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If you ask most people how long it takes to run a marathon, they’ll probably say something between 3-6 hours. Indeed, most marathons actually have a cut-off point. Anyone finishing after that time isn’t an official finisher. But, that doesn’t mean there aren’t still athletes out there, even after the water stations have been packed up and the roads have been reopened to traffic, the final finishers – as they’ve come to be known – are still running.

Janelle Hartman didn’t believe she could finish a marathon, no matter how long she had. That is, until she witnessed one of the final finishers herself. It was Monday night and the 2013 New York City Marathon had started on Sunday morning. “We were in the volunteer party… somebody says, ‘let’s do after the finish line, Zoey is finishing,’” Janelle recalled. After the finish line is when the volunteers go back to the finish in Central Park, long after the barriers and arches have been taken down, to show support for the runners who refused to quit.

“[The last person to finish] had been out like 30 something hours,” Janelle said. “I was, wow, it isn’t just 100% about people being fast. I think that’s what was stuck in my head. Zoey did it. She came in the next day. The next day!”

Janelle had been a regular volunteer with New York Road Runners as part of their 9 + 1 program, which guarantees a NYC Marathon place to anyone who completes nine NYRR events and volunteers at one but she’d never really thought seriously about taking up her entry. “Every year that I would complete 9+1 I was like, ‘Yeah I’m gonna volunteer.’ It wasn’t until this last year that I got that gnawing feeling that, ‘You’re 55, maybe if you’re gonna do it this would be the time.”

“I always waited to lose a huge amount of weight and I think that’s a thing that comes to everybody. Where we say, ‘All right, I will do something, but I need to do this first.’ And I said, ‘All right, I have to accept the fact that I will run this heavy, overweight’… that was probably one of the hardest things to accept. I think people wanna see, ‘So and so lost a hundred and something pounds and now [he or she] is running a marathon.’”

But Janelle wasn’t going to wait any longer, she was ready to start training. She joined the Galloway Group to find training partners. “I just went out with the Galloway Group, and I realized I met people who were slow. I met people who would do it and were the final finishers. My running partner is 72.”

Finding fellow final finishers to train with helped, but it was the confidence of the entire running community, both on and off the course, that gave Janelle the boost she needed. “I don’t know how to even express what people did for me, and also in believing in me before I had even entered… There’s so many people that are just so fast and they’re so kind and nice and incredible… and they encourage other people,” says Janelle.

“There’s nobody out there yelling, ‘You can’t do it.’ They’re yelling, ‘You can do it.'”

While most competitors at the NYC Marathon experience large crowds of cheering spectators all along the course, interspersed with brief stretches of silence as they cross the famous bridges, for those behind the official cut off, it’s almost like any other day in New York. Rather than cheering spectators Janelle ran nearly all of her race accompanied by the everyday hubbub of New York City.

But that made the end all the more magnificent, “My finish was probably a lot louder than most of their finishes. That’s the interesting thing. They got a lot of cheering throughout. I got my cheer at the end.”

As Janelle made her way towards Central Park all the people who had believed in her were there to carry her home, “I had to go along the sidewalk up First Avenue and then about 20, 25 people met me at 90th street from November Project,” remembers Janelle. “They played music, we sang – all my requests of course because I was a diva! By then I was like, ‘I have to have this, I have to have that.’”

“By the time I got to Columbus Circle, it was just a mob scene. It was an absolute mob scene. There were people that were waiting for me, just for me,” recounts Janelle. “They formed a cheer tunnel. Probably it was a good block long cheer tunnel – it was really long. It felt like hours, but it wasn’t, time just slows down.”

Janelle crossed the finish line, hand in hand with race director Peter Ciaccia, in ten hours and 57 minutes. She was a marathoner. Even if she still couldn’t quite believe it. “I still have trouble owning it […] Even though I look at that medal everyday and I know that I did it.”

Is she proud of her accomplishment? “I think it’s the opposite. In a weird way I feel glad I did it, but I’m very humbled by it. There’s stories about me and people go, oh I saw your finish but I’m thinking, it’s like watching paint dry I’m so slow. It’s like watching a really slow car go by.”

“I know what running looks like, but I also know what I look like when I run. There are videos of me plodding along, but I try to have fun doing it […] It’s easier for me to cheer for people that I see like myself than it is to actually cheer for myself and it’s in a weird way,” explains Janelle.

“I’m so grateful. I think the word is more grateful … The word pride makes me scared. Is that weird? I’m just so grateful that people were a part of my dream because it took others. It took so many others for me to get there.”

A regular volunteer at races, Janelle gives back as much as she receives. “Some days you’re the star and some days you’re the one washing the dishes,” laughs Janelle. “You know what gift you’re giving to other people when you volunteer or when you are on the course ‘cause you know what it’s making possible for them, and it’s something really special. You know that by you giving that time, at some point it will come back. They’ll come back and pay it back and you’ll be able to do something that you didn’t think was possible.”

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