 12th race state is not far from reach. The girls’ likely next marathon stop is Tampa, Fla., in late January.

Originally written for my graduate writing/reporting workshop

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