It's the first new marathon being held on Long Island in nearly 10 years; the first new one west of the Hamptons in 42 years. It's got the publicity-generating, road-closing clout of Suffolk County behind it, not to mention the fact that it's being run to benefit a worthy cause -- local veterans charities.
But perhaps what's most interesting about the Sept. 13 Suffolk County Marathon and Half Marathon are the runners.
"We're getting a much better cross-section of the overall Long Island community than we would have 40 years ago," said Mike Polansky, president of the Greater Long Island Running Club, which is organizing the event for the county. "The average person didn't do a marathon in those days."
Where are these "not average" runners coming from?
"Women are driving the growth of 'The Second Running Boom,' " said road race consultant and researcher Ryan Lamppa, of Santa Barbara, California. "And the new runner, regardless of gender, is much more interested in completion than competition."
The Suffolk County Marathon reflects these developments, which also include the increasing popularity of the half-marathon distance, participation in which has grown 40 percent in the past five years, according to Running USA, a nonprofit organization that tracks trends in the sport in an annual participation survey. As of Aug. 13, there were 818 runners registered in the Suffolk County full marathon (26.2 miles) and 1,645 for the half (13.1 miles).
While training for and running these distances takes dedication, the people who will be lining up for the start at Heckscher State Park in East Islip are not elite athletes. For them, the new marathon is part of a journey of positive self-transformation, ranging from overcoming health obstacles to handling stress to supporting veteran-inspired causes.
Debbi Hole, 52, East Islip
When her oncologist said to exercise, Hole did as instructed after that 2011 medical appointment.
"I left her office, went to Lucille Roberts in Bay Shore and signed up right then and there" at the women's gym, she recalled.
Hole had been diagnosed with Stage 3 breast cancer in May 2010. "At that time, I weighed 210 pounds," said Hole, a single mother of four. "I was completely inactive."
A year later, following doctor's orders, she joined the gym. There, she walked on the treadmill, trained on the elliptical machine, took boot-camp classes and, along with a healthier diet of "more veggies, less meat and potatoes," ended up dropping 55 pounds on top of the 25 she lost during chemotherapy.
In 2012, a group of friends from the gym persuaded Hole to join them for a 5-kilometer (3.1 miles) run-walk in Manhattan to raise money for cancer research. While most of the friends walked, Hole ran, and found that she enjoyed it. Soon, she had connected with a local group that runs hilly courses in Selden and was training seriously.
Still, she resisted the idea of running 26.2 miles. "I didn't think I wanted to put myself through that," she said. But when she accompanied some of her new running friends to a marathon last October in Corning, New York, she was inspired watching the finishers in the back of the pack. "They didn't look like they were going to die," Hole said. "I started saying to myself, 'If they can do this, I can do this.' "
After returning to Long Island, Hole read about the new Suffolk County Marathon and told her friends they should all sign up.
Almost a year later, she feels ready to go. But more important, with her treatments over, Hole can see and feel that her new lifestyle is paying off. "I'm healthy as a horse right now."
Torsten Gross, 36, Manhattan
Exhausted but enthused. Pushed to his limits, but excited by the prospect of new challenges to be met and mastered. When Gross finished the Achilles Hope & Possibility 5-Miler in Central Park in June 2014, he experienced a mix of seemingly contradictory sensations.
"I could hardly move, I could hardly breathe," he recalled. "But I thought it was the best thing I'd ever done."
Gross' mixed feelings are not uncommon among first-time runners. The difference is that the Hofstra alumnus is not competing on two feet. He is a quadriplegic and has compromised arm and hand function. Gross describes himself as a "wheel runner" -- an athlete who competes on a handcycle, a racing wheelchair where the operator pushes on modified pedals with his or her hands.
Athletes with disabilities have long been an inspiring part of the marathon scene. Indeed, the wheelchair division in larger marathons is often highly competitive. But as a "second running boomer," Gross is less concerned with proficiency than participation.
"I'm insanely competitive in business," said Gross, who graduated from Hofstra in 2002 with a communications degree and now runs his own ad agency in Manhattan. "But in marathons, I'm just competing against myself."
Gross -- whose wife, Maggie, is a marathon runner and triathlete -- grew up in New York and Germany and was paralyzed in a swimming accident when he was 15. He is used to challenges and has set an ambitious goal for himself: He is hoping to complete a dozen marathons in 12 months to raise money for Achilles International, an organization that supports athletes with disabilities. Suffolk is number six on the list (including the Long Island Marathon, which began in the 1970s, and the Hamptons Marathon, scheduled for Sept. 26).
"Hey, it's not bad considering that a little over a year ago I could barely do 5 miles," he said.
Simonette Rivera, 50, Central Islip
While training for the Suffolk County Half Marathon, Rivera has to remember how to breathe. To do that, she relies on lessons she learned in 1987 as a young Army recruit in boot camp at Fort Dix, New Jersey.
"In the military, part of the cadence calling is designed to do that," said Rivera, who served six years in the Army. "You have to breathe in to sing, and it keeps you in rhythm. And it helps to motivate you."
During a training run with a friend for the half marathon, she started singing.
"I did the cadences with a friend of mine, and because she's nonmilitary she felt a little strange," Rivera recalled. "She said, 'You're being weird.' I said, 'This is how we run in the Army!' And she got into it."
When prompted, Rivera sings a foot-tapping rendition of one of the call-and-response cadences her drill sergeant used nearly 30 years ago:
"1, 2, 3, 4,
Hey, gimme some, gimme some, gimme some more . . .
Every time I say hey, hey, all the way.
Hey all the way, we run every day."
These days, Rivera -- a native of Trinidad -- doesn't run every day (few recreational runners do, to avoid injuries). Like many others in the "second running boom," she also enjoys other forms of exercise. Her activity of choice is Zumba, a popular form of dance aerobics. Rivera is now an instructor and teaches classes at a local studio.
But as she trains for the September race, her first 13.1-miler in six years, she uses the rhythms of her military training to get her closer to her goal.
Rivera joined the Army Reserves when her enlistment ended. In 1996, her unit was deployed to Bosnia. By then, she said, "I had changed from payroll to military police. I wanted something more challenging, and I got it."
Rivera now works as a hydrologic technician, helping to test and analyze water samples for the U.S. Geological Survey. When she heard about the Suffolk County Marathon and its focus on veterans causes, it seemed like a natural fit. "I feel pride in my background as a veteran all the time," she said. "But you show it by doing things like this."
Mitchell Rich, 60, Merrick
Long hours at work. A brutal commute. A stressful, sedentary lifestyle.
Rich, an attorney at a Manhattan law firm, had had enough.
He weighed 250 pounds and had been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes. In 2006, he decided to leave his job and start his own practice on Long Island.
Along with it, he relaunched his life.
"I decided I would use two of three hours that were being killed each day by commuting to get in shape," Rich said.
He joined a gym and did more than an hour of cardio daily. Most of it was on the elliptical machine.
"I thought running was boring," Rich said. Over about 10 months, he shed 75 pounds.
In 2008, he saw a flier at his gym advertising a local 5-kilometer race and signed up. "I do it, and I'm really intrigued by it," he recalled. "I said, 'They have one of these races every week.' "
Suddenly, running didn't seem so boring. And before long, Rich was racing up a storm, building up his distances and lowering his finishing times. He did the Long Island Half Marathon in May 2011, and the following year ran the Long Island full marathon. "It took me six hours, but I finished it," he said.
Rich said he hopes to complete the Suffolk race, which will be his fifth full marathon, in about five hours. But the numbers most important to him are his A-1C -- a measurement of his blood sugar over a two- to three-month period. His, he said, are now excellent. As is his outlook on life.
"When I was in Manhattan, I was so overweight my dream was to retire early and go vegetate somewhere," he said. "Now, I'm in a position where I'm aggressively looking to expand my firm. If I do retire, my plan would be to have more time to train for triathlons."
Melissa Pandolf, 41, Patchogue
Master sergeant in the Air National Guard Reserve; mother of four; author. Given all these responsibilities, it's no surprise that Pandolf said she started running to relieve stress.
That was three years ago, and since then Pandolf has completed nine half marathons. Suffolk would be her 10th.
"As a native Long Islander, a runner and a veteran, it would be silly for me not to be involved in this race in one way or another," Pandolf said.
And she's not running solo: The 22-year military veteran will take to the course with her father, Joe Harbin, a former Marine who lives in Huntington. This will be his first half marathon. "My goal is to cross the finish line with him," Pandolf said.
They'll see some familiar faces along the way: Melissa's husband, Doug; her brother, Matt Harbin; and a family friend (and U.S. Navy vet) Harry Foy are also running. In addition, all four of Melissa's children, ages 11-15, are signed up to volunteer at water stops along the way.
Various siblings and in-laws will be cheering them on.
Race day coordination -- getting everyone to their assigned places at the start or along the course -- is Pandolf's responsibility. "I'm pretty organized, with all that military training," she said. "And I outrank them all, so they know they have to listen to me."
Joi Jackson-Perle, Wainscott, 54
What sparked Jackson-Perle's interest in running six years ago was the annual five-borough spectacle on the first Sunday of November.
"I would watch the New York City Marathon on TV," she said. "And then just one year, it was like, 'I'm going to start running.' I was just inspired by that."
What elevated her training beyond a bucket-list effort, however, was something that characterizes many of today's marathoners: a worthy cause.
In her case, the cause of a 19-year-old she never met.
Many runners today do their marathons as part of fundraising or awareness-building efforts for various charities. Jackson-Perle's is Jordan Haerter, a Marine from Sag Harbor who was killed in action in Iraq in 2008.
Haerter and a comrade who also died stopped a suicide bomber in a truck from killing many more.
Haerter's mother, JoAnn Lyles, saw that Jackson-Perle had registered for the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. It was going to be her first marathon. When Lyles invited her to run as part of the nonprofit -- In Jordan's Honor -- she founded in 2010 in memory of her only son, Jackson-Perle was deeply moved.
"I have one son, too," Jackson-Perle said. "I can't even fathom it. [Haerter] was only 19."
As a member of Team Jordan, Jackson-Perle is one of about 10 runners who compete in honor of the fallen young Marine, and to raise money for a scholarship in his name at Sag Harbor's Pierson High School. At other races, like the Marine Corps Marathon, the number running in Haerter's memory is considerably larger.
With its emphasis on veterans, the Suffolk Marathon seemed a perfect race for the team to compete in.
"We're trying to bring awareness and tell his story through events like this," Jackson-Perle said. "We would love to see him get the Medal of Honor."
Jackson-Perle will likely run the Suffolk half marathon on Sept. 13, as she is planning to participate in the Marine Corps Marathon on Oct. 25. Even her training has been affected by the young man she never met.
"Sometimes on a long run, I'll run to his grave in Sag Harbor," she said. "It's about a 12-mile round-trip from my house. I'll stop and pay my respects. I think about him a lot."