Teacher Tours The World on the Run

Exhaustion enabled her to sleep on the plane
Cara Nelson sports her seven marathon medals won in seven days on seven continents. Jack Graves

On her return from running seven marathons on seven continents in seven days — yes, you read it correctly — Cara Nelson’s East Hampton Middle School social studies students, who had been in touch with her throughout, expanded upon all the things she might have missed during the World Marathon Challenge tour.

Nelson and her fellow participants’ agon raised money, she said during a conversation at The Star this week, for 11 charities — the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson’s Research, the Boys & Girls Clubs of America, Stand Up to Cancer, the Challenged Athletes Foundation, and the ALS Association among them.

Though athletic — she played soccer and ran track at Smithtown High School, and club soccer and ice hockey in college — Nelson said she hadn’t run a marathon until learning, a little over a year ago, that she’d be a part of the World Marathon Challenge team.

“There were 50 of us, from all over the globe, and 49 finished.” Testimony to the group’s grit and persistence. In fact, she said, the importance of persevering in life had been a theme she’d emphasized in her social studies classes this year.

“We flew into Cape Town and then on to the Novo Research Station in Antarctica. It was summer there, with 24 hours of sunlight, and it wasn’t as cold as you’d think — 30 degrees at the start and 5, figuring in the wind chill, at the end. We did six loops around a runway, though the terrain, with the snow and ice, was much more difficult than we’d expected. I wore trail shoes — every step was exhausting. I felt at the end as if I’d hiked up a mountain rather than run a marathon.”

Back in Cape Town, nine hours after crossing the Antarctic finish line, the group was afoot again, “along the beautiful Sea Point Promenade, overlooking the Atlantic Ocean . . . waves were crashing on the boardwalk . . . people were cheering us. That was our biggest temperature swing, from 5 degrees Fahrenheit to 75, with the African sun beating down. I drank lots and lots of water, but it was . . . ‘ironic’ isn’t quite the right word . . . I felt bad in a way because there’s been a drought there and I was hydrating, hydrating.”

The footing was better in Cape Town, and “it was a flat, fast course, which was reassuring for me, because I felt that if I could do two marathons back to back I’d be able to make it through all of them.”

Asked if people back home, family members and friends and such, had thought she was crazy, Nelson, who also coaches East Hampton High’s girls varsity soccer team and the middle school’s girls lacrosse and eighth-grade girls basketball teams, laughed. “Oh yes, everybody thought I was crazy. They wanted to know if it was humanly possible, logistically possible. . . . The only time you could sleep was on a plane, and I’ve always been an anxious flier. I never have been able to sleep on planes — until now! I’m over my fear of flying. I was so exhausted that I’d go right to sleep.”

From Cape Town the group was flown to Perth, Australia — the first of three marathons run in darkness. “It was a 12-hour flight. We got off the plane, went through customs, checked into our hotel, and departed for the course. The race began at 9:30 p.m. and I finished at 2 a.m. I wore a headlamp for five hours. Part of the course was lit, though other parts weren’t, which is a little nerve-racking if you’re a woman and running alone, which I was at times. They ran it in a park in downtown Perth. Eight loops.”

“People’s bodies began breaking down at that point. Some people had blisters all over their feet, some had knee injuries which made them walk a lot more than they ordinarily would have. . . . But there was no self-doubt. We were focused, taking it one mile, one race at a time. You’d wonder in getting off the plane how you could run a marathon. But then you’d get to the starting line and your mind would take over — telling you to forget about the pain and tackle the race. That’s what got me to the finish line, even though I was hurting.”

Dubai, the next stop, was almost surreal given its blatant opulence and shrouded social mores, she said. There really hadn’t been any time to take it all in. 

“I’ll probably go back to some of these places some day,” Nelson said in answer to a question. “And spend more than eight hours and not run a marathon.”

A big blister was obscuring one of her toenails after the Dubai marathon, reducing her, she said, to tears. “Our doctor lanced it, and I put Moleskin on it, and bandaged it, and kept on running. I got lucky, I recovered quickly.”

It had rained about an hour before the marathon began in Lisbon — the group’s fifth stop — rendering the cobblestones slippery. “It was definitely one of our harder terrains . . . flat, but uneven. We ran, again it was at night, in the Park of the Nations.”

Then on to Cartagena, Colombia. “This [night] marathon was interesting, to say the least. It wasn’t mapped out well. Runners were being directed this way and that. I knew something was wrong when the guy who always finished second came up behind us and asked how come we were ahead of him. I was starting to panic. I only had 26.2 miles in me. It all worked out in the end — we were told to stop when our GPS watches said we should. We were literally dodging horses and carriages and food trucks that were being pushed. . . .”

Fourteen family members, including her husband, Chris, were waiting for her in Miami, “our final destination. . . . My dad, who got me into running when I was a kid, my husband, my brother and his wife, and uncles and cousins all had flown down for the home stretch. It was very beautiful. My dad and brother ran five miles with me, Chris did as well. It was the most he’d ever run. We all had a party afterward at our hotel.”

It was, in the end, Nelson said, “all about persevering, about overcoming obstacles. I’m not an elite athlete — I’ve never been the strongest or the fastest. This was a challenge, not a race. Yet it was something that was mentally and physically very taxing.”

Her seventh-grade students, who had run marathon relays in the middle school’s halls before she left, had followed her all the way. It had been a virtual classroom, Nelson said. She had Skyped with them a number of times, she had blogged, and posed questions. 

“I had no time to explore. But they did. They gave me presentations on these countries’ geography, cultures, and economies when I got back. I got to learn from them.” 

And, presumably, they learned something of fortitude from her.

She returned on Feb. 5, and two days later was back in school. That weekend she ran a 7-mile race in Bay Shore, at the end of which she thought, “I’ve got 19 miles to go.”