BY CHAYIM TAUBER
In one corner, Hurricane Sandy; a natural disaster the likes of which New York has never seen, which has left nothing but chaos and destruction in its wake. In the other corner, a 4’10 mother of four from Rockland County.
Rachel Katz decided roughly a year ago that she was going to run in the New York City Marathon. “It’s kind of my personality,” Katz said. “If someone says I can’t do something, I like to show them that I can.”
Katz, a science teacher at Ramapo High School, spent the better part of the last year training. She, as were most marathoners, on a strict running schedule and diet. Rain or shine, she took to the streets and pushed herself to physical feats her body had never before endured. It was before she ever even started running however, that she encountered her first obstacle.
“I wanted to do the marathon but I knew that I couldn’t get in (without going through Road Runners or a lottery) so I thought about Team Lifeline.”
Chai Lifeline is an organization that’s been in existence since 1987. It’s a Jewish organization whose mission is to improve the lives of children with severe illness. “What they do is amazing,” said Katz. “They’re not a cancer research center, they’re about making the lives of children with cancer normal and making sure their families have as normal a lives as possible. They’re making the cancer the side point, not the focus of their lives.”
In her own words, Rachel “begged them” to take her on their team and just like that, she was a proud member of Team Lifeline.
Rockland County endured a sustained assault from Hurricane Sandy for the better part of 24 hours and the devastation she left in her wake was evident. Over 65,000 households in Rockland County were left without power. Homes and cars were ruined, trees were strewn all over, and several lives were lost.
Hurricane Sandy also forced the eventual cancellation of the 2012 New York City Marathon to the consternation of the would-be marathoners.
“I got a phone call about six minutes before the Sabbath (Friday night)…and I was devastated. I burst into tears, I was devastated,” Katz said. “I felt like all my hard work was going down the toilet. I wanted to run to prove something to myself, to my kids, and to my students and now I wasn’t going to be able to do that.”
Though she avoided any major damage to her home and escaped any storm-related injuries to herself or her family, Rachel was at home with her family for five days without power which served as a major deterrent to what had been a strictly regimented diet and running schedule. Still, Rachel considers herself lucky considering the devastation Sandy caused and agrees with the decision to cancel the marathon. She admits that her initial reaction was a “selfish” one.
It was over the Sabbath that her husband (who himself, served as an emergency rescue worker at the World Trade Center on 9/11) proposed to a melancholy Rachel Katz that she run her own marathon. It was that night, after the Sabbath had ended that they began charting a course and working out the logistics for Rachel to run the first ever “Monsey Marathon.”
“Does it matter that it’s not in New York City? I wanted to prove to myself and my kids that if you put your mind to (something), you can do it and New York City wasn’t gonna stop me. It’s not about where it happens, it’s about running the distance,” Katz said.
26.2 miles-the same distance that she had set out to run a year earlier. The course Rachel and her husband had laid out for her was a grueling one that required Rachel run through Wesley Hills, Pomona, Monsey, and parts of New Jersey. At 7:35 Sunday morning, she took off.
At the very beginning she had a couple of well-wishers and then….nothing. Not a single supporter or well-wisher until mile 14, nearly halfway through the marathon. That, said Katz, was the first point at which she doubted herself.
Mile after mile of wreckage presented itself as a track and each mile she ran was met with indifference and silence. Not having a friendly face in sight nor a friendly voice in range wore on Rachel with each passing step as the doubts and invalidation started to creep into her head.
“The first few miles – ok, it’s 7:30 in the morning when I started – but when I got to (Jersey) and I didn’t see anyone, you start thinking ‘Does anyone care? Why am I doing this?’ and you remind yourself, ‘I’m doing this for myself my kids and my students’.”
It was just past the halfway mark that Rachel’s spirits were lifted by the sight of her husband, her mother, and children proudly displaying Chai Lifeline paraphernalia and cheering loudly for their hero. Her spirits were furtherer buoyed as her father, fellow runners, friends, and associates honked and shouted encouragement. Some went as far as to jog along and keep her company for small stretches of the race. Most offered water.
Though the communal support sounds trivial, it was anything but. No one closed the roads for Rachel Katz’s one-woman marathon. There was no crowd of runners to encourage her and assuage the loneliness a single runner endures. There were no throngs of people encouraging and offering water at every turn. It was the lack of support at points in the race that was the biggest threat to Rachel’s completion of the marathon.
“I didn’t (hit the wall),” Rachel said. “Not physically anyways. If hitting the wall means mentally, means wanting to give up then I hit the wall with about three miles to go.”
Roughly four hours and 54 minutes after she began her adventure, Rachel’s silhouette appeared on the corner of her block framed against the wreckage of the ghost of hurricane Sandy.
“She ran her first marathon, alone….and she was basically running through a nightmare. To keep that up through the cold and wind….It was an inspirational morning for all those who knew her. She motivated us to get up and do great things,” said Rich Marinelli, Rachel’s Tae Kwon Do master.
Mile after lonely mile through devastation and darkened houses ended in triumph as an exhausted Rachel Katz crossed a home-made finish line into the arms of her beaming family and the cheering of 50 supporters. Rachel not only defied expectations placed upon a woman of her diminutive stature, and defied Hurricane Sandy and Mayor Bloomberg but she also raised over $5,000 for Chai Lifeline and proved that perseverance and an indomitable spirit can conquer any obstacle and lift a community.
You can still contribute to Rachel’s cause at http://www.teamlifeline.org/mypage.php?myid=58228.