Run With A Purpose: Causes, Fitness, Competition Among Motivators For Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon Runners Sunday

The reasons why they do it are as numerous and diverse as the thousands of runners who will line up at Monmouth Park on Sunday to compete in the Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon, produced by Life Time –The Healthy Way of Life Company. From personal stories of overcoming diseases, to selfless supporting of a cause close to their hearts, to fitness or just plain wanting to run, competitors in the Marathon, Long Branch Half Marathon, Half Marathon Relay and ShapingNJ 5K at Monmouth Park shared some of their motivations as they prepared to hit the pavement at the Jersey Shore next weekend.

Several athletes discussed their stories tinged in tragedy but with messages of hope. Scott Fleming, 46, of Florham Park, is the captain of the Friendly Runners’ “Return of the Elvii” team. A runner and triathlete since 2003, Fleming has competed in more than 30 marathons and triathlons, some – including the New Jersey Marathon – dressed up as Elvis along with friends. Fleming was diagnosed in June with a motor neuron disease called Progressive Muscular Atrophy, similar to ALS.

Though his marathon days are coming to a close, Fleming has asked his friends to join him to celebrate as he uses this event as his “Retirement Run.” The Elvis-themed running party will include his friends pushing him along through the race on a specially fitted wheelchair. Fleming is using the opportunity to raise almost $9,000 and counting for the Les Turner ALS Foundation, an organization he learned about through the courageous story of N.J. native Denise DiMarzo, stricken with ALS, and her husband Chris Benyo.

Karen DeBernardis, 40, of Scotch Plains won’t be able to compete in the Long Branch Half Marathon this year as planned. Triple Negative Breast Cancer (TNBC) unfortunately changed her plans, but her three friends who have remained close since high school, Irene Bentley, Jennifer Burkhardt and Lory Karakashian, will be carrying her attitude and spirit over the 13.1 miles. DeBernardis started running in June 2011, pushing along her young twins in a stroller. Chemotherapy and surgery to attack the aggressive cancer will keep her off the road next week but her positive attitude serves as an inspiration to all.

When her close friend committed suicide in January at age 19, Heather Ford, also 19, of Andover, decided that she would not have died in vain. Heather has raised over $30,000 for the American Society for Suicide Prevention in her friend Madison Holleran‘s name, in the hope that it will help others suffering from mental illness.

For Susan Williams of Maplewood, the occasion of her impending 50th birthday in December inspired an idea. The middle school language arts teacher wasn’t an avid runner, but decided to sign up for 50 half-marathons, one per month, in each state, to celebrate her own half-century. She and her husband Ben began with a race in Pennsylvania, and next week’s home-state N.J. Marathon will mark their fifth in as many months. Williams has vacations and family reunions planned around the quest.

Some are running to support or honor others, like Mickel Evangelista, 35, of the Philippines, who recently lost his father, who had been helping his town recover from the devastation of Typhoon Haiyan. “Today I run for Philippines and my dad,” said Evangelista. Sally Cohen Stilwell lost her husband to cancer shortly after they married, and was inspired by a co-worker to do a mile at first; next Sunday will mark her fifth marathon, “filling [her] quota for passion and … therapy.” It will be the first half-marathon for Betsy Cerulo, whose two brothers died of sudden heart attacks at the ages of 59 and 62, respectively, in recent years. Though she moved away from N.J. a quarter-century ago, she still calls the Jersey Shore home.

Many run for fitness, or “because they can,” or as a family activity, or for myriad other reasons. Catherine Rogers, 24, of Long Branch, began running because it is a passion of her father’s, and is something they can do together. Joseph Fluhr, 40, of Hawley, Pa., says he didn’t like “the chubby 213 pound guy who ate trash and lifted only a pencil for exercise,” committing to a program that got him on the road, off bad foods and down to a trim weight of 148. East Newark’s Anna Yudichak, 26, has a similar story, once weighing in at 230 pounds, running a little bit more each time until the miles added up and 80 of the pounds came off. Shannon Petitjean says she lost 196 pounds and quit smoking after 23 years, with the familiar refrain of starting with a mile and never looking back. Amelia Gapin shared that at first she ran to get into shape, but found that the self-confidence the sport produced in her helped in her transition as a transgender woman.

“There are as many reasons for running the Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon as there are runners,” said Joe Gigas, Race Director. “I like to say, ‘If you want to be a runner, run!’ These people embody that spirit, and we appreciate the inspiring stories shared by some of our competitors. We hope they continue to spread the word of what this sport can do and are proud that New Jersey’s official marathon brings them all together.”

The 18th Annual Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon headlines a full three days celebrating health and fitness. The Health & Fitness Expo on Friday and Saturday, April 25 and 26, competitive Long Branch Half Marathon, Half Marathon Relay and new ShapingNJ 5k races are among the highlight events.

This month’s race marks the first time the event is produced by Life Time, which recently acquired US Road Sports. The race begins inside Monmouth Park in Oceanport and finishes on the Long Branch Oceanfront Promenade, north of Pier Village. Wheelchair athletes start at 6:45 a.m. for the half-marathon and 8 a.m. for the full marathon, followed in waves by the rest of the corrals.

Registration for all events, course views, information about volunteering, sponsorship and details of the entire weekend of activities are available at the race Web site at and the event Facebook page at Runners and fans are encouraged to follow the Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon on Twitter @NJMarathon.

In addition to the elite athletes in the Novo Nordisk New Jersey Marathon, seasoned runners, beginning runners, athletes with disabilities and walkers are all invited to participate.

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