Super Mario: The Running Coach Who Bolstered Her Faith

She'd long dreamed of running a marathon, but never believed she could achieve that goal—until a fellow runner showed her what she was truly capable of.

- Posted on Feb 26, 2018

Mario mentors Lisa during one of her training sessions.

I strode onto the Staten Island side of the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge that November morning. I was at the starting line of the New York City Marathon, the largest and most prestigious one in the world. Runners were everywhere, stretching, jogging in place, tightening shoelaces. They looked so confident, as if they knew exactly what they were doing.

I sure didn’t feel that way. And I was about to run this race!

I was 49 years old, a longtime couch potato who’d only taken up running three years before. My six-foot frame was 80 pounds lighter than when I’d started but nowhere close to the skinny, muscled bodies surrounding me. A few weeks earlier, I’d fallen on a training run and twisted my ankle.

For most of my life, exercise meant walking from the couch to the fridge. I blogged about sports, and I’d always yearned to be athletic. But God makes some people athletes, and I wasn’t one of them. I was what they call a back-of-the-packer—always at the back of the pack in any race. I was no marathoner.

So why was I here? The reason was Mario, my coach. Picture Joe Pesci’s character in My Cousin Vinny, only as a great runner. Mario was a top runner in the Staten Island Athletic Club, an area running club I’d joined in a bid to lose weight. For some reason, he’d taken me under his wing and trained me for this marathon. He did the same for a few other runners in our club, but I thought he was crazy to work with me more than anyone else.

“You have what it takes,” he told me.

What did that mean? Standing here at the start of the race, I wished I knew.

Mario and I had met during the 2014 Staten Island Memorial Day 4 Mile Run. For once, he was in the back of the pack—he was recovering from an injury. To my amazement, he congratulated me for my tenacity after the race.

A few months later, Mario invited a group of us from the club out to dinner to talk about our running goals for the year. I had no idea why he included me. After all, I was just a couch potato trying to lose some weight. But I agreed to go. I was flattered. And there was something I hadn’t told Mario. Or anyone else for that matter.

I actually did want to be a real runner. I hated being a back-of-the-packer. I wanted to go to races and talk about my “personal best” time without being pitied. I hardly dared to say it, but I even wanted to run a marathon. All my life, I’d been embarrassed by my physical shortcomings. If I could run a marathon, I would no longer have to feel ashamed.

Of course, that was totally out of my league—something Mario didn’t seem to grasp. At the dinner, I mumbled something about a half marathon coming up in the spring and Mario pounced.

“That’s an excellent goal,” he said. “Why don’t you come out tomorrow morning to run with the club? We’re doing nine miles.”

Nine miles! “I’ve never run more than seven,” I protested.

“No problem,” Mario said. “See you tomorrow morning.”

I barely did six miles, huffing and puffing all the way. What a disaster!

When I got home, I was surprised to see an e-mail from Mario with the subject line, Your half marathon training program. Inside was a detailed plan.

What? I hadn’t even finished the run that morning. I thought he’d leave me alone after that. But, no, Mario convinced me to join the club’s weekly track workouts.

“Why are you helping me?” I asked Mario after one of them. “I love helping runners,” he said. “Plus, I can tell you have the right mind-set. That’s what counts.”

Well, if someone like Mario thought I could do it, I might as well try. Soon I was training nearly every day, following his plan. Light cycling on Monday. Running with the club on Tuesday. Progressively longer runs on Sunday.

Mario convinced me to join the club’s weekly track workouts. He challenged me to stop taking walk breaks. I broke the six-mile mark on the long runs and worked my way up past 10.

No one was more surprised than me when, three months later, I finished the half marathon in 3 hours, 11 minutes.

At our club’s annual award dinner, Mario presented me with the Most Improved Female Runner award. It was just a little award. To me, it felt like a gold medal.

And that made me think of real medals. The kind you get when you finish the New York City Marathon. I had applied for a scholarship on a whim. When I heard I’d won free entry to the race, Mario was the first person I told.

“Do you think I could ever run a marathon?”

“Of course!” Mario said. “Expect my training plan in your in-box.”

“We’ll start by training for the Brooklyn Half Marathon in May, then focus on your speed and endurance,” Mario said when we sat down to go over his 18-week training plan. “We also need to get you cross training, so your body is prepared for anything.”

I stared at the schedule, my heart sinking. I would be running more than 40 miles per week and a half marathon or more every Sunday.

The marathon was in the fall, which meant I had to do most of my training at the peak of summer. As the runs got longer, the weather got warmer. New York weather. Sticky, humid, hot.

Mario was an attentive coach. He emailed devotions. Lectured me about eating healthily and drinking enough water. Called out my negative attitude.

“I don’t think I can do this!” I shouted at him over the phone after a particularly grueling run.

“I’m fine with you yelling at me,” he said, a grin in his voice. “You can yell at me all the way to the finish line!”

How could I argue with that?

In mid-October, I had a 23-miler to run. Mario happened to be getting married that weekend, which meant we would miss our post-run check-in. I tried to tell myself it was no big deal.

I was nearing 13 miles when I tripped. Bam! I face-planted into concrete. My glasses snapped. My nose felt broken. My ankle twisted. Blood poured from my mouth. I’d chipped a tooth.

I hauled myself into a sitting position and began to cry. My ankle was probably sprained. I felt dizzy. Dehydrated.

And demoralized. Why did I ever think I could do something like this? Mario was wrong about me. I was a back-of-the-packer and always would be.

I got checked out at a hospital—my ankle was strained, not sprained, amazingly—and had my dentist fix my tooth. I took a week off from running, then tried a short run.

The ankle felt okay, but I assumed when Mario got back from his honeymoon he’d tell me the race was off.

“I’m sorry about your fall,” he said. “But you’re still going to run the race.”


“You tested your ankle, right?”

“Well, yeah.”

“And you can run on it?”


“Good. Then you’re running,” he said. “I don’t care how long it takes you to finish. You’re going to do it.”

So now I was at the marathon’s starting line, about to do it. Or fail trying.

I stared at the Manhattan skyline in the distance—I had to run all that way, through Brooklyn, Queens and the Bronx. I thought about the quote Mario had e-mailed me the previous night: “Where does the strength come from to finish the race? The strength comes from within. Jesus said, ‘The Kingdom of God is within you.’”

The quote was from Eric Liddell, the runner and Christian missionary whose story was told in the movie Chariots of Fire. “When it comes down to it, it’s just you and the Lord, baby,” Mario wrote. “I have every confidence you will cross that finish line.”

Did I have that kind of confidence?

The cannon sounded and we were off, more than 50,000 of us. I got goose bumps. Tears clouded my vision. I tried to remember Mario’s plan: Conserve energy for the first miles, then dig deep to make it through to the end.

People lined the streets of Brooklyn for the first 12 miles. Friends of mine had stationed themselves at different points along the route, shouting out their encouragement.

I kept waiting to trip. Or hit “the wall.” Or for my ankle to flare up. But when I ran over the Queensboro Bridge into Manhattan and saw the 16-mile mark, all I thought was, Only 10.2 miles to go!

Before I knew it, I was turning into Central Park and running through a storm of cheering. “Welcome to the finish line!” an announcer’s voice boomed out.

Someone draped a medal around my neck. I shuffled through an area for race finishers.


I had done it. Sure, it took me 6 hours, 16 minutes and 9 seconds—almost three times as long as the fastest woman—but I had done it!

And suddenly I realized what Mario had been trying to tell me all along. I’d always been a real runner. Not because of some amazing athletic talent or even Mario’s amazing coaching.

The strength to run came from inside me. From that place where God was and always had been. Just me and the Lord, baby.

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