Running for a cause: Brooklynites tackle New York City Marathon for ‘something bigger than themselves’

marathon runners on street with team inspire
Prospect Heights resident Claire Gelbart (right) and her friend Rahsaan Thomas ran this year’s marathon with “Team Inspire.”
Photo courtesy of Claire Gelbart

For one group of 26 runners, this year’s TCS New York City Marathon was much more than a day of grueling running. Instead it was the measure of true grit, determination, and proving that they can do the impossible.

The runners were part of “Team Inspire,” a group of dedicated runners from around the world who ran the 26.2 mile course while shouldering the weight of both personal and social causes, raising awareness and funds along the way.

Chosen for their individual convictions and passions, the 2023 Team Inspire consisted of runners from all walks of life: new mothers, LGBTQ+ activists, war veterans, and everything in between. That group included several dedicated Brooklynites — including Prospect Heights resident Claire Gelbart and her friend Rahsaan Thomas. 

marathon runners
The 26 members of “Team Inspire” each ran for a cause. File photo by Dean Moses

Thomas, who was recently released from serving 23 years at San Quentin State Prison in California, met Gelbart while incarcerated, and the two bonded over their shared love of running and journalism. Together, they ran with Team Inspire to bring awareness for Thomas’s nonprofit Empowerment Avenue, which aims to provide resources for incarcerated writers and artists.

When Thomas was released from San Quentin in February of this year, he and Gelbart aimed to complete the marathon to celebrate his new found freedom. 

“Getting to be a part of Team Inspire was such a special experience. People often talk about their ‘why’ in running — what motivates them during the early workouts and the grueling long runs — but each person on Team Inspire was motivated by something bigger than themselves,” said Gelbart. “I was honored to be among such a devoted and uplifting group, each of whom was running for something so meaningful.”

Together, Thomas and Gelbart made their way through the five boroughs and crossed the finish line after six hours, 26 minutes and 22 seconds. They raised more than $10,000 for Empowerment Avenue.

“Running with Rahsaan completely exceeded all my expectations,” said Gelbart. “I spent most of the race just watching him because it brought me such joy to see him smiling and taking in all the love from the crowd that day. He is someone I care about and admire so deeply, and to see so many friends and strangers come out to celebrate and support him is something I will cherish forever. 

Thomas said he felt honored to be a part of Team Inspire and that the opportunity made him feel motivated and excited for the future.

“If you can complete a marathon, it shows you have the grit to handle anything life throws at you,” said Thomas. “It’s just a metaphor for life. You prove to yourself that you can do anything because it’s tough. It takes a certain mental toughness.”

Mental toughness is exactly what was required of 42-year-old — of Park Slope, who ran the New York Marathon to raise awareness for Black maternal care. 

A new mother herself, Quartey-Sagaille spent the nine months of her pregnancy gripped by the fear that she would become one of the thousands of Black women and women of color who experience complications during childbirth. 

However, after the birth of her son last year, Quartey-Sagaille challenged herself to run the New York Marathon to demonstrate to herself and others the strength of mothers and women of color like herself.

Quartey-Sagaille had wanted to run the New York Marathon since her original race was canceled due to the coronavirus pandemic in 2020 — so the 2023 race was even more special. She told Brooklyn Paper she often prepared for the Marathon day by running late at night while her baby was asleep.

“I didn’t think my story would be picked up, to be honest, because there were many other people’s stories,” she said. “But I’m proud to be with all of these amazing men and women who have really remarkable inspiring stories that you know, you can help bring awareness and inspiration to other people because, you know, completing a marathon is something that is amazing in itself.”

Motherhood is a shared source of motivation between Quartey-Sagaille and fellow runner Mandy Kwan.

Kwan, an immigrant from Hong Kong who now lives in Marine Park, said she was inspired to run due to her mom’s dedication to running as well as her own experience with motherhood.

woman poses with marathon bib
Mandy Kwan was inspired by her own mother to start running. Photo courtesy of Mandy Kwan

She is a home-school mom and shares her passion for running with her mom and children, who often participate in the New York Road Runners Open Runs in their native Marine Park together.

“It was so eye opening to see just an event as simple as running to bring so many people together; young, old, male female, all genders, and people from across the political spectrum. I was really excited,” said Kwan.

On race day, Kwan completed her run in five hours and 40 minutes and shared that she felt emotional when she reached mile 24 which, until that point, was the farthest she had ever run.

“I feel like when you’re running, it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other. And sometimes I feel like doing small, little things can lead to a great goal. It was just a summary or the total sum of me taking one foot in front of the other,” she said.