The Journey of My First Marathon, NYC 2009 - Hebrew Union College - Jewish Institute of Religion
Skip to main content

The Journey of My First Marathon, NYC 2009

Main Content
Monday, November 30, 2009

Matt Soffer, N’ 10

All 10 of us "Running Rabbis" finished successfully, and we surpassed our goal of $30,000 together (by more than $10k).  Together with the help of our supporters, this effort helped send 40 kids with serious illnesses to Hole in the Wall Gang summer camp, filling their lives with all of the unique blessings that come with having a wonderful summer camp experience Below is a reflection of my journey throughout the marathon.  Contributions were matched by the Kavod Tzedakah Collective (, enabling donations to go twice the distance." Thanks go to all those who were a part of my every step, and joined hands with me to make a difference in so many lives.

The marathon started in Staten Island, at 10:20am, on November 1, 2009.  In fact, the race began much earlier.  In my Gmail inbox, I have a folder designated for all of my running-related emails.  I created it in 2006, when I set my sight on the NYC marathon, and an injury caused me to drop out of training.  Despite this major disappointment, I have spent the last three years stuffing all of my running-related emails in this same folder, called “Marathon.”  It’s been a long road between then and now.

Truth be told, there were several moments during the run when I wasn’t entirely sure if finishing was a “done deal.”  Along with two of my fellow seminarians, Neil Hirsch and David Frommer, I ran with confidence and elation.  But throughout the run, there was a looming uncertainty: the mystery of the final 6.2 miles.  After all, my training program, like most, only took me to mile 20—that was the longest run I had done.  When I finished 20 miles a few weeks ago, I said to myself, “6 more miles?  Really?”  Really. 

Throughout the 26.2 miles, many such questions arose, along with no shortage of euphemistically “interesting” problems and anxieties.  Throughout most of the run, in the back of my mind, I worried how I’d feel at mile 21.  Will my body hold up?  I suppose these are “first marathoner” worries.  There were other rookie problems, as well.  For instance, I mismanaged my food consumption prior to the race, underestimating the amount of food I needed to eat, from the time we woke up, at 4:45am to the moment I started running, at 10:20.  That’s more than 5 hours, and I should have eaten more than a bagel and a banana.  I felt utterly empty, and as I ran through Park Slope I’d be lying if I said I didn’t pray that some spectator would be handing out bananas to runner.  Lo and behold, two mini-miracles struck:  First, at around mile 12, an angelic spectator in Greenpoint, Brooklyn handed me an orange slice; the second was at mile 14 in Long Island City, when another angel - this time a child - was practicing her reading on my shirt said, “Go Matt, you can do it!”  Had she only done that – dayeinu - it would have been enough; but when her mother then handed me a granola bar, I felt doubly blessed.  

In fact, that nourishment may have saved my run; it gave me the energy I needed to get through the allegedly endless Queensboro/59th st. bridge, which I knew was just a few miles away.  I’d heard this described as the toughest part of the run (obviously, they had never hit mile 23?).  Thanks to the angel - strangers along the way, it was a piece of cake - or granola for that matter.

In the attached photo, taken by my brother Geoff, you’ll see me coming off the bridge. My running mentors had advised me on how psychological running is.  This was proven true every time I saw or heard Nicole, my parents, Geoff, my brother-in-law Joaquin, or surprise friends along the way: in these moments, all the obstacles - the worries, doubts, and even the physical pains -completely disappeared.  I saw them and they rejuvenated me.  Well, that is, for about 10 seconds.  Then back to the run. 

I continued following the mind-over-body creed.  At miles 15-20, I drew on a mental-game that I read once in Runner’s World: to see the run as a 20-mile warm-up, a nice-and-easy jog to a 6.2 mile run.  The 20-mile warm-up was simply awesome. The noise was out of control (a bit too much, at times - note to self, for the next choice of marathon), and the sheer energy and enthusiasm from complete strangers was unlike anything I had ever experienced in a city that hitherto I hyperbolically declared to be the most impersonal population center on earth. 

And then the unknown - the real starting point - mile 20 hit.  In fact, I cannot say much about this.  At this point, my running buddies and I lost each other - we each dug deep and could no longer socialize.  I don’t know how I got through it; perhaps, as one advisor told me, I just let the crowd carry me.  Somehow my feet kept moving (even though it felt like I left my knee joints at mile 18), and before I knew it I saw Nicole jumping up at down at mile 25.  Then my parents.  And the rest is a blur.  I saw from a distance the mile 26 marker.  A few tears - perhaps jealous of my sweat beads - made their way up and out.  I remembered the starting point, in 2006; the injury, the disappointment; the journey along the way, which as my friends and family know has been long, painful, joyful, and blessed. 

After 4 hours and 37 minutes later, I crossed the finish line.  In fact, I’m sure the marathon continues. As one wisely put, “Oh, the best part is going up stairs the next day!”  In the meantime, I’ll stuff this reflection in my folder called “Marathon,” and, grateful to all of my family and friends who have supported me along the way, I’ll savor these moments, taking a little bit of pride in having completed my first marathon.

Founded in 1875, Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion is North America's leading institution of higher Jewish education and the academic, spiritual, and professional leadership development center of Reform Judaism. HUC-JIR educates leaders to serve North American and world Jewry as rabbis, cantors, educators, and nonprofit management professionals, and offers graduate programs to scholars and clergy of all faiths. With centers of learning in Cincinnati, Jerusalem, Los Angeles, and New York, HUC-JIR's scholarly resources comprise the renowned Klau Library, The Jacob Rader Marcus Center of the American Jewish Archives, museums, research institutes and centers, and academic publications. In partnership with the Union for Reform Judaism and the Central Conference of American Rabbis, HUC-JIR sustains the Reform Movement's congregations and professional and lay leaders. HUC-JIR's campuses invite the community to cultural and educational programs illuminating Jewish heritage and fostering interfaith and multiethnic understanding.