Volume 76, Number 10 | July 26 - August 1, 2006


Paul and Cassie Nelson crossing the finish line together in the Fin del Mundo Marathon in Patagonia, Argentina, in 2005.

Around the world in seven marathons, at the least

By Judith Stiles

When Paul Nelson took up long-distance running in his 20s, he envisioned a life of bucolic runs along the West Side Highway and some challenging marathons through city streets. In his wildest dreams, he did not imagine that one day he would be running away from an elephant on a dirt path in Kenya. But that’s just what he recently did, and his speed and agility luckily came in handy.

Being able to sprint served Nelson well in that chase, during a safari marathon at the 62,000-acre Lewa Wildlife Conservancy in Kenya, which is the home to 77 black and white rhinos, zebra, giraffe, lions, leopards, cheetahs and elephants. Looking back on the adventure, Nelson believed he was well prepared for a 26.2-mile run through the wilderness, with loads of sunscreen, a hat, as well as “fuel belts” packed with powerbars and water bottles, strapped to his waist. The course was patrolled by a spotter plane and helicopter coupled with armed rangers who were on the lookout for four-legged runners who might not be so friendly. Even the locals occasionally ran alongside Nelson to make sure he didn’t have problems with the altitude and intense heat.

While cruising the preserve on foot with a handful of fellow runners, Nelson looked up and in the distance, he saw a cranky elephant charging toward them. The marathoners literally ran for their lives and hopped in the nearest jeep, which left the elephant behind in a cloud of dust, huffing and puffing. This little misadventure did not stop Nelson from thoroughly enjoying the scenery during the two-loop course through the preserve, as he successfully completed the 26.2-mile run.

While many consider long-distance running a solitary and sometimes lonesome sport, in the last decade, running clubs and group tours have popped up all over the world, changing “The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner” (the 1960s movie starring Tom Courtenay) into a full-blown, group activity.

Nelson actually met his wife while running a marathon, and points out that while training in pairs, some of his closest friendships have formed over sweaty conversations that have no time for normal niceties. In the 2002 New York City Marathon, running with an injured knee, Nelson hobbled to the finish line and afterwards, in the medical tent, he got down on his good knee and proposed to his girlfriend, Cassie. Gallantly whipping out the diamond engagement ring that he had carried through the race in a pouch on his belt, he proposed in front of many of his fellow runners. Cassie happily said yes, and they embarked on married life with a common passion for running.

Together the couple are now working on completing marathons on the seven continents through group trips organized by marathontour.com. Their training routine consists of running three times a week, sometimes with their dogs, Chloe and Zoe.

“Zoe is 9 years old and a great runner,” says Nelson with a broad smile. “The first day usually is an 11-mile run, and then second we do a speed workout, usually on a track. The third part is a 4-to-6-mile run just for fun, “ he adds. Nelson, at age 36, could easily pass for 25, and his secret to health seems to be doing exactly what he loves, running, and of course his favorite chicken parmesan sandwich from Gino’s at least once a week.

Sitting in his office on E. 16th St. where he works as director of constituent services for Assemblymember Sylvia Friedman, Nelson speaks eagerly of preparing for the New York City Marathon in November, as he tries to describe why he is so hooked on running.

“People talk about runner’s high and I know what they are talking about, but it is hard to describe in a simple way,” he muses. “In some races, things are not clicking and I am struggling and not engaged in the run. But at other times, I feel at ease, and I am breathing regularly, feeling every footstep. It is a kind of euphoria,” he adds. When things are not clicking, to try and find his rhythm, Nelson has a little trick where he pretends he is counting rosary beads with his fingers. The repetition and the focus on counting is helpful when trying to get back on track.

Since they have run in South America, Antarctica and Africa, what’s next for the Nelsons? Their in-laws and relatives think all this running is rather crazy, and they have been nudging the couple to hang up their running shoes and “start a family.” But Paul and Cassie have other plans, and right now they are aiming for a trip to Asia, maybe China, in order to continue with their goal of doing marathons in seven continents. By now, Nelson is quite versed in fending off inquiries about the debut of youngsters in the Nelson clan. With a little wink, he adds that he hopes Chloe and Zoe can fill the shoes of Nelson progeny for just a little while longer, which admittedly might be harder than digging to China.

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