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Fighting to the finish line: Aquebogue teacher races in Boston Marathon

The mental challenge of completing a marathon, all 26.2 miles, can be as daunting as the physical, especially for amateurs.

As Katy Pettit began the Boston Marathon April 15 — her dream race she had tried five years to earn entry into — she dedicated the first mile to her mother, who suffers from Alzheimer’s. The second mile was dedicated to a few former students who have died. Each successive mile, she would race the 5,280 feet in honor of a different person. As the pain intensified for the 51-year-old, she would focus on the person to whom she had dedicated that mile. And she thought about all her students back at Aquebogue Elementary School who were tracking her results and rooting for her.

“It really makes a difference,” she said. “You can get in your own head and it’s not a good thing when you’re out there. You can talk yourself right out of it.”

Had it not been the Boston Marathon — which dates back more than 120 years and coincides with Patriots’ Day — Ms. Pettit never would have even started the race due to a lingering hip injury. She had trained for the last New York City Marathon but couldn’t complete the race. Not wanting to disappoint her friend who was also racing, she began the marathon, walked a bit and then skipped ahead to the finish line to wait for her friend to finish.

No physical limitation, however, was going to stop her from running — and completing — Boston.

Even in ideal conditions, the race was going to present an extraordinary challenge. Then the weather took a turn for the worse, with heavy wind and rain. It then became hot before switching back to rain. 

“I had every weather condition there could be out there,” she said.

And at mile 14, she was accidentally tripped and fell, further hurting her hip. She fought through the next two miles before facing a large hill, a staple of the course. She struggled to continue running and realized she needed to walk. She did so for the remainder of the course, ultimately finishing in 7 hours and 12 minutes.

She never allowed herself to become disappointed. Her husband offered to come get her when she fell. She told him there was no way she would quit.

“I do not know how those last 10 miles got done,” she said. “Sheer determination. I’m proud of the fact I didn’t quit.”

Her time was about 25 minutes ahead of pace when she fell, she said. She had been doing so well, in fact, her husband had texted her saying to slow down. Her plan was to start off conservatively and preserve energy for the hills later in the course.

Aquebogue Elementary School students participated in a kickoff assembly for teacher Katy Pettit prior to the Boston Marathon. (Credit: Riverhead Central School District)

Back in Aquebogue, her elementary students were tracking her pace on a laptop to see who could come closest to guessing her finish time. They even got a chance to Facetime during the race.

“They were like, ‘Did you get to Heartbreak Hill yet?’ she said. “They studied the whole course and they were so into it. It was fun for them.”

At a schoolwide assembly April 3, students learned about the course and put in their estimated times for the chance to win prizes donated by the school’s PTA and the charity for which Ms. Pettit was running. A third-grade student whom she had previously taught ended up winning the contest.

Past the halfway point of the race, Ms. Pettit’s phone began to buzz with texts from concerned friends. It appeared she had stopped running. The online tracker showed her no longer moving.

Ms. Pettit said as a storm was moving in, the marathon staff began to pull up the timing mats throughout the rest of the course.

“The kids really thought I had gotten to mile 18,” she said. “I never went into it thinking that I would run well there. My goal was just to finish and finish healthy.”

To earn a spot in the Boston Marathon, Ms. Pettit had to apply to a charity. She had tried four previous times and ended up on waitlists. This year, she applied for Team Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a charity started by Paul Newman. It started off as a camp for children suffering from severe illnesses and has grown from there, Ms. Pettit said. She raised $8,500.

Ms. Pettit, who lives in Rocky Point and has taught in the Riverhead district for 25 years, said she was a runner dating back to high school, but had actually been a sprinter. Her high school coach, she said, had always wanted her to run distance, but she never went for it.

She continued running later in life and her jump into marathons began after her son Kyle suffered a critical brain injury following a car accident. He had to learn so many life basics again like how to walk. It was a frustrating process.

That frustration he faced inspired her to tackle something challenging herself. She told him how running a marathon scared her.

“He goes, ‘Do it, ma!’ ” she said.

Her son is now 27 and is doing “fantastic.” Her daughter, Michaela, is 24.

After finishing last week’s race, Ms. Pettit didn’t have too much time to celebrate. She had to get back to work the next day.

“I hobbled in and everyone was like, ‘What are you doing here?’ ” she said with a laugh.

The kids in the foyer were chanting for her.

“The whole school was phenomenal about the support,” she said. “My colleagues supported everything I did. My principal, my assistant principal, they were all amazing.”

She won’t take too much time off from running now. Already this weekend, she’ll be back running a 15K. She’ll also run the Long Island Half Marathon next month.

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