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Marathoner takes running, teaching ‘to the extreme’ — 7 times over

Marathoner and teacher Cara Nelson gets a send-off

Marathoner and teacher Cara Nelson gets a send-off at East Hampton Middle School on Thursday, Jan. 18, 2018. Credit: Gordon M. Grant

Cara Nelson laughs as she describes the herculean task before her. Seven marathons. In seven days. On seven continents.

“This is taking marathon running to the extreme,” said the seventh-grade social studies teacher at East Hampton Middle School.

The Smithtown native is doing it to test herself and to raise money for charity. And she’s doing it for the kids at her school.

They’ll be with her all along the way — interactively, that is. Nelson plans on periodically posting live videos while she is running — including lesson plans for the students — and the kids can post their responses.

“I’ll literally be taking my kids on a trip around the world, without them having to pack a bag,” she said.

Nelson, 31, is competing in the World Marathon Challenge, a globe-trotting race designed to test a person’s physical endurance, mental fortitude and, she admits, sanity.

Having already run four marathons, Nelson knows it will be grueling. She’ll be running 183 miles from Jan. 30 to Feb. 5 with little more than a night’s sleep between each race.

She’s not sure how her body will react. But when she hits the wall of exhaustion — and she knows she will — she’ll be pushing through it for the kids, not wanting to let them down.

East Hampton Middle School has transformed Nelson’s wild ride into a king-size teaching moment. Social studies classes are studying the cultures of each of the seven race locations. Math students are calculating Nelson’s pace per mile. Science students are charting the effects of different elevations on her performance.

Principal Charles Soriano said the kids are excited and determined.

“They’ve eaten it up,” Soriano said. “It’s so important for kids to have hands-on, mind-on activities.”

On Thursday, the entire school gathered for an assembly in the gymnasium to wish her well. Pupils sat at tables festooned with international flags and sampled foods from the seven continents. The chorus sang “Heal the World.”

Nelson sees a life lesson here for the kids.

“You don’t have to be the strongest or fastest or smartest to do great things,” she said. “As long as you work hard and believe in yourself, you can do anything.”

Her husband will follow her exploits from their apartment in Moriches. For the past 18 months, Chris Hotzak has watched his wife wake up at 4 a.m. to go running.

He knows she loves to push the envelope, if not shred it. Her regular days are filled with teaching and coaching the debate team as well as girls soccer, basketball and lacrosse.

“She has the mental game of any great competitor,” Hotzak said. “Everything she does she’s been successful at. I have no doubt she will succeed at this — as crazy and hard as it is.”

The marathon challenge brings together three of Nelson’s passions: running, travel and charity.

She’s part of a team of 16 runners aiming to raise $2 million for various causes, including fighting cancer, Parkinson’s disease and Lou Gehrig’s disease. Donations can be made online:

The World Marathon Challenge began in 2015 and has grown from 12 participants to 54 this year, said the event’s founder and race director, Richard Donovan. It attracts a variety of competitors, including top marathon runners, special forces soldiers and people with disabilities.

Most people who start the race end up finishing, Donovan said.

“It’s obviously a lifetime experience, and people draw on all kinds of inner strength to finish, no matter how much their body tells them to stop,” he said.

The cost to compete is about $35,000, but the entire costs for the team were covered by an anonymous sponsor, team captain David Samson said, so all the money raised on the team’s website will go to charities.

The race, perhaps the mother of all marathons, begins in Novolazarevskaya Station, also known as Novo, in Antarctica, where the temperature is expected to be about 14 degrees and the winds cut through you like cold steel.

When Nelson finishes that, she will remove her waterproof, Gore-Tex-lined running shoes and hop on a jet chartered by the race organizers with some 50 other runners. She’ll squeeze in some sleep and then slip into lighter sneakers for the course in Cape Town, South Africa. She’ll have only nine hours from the finish of one race to the start of the next.

From there, it’s off to Perth, Australia; Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Lisbon, Portugal; Cartagena, Colombia; and finally Miami.

When Nelson first heard about the big race, she didn’t think it was physically possible.

Now she’s thinking about the finish line, that one in Miami where it all ends.

She sees herself struggling to make the final strides, and raising her exhausted arms in victory.

Then she’ll listen to the applause online from the kids back home.

Parkinson’s disease won’t keep man from epic challenge

When Bret Parker packs his luggage for the World Marathon Challenge, he’ll include some pretty unusual provisions: medicines to manage his Parkinson’s disease.

Running in the World Marathon Challenge is a huge athletic achievement by any standard, but the race that features seven marathons in seven days on seven continents is especially demanding for Parker, who is fighting the degenerative disease of the nervous system.

Parker, 49, was diagnosed 11 years ago, and he’s learned his symptoms can worsen when he’s stressed and fatigued. He fully expects that will occur during the race. He’s seen it during training runs. His right arm and leg stiffens up, making it tougher to get along.

The worst, though, is when his feet cramp up.

“That’s a little painful,” Parker said.

Parkinson’s is perhaps most identified as the malady afflicting actor Michael J. Fox. The disease gradually causes more and more stiffness and involuntary movements such as jerking and swaying.

Participating in the race that begins Jan. 30 is Parker’s way to battle the disease, to never let it limit him.

Parker sums up his battle philosophy in three words: Do epic stuff. So far, the man who divides his time between Sag Harbor and Manhattan has sky-dived and finished a triathlon, practically coughing up a lung during the swimming competition.

When the World Marathon Challenge came on his radar, Parker, the executive director of the New York City Bar Association, knew he had to track it down.

The race has no qualifying criteria, and Parker along with some other participants don’t approach it as a competition with anyone but themselves. His goal is simply to finish it and cross off another line on the bucket list.

As monumental as this challenge is to him, Parker sees it as a step in his far larger race against time. There is no cure for Parkinson’s. People don’t die from it, they die with it, he noted.

He’s more fortunate than many who have had the disease for a decade. When his medicine kicks in, he said, you’d hardly notice his symptoms.

“If you sit next to me, you might not see a thing,” he said. “But if there’s stress and fatigue involved, or if my medicine is wearing off, I get tremors in my right hand, stiffness on my right side and cramps in my feet.”

His training has already led him to two neurologists, a chiropractor, two physical therapists and a massage therapist.

Moreover, he knows that someday this disease may well get the best of him, and that his window of opportunity to run in this event is narrowing.

For now, he’s raised $160,000 that will go to the Michael J. Fox Foundation. And he’s still got something to prove.

“I’m not blind to the fact that I have this disease,” Parker said. “But I don’t have to let it control how I live.”

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