Women Beating Amazing Odds In The New York Marathon
Meet some of the inspiring women running in the New York Marathon.
Noor Abukaram was disqualified from a high school cross-country race in 2019 in her home state of Ohio for wearing a hijab. She took her case all the way up to the governor and spurred legislative action so other athletes wouldn’t be discriminated against based on their religious apparel.
Abukaram will run alongside an ICU nurse who teaches yoga, a Brooklyn cross-country coach who overcame an eating disorder and tens of thousands of runners in the TCS New York City Marathon.
After two years of pandemic-induced restrictions, the 26.2-mile race will be back in full force when 50,000 runners traverse the five boroughs on Sunday, Nov. 6. Here, some of the female runners shared their stories and what inspires them.
Her Story: Carla Drumbeater joined the Army at 18. By the time she completed basic training, she was able to run 10 miles. But over time, she stopped running and became an insulin dependent diabetic. Now she lives in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, and is an ICU respiratory therapist—a grueling career that took a toll on her as she saw many patients die from Covid. In order to manage her grief, Drumbeater joined Native Strength Revolution, an organization that teaches Indigenous people how to live healthy lives. In January 2021, she was invited to learn yoga and became certified as an instructor, teaching other Indigenous members of her Minnesota community as well as fellow healthcare workers. Through yoga, meditation and a more active lifestyle, Drumbeater lost 50 pounds. Training for the marathon has helped this 50 year old continue to lose weight and reverse her diabetes.
What Inspires Her: “This is my first time running a marathon. I decided to run it to challenge myself and improve my health. I also want to be an example for others to get healthier and [prove] that it is not too late,” says Drumbeater. “I also wanted to raise money for Native Strength Revolution, which has kept my mind and body strong throughout the pandemic. I want to teach other Indigenous people yoga and spread light and love.”
Her Story: Growing up, Ayumi Nagano ran cross-country and track to help boost her confidence as an Asian American who was frequently bullied because of her race. However, she continued to struggle with her image. Never feeling good enough took a toll. As Nagano fell out of love with running, struggles like a 10-year eating disorder, depression and a drug addiction crept in. Now, 10 years sober and a teacher and cross-country coach at a Brooklyn high school, Nagano has fallen back in love with running. Watching the passion, work ethic and dedication of the kids she coaches motivated Ayumi to finally sign up for a 10K race, 12 years after she last hung up her running shoes. With a “never give up” attitude, she’s now ready to take on the New York City Marathon, and is proud to represent Asians and people of color.
What Inspires Her: “Being an Asian female meant that I faced a lot of stereotypes. A lot was assumed about me—that I was unathletic, quiet, subservient,” says Nagano. “I wish I had an Asian face in athletics to look up to when I was growing up. One to show me that I, too, belonged to be out there on the race course. This is my first-ever marathon, and I feel truly honored and excited to be able to tour through my home via the New York City Marathon. To me, the New York City Marathon is so many things. It’s putting another Asian female face on the race course for the spectators to see. It’s screaming back at the little voice that says ‘I can’t’—that I can. It’s showing my gratitude to running for being there for me when I struggled. It’s a dedication to all of the runners on my team who inspired me. Will it be hard? Yes. But will it be worth it? Hell, yes.”
Her Story: In 2019, Noor Abukaram’s story captivated the country when she was disqualified from a high school cross-country race in her home state of Ohio for wearing a hijab. Initially feeling humiliated after the disqualification, Noor decided to share her story, and was overwhelmed by the outpouring of support she received. She started a campaign, Let Noor Run, which advocates for equality for all athletes across sports, and spearheaded legislative action in Ohio. Senate Bill 181, which was signed into law in early 2022 by Governor Mike DeWine, prohibits schools and athletic conferences from adopting rules that ban religious apparel in extracurricular activities, including sports. Her next challenge is to run her first NYC marathon. She’ll be lacing up her sneakers alongside her parents, who motivated her to start running in the first place. Noor’s mother, Yolanda, is one of her biggest inspirations and role models. Together, they want to show the world that Muslim women are strong, capable athletes who can be the face of the sports industry. Noor hopes to encourage more Muslim women to participate in sports and remove as many barriers to entry as possible. One of the ways she’s working toward this is her Donate a Hijab campaign, which pairs donated athletic hijabs with young female Muslim athletes in need. Her ultimate goal is to make sports an inclusive environment where athletes can show up as themselves, wear what they want and not feel ostracized, as she once did.
What Inspires Her: “The idea of running through a city with so much diversity and history is so special to me. My grandparents immigrated to New York City in 1969 from Egypt. Running in the city where they saw so much promise and opportunity, not just for themselves but also for their children,” says Abukaram. “I can’t help but to feel a connection to their dreams as I prepare to run in NYC.”
Marva Joseph and Marie Young
Their story: After a chance encounter in 2015 at a Brooklyn gym, Joseph and Young decided to become volunteer Run Captains at the newly launched NYRR Open Run site at Canarsie Park. Neither considered themselves runners before joining Open Run, but they quickly fell in love with the community, camaraderie and physical, mental and emotional health benefits of running. Joseph and Young decided to sign up for the 2018 New York City Marathon together, and the pair has run the New York City Marathon every year since. They’re even on a quest to complete all six Abbott World Marathon Majors together, side by side. Known as the “Canarsie Duo,” they’re in lockstep, doing their training and traveling together and continuously supporting one another.
What Inspires Them: “We volunteered together at the 2017 TCS New York City Marathon, and were inspired by the display of humanity, with people from all walks of life coming together to run 26.2 miles, so we decided to train for the 2018 marathon,” says Joseph. “It means quite a lot for us since we are 50+ years young and only began running in 2016. It’s a lifestyle change that satisfies us mentally, physically and emotionally. Running has changed how we nourish our bodies. We can do whatever we put our minds to if we don’t put limitations on ourselves.”
Her story: At 68, Passle Helminski from Erie, Pennsylvania, is hoping for closure during her first-ever marathon. Her New York City Marathon debut was originally scheduled for 1993. In July of that year, during the training and buildup to the marathon, Helminski was assaulted. The CAT scan led doctors to believe that there was no way she would survive the injuries, which included carotid dissections, a brain injury and crushed hands. After two weeks in the hospital, she went back home and started doing physical therapy on her own. She worked with a speech therapist to regain her speech, which took almost two years. Her neurologist has said the only reason she survived was because she had been in such good physical condition, thanks to training for the marathon. In 2018, Helminski completed her first 5K and is now training for her first marathon with Achilles International. Now, 29 years later, Helminski will finally make it to the New York City Marathon starting line to prove that her life wasn’t ruined or defined by a traumatic experience.
What Inspires Her: “In my Achilles International USA Chapter meetings, I learned they would help their members do races. That’s when I knew I had a chance to do the New York City Marathon and come full circle. The Foreseeable Future Foundation gave me a grant to do the New York City Marathon,” Helminski says. “I am a cheerleader for people with disabilities, empowering them to be positive while they achieve their goals.”
Her story: Natalie Edmondson is a 1997 graduate of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, where school shooter Nikolas Cruz murdered 17 people, including the school’s football coach and an athletic director, in 2018. Immediately after the tragedy, Edmondson and other MSD alumni began to mobilize and pool resources. They quickly raised $10,000 for the school and lent their support to March For Our Lives, a youth-led movement that demands bold action to end the gun violence epidemic in America. With three children of her own, Edmondson worried about the readiness of her own local schools in St. John’s, Florida, to confront a similar attack. When her resources and information were repeatedly dismissed by local authorities, Edmondson decided to channel all her energy inward to take better care of herself. At 282 pounds, she started a 6-month bariatric program and found that she was able to release her emotions from the school shooting through exercise. Edmondson began to feel better as she learned how to road cycle and swim. In the process, Edmondson lost 130 pounds and is set to run the New York City Marathon for her charity partner, Sandy Hook Promise, so that kids can be safe in school.
What Inspires Her: “I chose the New York City Marathon as my first, and likely only, marathon because it symbolizes what I continuously seek: hope, perseverance, strength and community,” Edmondson says. “By running for Sandy Hook Promise, I’m hoping to contribute funds to their free peer-led programming for schools, give our kids tools to help themselves, inspire change and honor the lives of both the twenty-six teachers and students murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary and the 17 teachers and students murdered at my alma mater.”
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