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Marathon Women

by Mike Cohen with Tom Kertes

Why would a Ph. D candidate, a Columbia University sophomore, and a math teacher at Columbia Prep all run 26.2 miles without the faintest chance for glory? “In New York, unless you run in the marathon, don’t even bother running,” says Mary Beth Mullen, the math teacher. Who, incidentally, completed the distance in 3:21:44, finishing an amazing 160th among all women.

Fact is, neither Mullen, nor Allyson Hentel (the Ph.D.), or Columbia soph Sara Elzas were going to be headed for the finish line ahead of Tegla Loroupe or winner Franca Fiacchoni in the Big Apple's world famous marathon on Nov. 1. But, like most of the other 29,000 non-elite runners, this terrific trio ran for personal satisfaction and the sheer joy of conquering a superhuman challenge in front of their friends. “I really wanted to go faster than I ever have before, especially in front of my family,” says Mullen. “I just wanted to know I can run so far,” Elzas adds. “I needed to resolve my middle-age crisis,” says 26 year-old Hentel. “And get back in shape.”

Mullen and Elzas, competitive runners during their academic careers, were already in shape. On the other hand (foot?), Hentel, a confirmed non-athlete, “was always the last one picked for the team.” Worse, Allyson was “listed as questionable" as late as mid- August after suffering a stress fracture during training. “But I toughed it out,” she says.

The more experienced Mullen managed to navigate her way near the elite runners while waiting for the start of the race, while Hentel and Elzas were nervously anticipating their first marathon amidst the milling masses. “This is not a place to be claustrophobic,” says Elzas. “There are so many people right on top of you, you could really freak out.” The wall. All marathoners fear of running into the psychological barrier around the 18 to 20 mile point, but Mary Beth and Allyson never ran into it. The excitement of the day, the crowds, the blimps and helicopters, the presence of Mayor Giuliani and all the celebrities and the experience of seeing all the New York neighborhoods made them forget the pain. “It was a great way to experience the city and see all five boroughs,” says Mullen. Adds Hentel, “It felt unreal. I felt really aggressive, the crowd was really urging me on. My last three miles were the fastest, I was so inspired.”

Sara, though, began to feel pain at the half way point. “But then in Queens, my support team gave me oranges and you begin to forget. Then at mile 22 I really started to hurt and slowed down. At the finish line I was crying.” Both from happiness and pain.

Elzas, 18, an Anthropology major and a reporter at this paper, had her entire family up from California for the big event. “It was like a reunion,” she says. “I was a big hero.” Hentel, already a practicing therapist, and math teacher Mullen also find running one big party. “It's therapeutic,” Hentel says, “it gives me private time to think.” “After work, it changes my mind set,” adds Mullen.

To say the least. Mary Beth met her boyfriend at the prerace pasta party for last year’s New York marathon. This year, they ran together in the big race. Really, the New York marathon can be a life- changing event. For the three women, all at various stages of their lives, the marathon meant something different. Yet, they all came away with a feeling of great accomplishment - and a desire to do it again. “The New York marathon is so cool, there are so many different people, it has the most first-time runners,” says Elzas. “It’s such a supportive event. It brings out the best out of people, the best out of the city.”

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