You can prepare as much as you want, but you never know what’s going to happen on D-Day. At home, on the Upper East Side, Karine Jones is already in race mode. On Sunday, November 7, this French woman will be at the start of the New York City Marathon. This year is the fiftieth anniversary of the marathon. Cancelled last year because of Covid-19, the event will gather fewer runners than usual (the lifting of the travel ban will only take place the next day, to the great displeasure of many international marathoners.) But it takes more than that to dampen Karine’s motivation. “It will be explosive! We’ll never experience anything like it,” she promises. For New Yorkers, it’s the beginning of a new beginning.
An athlete in her childhood and adolescence, this 50-year-old French woman did not run to achieve a good time. In 2015, motivated by an old friend from French Lycée, who is now a cardiologist, she chose to don the orange jersey of “Fred’s Team,” which is the running team at Memorial Sloan Kettering (MSK), the famous center specializing in cancer treatment and research.
The history of this group, which raises millions of dollars annually for the institution, is intimately tied to the New York race itself. “Fred” is none other than Fred Lebow, the marathon’s co-founder. Treated at MSK for brain cancer, this charismatic Romanian immigrant was jogging in the halls of the institution in 1991! That same year, a group of runners got together to raise money for the center, marking the birth of the marathon’s charitable dimension. Fred’s Team was officially born four years later and became the largest charity in the race.
There are hundreds of runners on “Fred’s Team.” The team is made up of doctors, nurses, cancer survivors and simple supporters, like Karine Jones. As they train, they are supervised by coaches and they participate in preparation meetings.
Once launched into the race every year, they traditionally slow down at “Mile 17”, where MSK is located, to embrace the patients installed on bleachers and to give a high fives and exchange tears and smiles. This year, because of Covid, they’ll just wave as they pass. “We, the marathon fundraisers, give it our all. Personally, I train six days a week while trying to raise as much money as possible. I’m running for this cause and I’m going to do it for the rest of my life. It has given me a sense of purpose,” says Jones.
Karine Jones is not the only Frenchy to put on her sneakers for the good cause. Mirjam Lavabre will wear the bib of First Candle, an association based in Connecticut that wants to put an end to the “Sudden Infant Death Syndrome” (SIDS). This little-known disease strikes 3,600 children a year. And it tragically took the life of Lavabre’s daughter, Lola, 15 years ago. This Sunday, she will face the 26 miles alongside fifteen teammates, almost all French. “At 51 years old, it’s the first time I’m running the New York City Marathon and maybe the last because the training is intense,” she says.
There are many ways to participate in the New York City Marathon. Raising money for a charity is one of them. Each association is free to set the minimum amount of money it wishes to raise as long as it corresponds to 2,500 or 3,000 dollars per runner, depending on the formula chosen. Mirjam Lavabre discovered First Candle among the list of dozens of foundations recognized by the marathon organizers. She contacted them to get bibs for 10 teammates who had not yet registered. “Usually they give two or three. I thought, if I get them all, what am I going to do?” she smiled. It didn’t fail. She got them all. Her friends, who call themselves “Dreamers,” followed her.
The money raised will allow First Candle “to help the parents in their grief and provide them with financial support,” explains Mirjam Lavabre. Unlike the death of an elderly person, you can’t anticipate the death of a young child. At this stage in their lives, parents often don’t have the money to cover the cost of the funeral, which is very high in the United States (compared to France.) For Lavabre, participating in the marathon is a way to “give back,” she says. “I was lucky to be surrounded by people after the death of my daughter. If it wasn’t for that, I don’t know what state I would be in. I am aware that most people facing this ordeal are not so lucky. I wanted to help them in any way I could,” she says.
For his part, Alain Bernard, a French man, runs for the homeless in New York. Along with Marie de Foucaud and Agathe Louvet, two Frenchwomen from New York, this consultant is one of the eleven runners of the Team Bowery Mission. This trio of runners had already been involved for a long time in this charitable association, which was founded in 1879. Last year, they helped raise more than $200,000 – a record – in place of the cancelled marathon. The health crisis has made their commitment even more important. With the homeless population exploding, the need for meals and shelter has never been more urgent. “In New York, the number of millionaires and homeless people is increasing in the same proportions,” laments Bernard.
Bernard is not just keeping an eye on his time, he’s also interested in the fundraising figures (nearly $90,000 at the time of this writing). “Although there will certainly be fewer spectators, it will be an extraordinary moment, as always. The marathon is a moment of communion with all New Yorkers,” he says. “When you run, you’re carried by the crowd. And when you do it for a cause, you are carried even more.”
Accueil New York (ANY) will also be on the starting line. This year, twelve members of the Flamingos, the association’s sports club, will participate in the event in their traditional pink t-shirts. Only one of them has already run the New York City Marathon. The entire ANY community has rolled up its sleeves for the occasion: a sophrologist for mental preparation, a sports coach for training, an osteopath for injuries and a yoga teacher for conditioning. Thirty volunteers have also been recruited to hydrate and encourage the runners along the route, which is dreaded for its bumpy streets and its right angles, in particular. “It’s a collective and community adventure,” says Karine Andrieu, the general secretary of ANY, who supervised the athletes’ diet.
The Flamingos decided to mobilize to help children with cancer after the nephew of one of the runners was diagnosed. Their objective is to raise 10,000 euros for the Lyon-based association APPEL (Association Philanthropique de Parents d’Enfants atteints de Leucémie ou autres cancers). “This cause unites our group. When we feel a slump during the hardest training sessions, we hold on because we remember that we are committed,” explains Sophie Quéré, one of the runners. “Compared to what these children go through, a marathon is not much”.
After four months of training, Anne Ricard, another Flamingo, can’t wait to run. “We are happy to be twelve in all on the starting line,” she says. “And at the same time, we can’t wait for it to end. We can finally eat what we want!”
All the French runners will be received at the French Consulate on November 10 to celebrate their performance.
Karine Jones is already thinking about the next marathon. “I promised to run 20 marathons for Fred’s Team. I’ll do it,” she says. “When you finish one, you feel like you can overcome anything, like you have ten times the strength. I wish everyone the same experience.”
Translated from the original French article on French Morning, for Frenchly.