Man with Thalassemia Major Runs NYC Marathon

December 15, 2011 – Every year, the world famous New York City Marathon attracts more than 45,000 runners – and this year, one of those runners was Ben Li, a man with beta thalassemia major.
Ben, competing in the NYC Marathon for the first time, finishing the 26.2 miles in under 5 hours. This is an impressive accomplishment, especially considering that this was Ben’s first running race of any length.

CAF spoke with Ben recently about his experience.

CAF: So this was your first race ever?

Ben: That’s right. Most people thought I was crazy not to try a shorter race first, but
it made me more determined to prove them wrong.
I do participate in other sports, such as basketball. I love being active. In terms of running, I was never a runner and more of a speed walker than runner. I love walking everywhere. I would usually rather walk a mile than take a subway.

How did you decide to try the NYC Marathon this year?

At first I was hesitant to do the marathon because I had doubts about whether or not my knees could handle it. I love basketball and play a few times a week, and go skiing too – which are probably the two most knee damaging activities there are. Plus, the thalassemia could have affected my stamina for it.

So there were a number of reasons for me not to do it. But I didn’t want to use any of them as an excuse not to at least try. I don’t want to have any regrets in life, and I love to push myself to see what my limit is. I felt strongly that I could do it. I figured 8 hours (the official course time limit) is more than enough time for me to finish a marathon.

I decided to apply for the NYC Marathon 2011 right before the application deadline. I had a few friends applying too, so I figured we would all run it together. This was in late March, and I found out at the end of April that I was the only one selected out of all my friends.

What was involved in training for the NYC Marathon?

I had runner friends who would give me advice and tips on running. Once I found out that I was selected to run this year, I did a lot of research online and created my own training schedule based on what I learned. I had 5 months to train for it. Mostly I trained alone during the runs, since I ran at night.
I started running on the treadmill and barely made it to 4 miles during the first attempt. I ran 3-4 times a week. By the end of the month, I was way ahead of my training schedule. I ran up to 13 miles on the treadmill with no music before I ran outside – that took a lot of mental focus, with no music! Once I start running outside, it was so easy. Time flew by compared to the treadmill.
Most of my training runs were along the west side of Manhattan. Toward the end of my training, I would start from Battery Park and run up to Harlem and back for 21 miles. I also ran back and forth across the Manhattan Bridge 8 times, for a total of 20.5 miles.

What was the NYC Marathon experience like? Can you remember any particular moments?

The entire marathon experience is so incredible. I could probably write a book on the whole journey. There were so many people along the marathon route cheering and supporting us as we ran along. People were handing out drinks, food, napkins, and more to help make the run more comfortable. There were runners dressed in various costumes, and countless humorous signs along the way.

The biggest challenge was a foot injury due to over-training. My right foot would hurt if I put too much pressure on it. I injured it a month before the marathon, and I was really worried if I could complete the race. I stayed off it for a month, and even the day before it I was still feeling the pain. At that point, I was hoping just to finish under 7 hours due to the injury.

The most rewarding part was definitely crossing the finish line at under 5 hours. My legs were crippled with pain by that point, but it was all worth it. The whole experience was amazing. I even won VIP start-line treatment and 4 grand seating tickets for friends to be at the finish line! The fact that I was able to finish in under 5 hours with an injury while taking over 100 pictures along the way to document the marathon journey was great. I found out the next day that I made it into the New York Times where they list all the people who broke the 5 hours mark! I couldn’t have asked for more.

Do you consider yourself to be pretty “physically fit”? If so, what goes into keeping yourself fit?

Yes, I consider myself to be physically fit. I have always been active and love working out and playing basketball. They say a healthy person should be able to bench their own weight, but the average person can’t. I could bench 50 lbs over my body weight. I try to go to the gym and workout at least 2-3 times a week.

Did you encounter any particular challenges, either in the NYC Marathon itself or in preparing for it, that were related to having thalassemia? If so, how did you handle those challenges?

The only real challenge for me was just scheduling my training around my blood count level. I didn’t want risk stressing myself too much by doing any long distance runs when the counts were low. I only did the long runs when it was high. I was worried that I would stress my heart too much, so I used the heart rate monitor that was built into the treadmill and then used a heart rate monitor that came with my GPS watch for my first few long distance runs outside. After that I stopped using it since I had a general idea how my body works during a run.

Did you consult a doctor before deciding to run, or after you decided to run, the NYC Marathon?

I consulted with Dorothy Kleinert and Dr. Patricia Giardina at NY Presbyterian Hospital who recommended that I check with a cardiologist just in case. They were supportive in my goal, which was nice.

What advice would you give to another person with thalassemia who is considering taking up long distance running?

My advice for any person with thalassemia who wants to take up long distance running is to go for it! With proper research, training, and focus, you can do the same too. Feel free to ask me for advice!

Do you have any plans to run other long distance events in the future?

I thought about doing the NYC Marathon again next year and trying to beat my time. Imagine what my time would have been if I wasn’t injured and didn’t take 100+ pictures? Since the NYC Marathon 2011 experience was pretty much perfect, it will be hard to top, so I decided not to do another marathon for now. I might try to do a “bike-a-thon” or something in the future, or maybe even a triathlon. LOL. I think those goals are easier than running 26.2 miles in a marathon. I definitely like challenging myself with new goals.

What else would you like to say?

I hope this will inspire everyone else to aim high and achieve goals that they never thought they could do. If you have the motivation and passion for it, go for it! Don’t ever doubt yourself and at least give it your best try, that way you don’t have any regrets. Anything is possible if you put your mind to it! Thank you to all my friends, family, New York Presbyterian Hospital doctors and nurses for their support and congratulatory messages!

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