Returning to her classroom of students Wednesday, teacher Cara Nelson wore the pink, black and white running shoes that took her through seven marathons on seven continents over the past week.
She also wore a big smile as she watched hand after hand go up from students wanting to know more about her amazing adventure.
Two days after completing the fundraising World Marathon Challenge, the lean, energetic teacher returned to her East Hampton Middle School seventh-graders, bringing with her a lesson plan born of determination, sweat and tears.
Throughout her globe-trotting excursion, the social studies teacher brought her students along, thanks to her posts on social media. She assigned them work before, during and after each race.
On Wednesday, it paid off.
Nicole Velez, 12, asked about the race in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, which Nelson completed on Friday.
Nelson explained that, out of respect for the culture there, she made sure to compete in clothing that covered her elbows and knees.
Aryan Chugh asked about the food along the way, especially on the plane.
“Was it edible?” he said.
“Typical plane fare,” she responded. She was hoping for more pasta because it has carbs for energy. Nonetheless, the plane ride was just about her only chance to eat, “so I ate as much as I could.”
The students, most of them about 12 years old, reveled in her stories about running 26.2 miles through the tundra of Antarctica, only to have her water bottle freeze up.
They laughed when she talked about the blisters she suffered in Dubai. And they couldn’t hear enough about her encounter with penguins in South Africa.
The entire class period was driven by questions from the kids.
As she spoke, Nelson stood in front of a poster of Nelson Mandela, the anti-apartheid leader who was imprisoned for decades and went on to become president of South Africa. But that poster came to life as she talked about a separate tour that took her by Mandela’s jail cell.
She also spoke with a worker who had been imprisoned there. “He said he had a criminal record, so he couldn’t get a job elsewhere,” Nelson said. “So every day he had to come to the place where he had been a prisoner for seven years.”
Despite recently running 183 miles and finishing with the fourth-best time among the 13 female participants, Nelson, 31, a native of Smithtown who lives in Moriches, looked no worse for wear. In fact, she was considering a run Wednesday night but had to coach a girls’ basketball team.
More hands went up.
Summer Angel, sitting in the back of Room 208, hardly lowered her hand during the class, asking question after question, including: How did the man with Parkinson’s disease do?
That made Nelson nearly cry.
Bret Parker, who lives part time in Sag Harbor, ran the weeklong race despite being diagnosed a decade ago with Parkinson’s.
Nelson called him a “beacon of inspiration” for all of the 50 runners who competed.
“He’s never let this disease define him,” she told the kids. “You can dream big. You can do what you want, even if you have Parkinson’s.”
Parker, for his part, shies away from such descriptions. For him, the event — which took the runners to Antarctica, South Africa, Australia, Dubai, Portugal, Colombia, and finally Miami on Monday — was an epic, life-affirming experience.
In an interview with Newsday, he credited the other runners with helping him keep going. One race, in Lisbon, took him nine hours to complete. He acknowledged he walked much of the way in several races, as well as “hobbled and limped.”
“The harder things got for all of us,” Parker said, “the more they encouraged me.”
Back in the classroom Wednesday, Nelson finished her first period and welcomed a new class of youngsters coming in. Some hugged her; a few let out a cheer.
Then they all sat down.
And the hands went up.
Marathon race times for Cara Nelson
- Jan. 30: Novo, Antarctica — 4:50:15.
- Jan. 31: Cape Town, South Africa — 4:41:49.
- Feb. 1: Perth, Australia — 4:48:50.
- Feb. 2: Dubai, United Arab Emirates — 4:50:16.
- Feb. 3: Lisbon, Portugal — 4:47:38.
- Feb. 4: Cartagena, Colombia — 4:46:44.
- Feb. 5: Miami — 4:37:23.