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November 29, 2023

By Kristen Perrone, Communications Manager

The New York City Marathon is one of the greatest traditions for runners, spectators, and citizens of all ages. Taking place on the first Sunday in November, thousands of runners descend upon the New York City concrete to attempt the ultimate physical feat of completing a marathon. Among these people are runners at various stages of athletic journeys, and at the Ethical Culture Fieldston School, two faculty members are examples of committing to this simultaneously mental and physical challenge.

Fieldston Upper Language Department Chair Melanie Cooper-Leary has run 15 marathons, counting New York City, Paris, and Los Angeles among the courses she has conquered. Her marathon experience began in 1990, when she ran her first course in New York City. “I had watched the race the year before and decided I wanted to do it the following year,” Cooper-Leary shares. 

Cooper-Leary has enjoyed personal highs on marathon courses — including qualifying for the 1993 Boston Marathon with her fastest time and running the Liverpool Half Marathon while listening to the Beatles’ “Penny Lane” — as well as challenges such as finishing the Yonkers Half Marathon with a sprained ankle. However, her stamina, positive mentality, and resiliency has helped her complete each race.

“You never know what you may accomplish if you’re willing to be disciplined and work hard,” she says. “If something goes wrong, even after putting in all of the training, you have still accomplished an incredible feat in which the process is just as important as the outcome!”

Ethical Culture Fieldston School faculty with marathon medal
Cooper-Leary after completing the 2023 Paris Marathon

Although she didn’t participate in New York’s 2023 race, Cooper-Leary ran the last eight miles with her cousin, helping her hydrate and encouraging her along the way. Her son, Jesse Cooper-Leary ’19, also followed them, continuing a family love of running that shows no signs of stopping. 

“I love that my family runs too and that we can go to races together!” she says. “My son Jesse has been running 5Ks since he was four years old and told me that he is inspired to run the New York City Marathon in 2024! Also, I love to be competitive. I am not a competitive runner anymore, but the beauty of running is you can always compete against yourself and other runners around you.”

The marathon is also an aspiration for first-time runners. Eric Gilley, Fieldston Middle and Fieldston Upper Music Teacher and Band Director, only began running two years ago with the goal of doing the New York City Marathon. Having not identified as athletic when he was younger, Gilley says, “I have watched the marathon for years, and after the pandemic, I dedicated myself to getting healthy. I lost 100 pounds and needed an activity to keep the weight off. I had a friend suggest I try running out a few years ago. I downloaded an app and started the next day.”

One of Gilley’s biggest challenges throughout his training was learning to balance physical and mental hurdles. “There are moments where my body feels great but my mind tells me to give in,” he says. “Pushing past this helps me keep calm in daily situations. After each run, I have a clearer head and don’t feel overwhelmed by things out of my control.” 

Ethical Culture Fieldston School faculty with marathon medal
Gilley after completing the 2023 New York City Marathon

This November, Gilley completed his first New York City Marathon in about five and a half hours, fueled by spectators’ support across the five boroughs as well as his run team’s encouragement at Mile 23. “Cheering has been fun but having someone cheer you on was amazing!” he says. “Having a positive energy source to support during tough times made me realize how more people are on my side than against me. Don’t be afraid to ask for help.”

For a student, the academic year may feel like its own kind of marathon. But when it comes to healthily challenging yourself, Cooper-Leary and Gilley’s advice applies in and out of the classroom, no matter where one is in their journey. 

“You can do it!” Cooper-Leary says. “Finishing a marathon requires discipline and training. I truly believe that anyone can finish a marathon.”

“We have had discussions about planning and achieving goals,” Gilley says about his students. “Sometimes goals are a stretch and they take planning and dedication. We start with short-term goals that lead to mid-range goals that lead to the final goal. While we look forward to accomplishing what we set out to do, it is important to enjoy the journey. Watching ourselves grow is important. The work is the true accomplishment.”