Melissa (Roloff) Etter completed the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon, the largest marathon in the world.
BY NIKKI MEYER
A record-breaking 105,000 hopefuls entered their name into the pool to be selected for registration for the 2018 New York City (NYC) Marathon—the largest marathon in the world. Approximately one in seven people had their name chosen. Truman graduate Melissa (Roloff) Etter was among the lucky few that did.
The 26.2-mile trek in NYC first took place in Central Park on Sept 13, 1970. It has changed greatly since it started, and the race—which included more than 50,000 runners this year—now starts on the Verrazzano-Narrows Bridge, winds through five boroughs, crosses five bridges and more than 300 intersections, and finishes, appropriately, in Central Park. The event is a city-wide celebration and the loudest cheering zone, along First Avenue, boasts an average of 7,500 spectators lining each block.
“I just applied on a whim,” said Etter. “We have a cousin from Truman—Michael Coleman—that lives in New York and he jokingly said one day, ‘Oh you should run the New York City Marathon’ and I’m like I’ll never get in to that. And I just put my name in. You can either be super fast, or it’s a lottery and I got in on the lottery on the first time.”
How it All Started
Etter wasn’t always a marathon runner. In high school she ran short distance races, but gave it up after graduation. Then, when her two boys were young, she started running again. “I went with my cousin (Stacy Backstrom)to Florida to watch her run a half marathon and I thought, If she can do that I can do that, and that’s when I actually started running.”
Etter ran her first 5K with Girls on the Run in Mankato in 2011. It was at the 2015 Mankato Marathon Expo, however, when she got hooked. “They had the medal there for Grandma’s Marathon. It was the 40th anniversary —it was an awesome medal—and I was like I’m going to do a marathon.” She said, “In the back of my head I was like I really want to do this, but the medal—that was it.”
In early 2016, Etter began her training for Grandma’s. “I ran before it, but about four months before is when you start following a training plan.” She uses the book Run Less, Run Faster as her guide, which includes running three days a week and doing cross training two days a week.
The race took place on June 18, 2016—a sweltering day in downtown Duluth, MN. “They had black flag warnings out during the middle of the race. It was horribly hot that day.” Etter’s goal was to finish in less than 4 hours and 30 minutes. She came in just a few minutes over that mark, a finish she felt very good about considering the weather.
Then in January 2017, she upped the ante and did the Dopey Challenge at Walt Disney World with cousin Stacy. The challenge involves running a 5K on Thursday, a 10K on Friday, a half marathon on Saturday, and a full marathon on Sunday. “We did a girls weekend. Stacy’s mom and sister and my mom all came along,” said Etter. “We all did the 5K and the 10K together. We actually just walked it. Unfortunately the half was canceled due to severe weather storms, but we went out and ran our own, along with a lot of other people.” Participants who complete all four events earn a total of six medals, and Etter said they were not going to take their medals without completely the full challenge. “Sunday we did a run/walk together for the full marathon.” Etter said, “It is nutty—trust me, but I would do it again! It was fun to do it with someone and, you know we weren’t competitive. We did it to accomplish it; we did it to do it.”
Following the Dopey Challenge, in February, Etter ran another marathon in Phoenix, AZ. She ran a PR (personal record) of 4:09 in that race. In October she ran the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington D.C. Then a year later, in October of 2018, she ran in the Chicago Marathon. Etter said she’d also done a lot of half marathons and 10K races in between the big races.
The Rewards of Running
What motivates someone to spend so much time pounding the pavement? “I literally get time to myself,” Etter said. “Everything is shut off except for me and my music and I have done everything from total quietness to solving the world’s problems to solving my own problems to solving the world’s problems to solving my own problems to thinking about the next day. It is totally just me-time. There’s no one else bugging me. There’s no phone calls—nothing. It’s just me-time.”
A marathon: just a runner and her thoughts—and 55,000 other runners, and upwards of a million cheering fans, if that marathon happens to be the TCS New York City Marathon.
The lottery drawing for the NYC Marathon took place on February 28, with winners being notified via email. “They do not email you as soon as your name is drawn. However, there is also an insurance policy you can take out so that if anything happens you do get your refund back. So I had gotten an email that my insurance policy had been activated and I thought Well that’s really weird. So I waited and waited and waited.” No email came through. That’s when Etter decided to get a little sneaky. “I was at work and... I ‘illegally’ at work logged onto my bank account on my phone—we’re not supposed to be on our phone—but I logged onto my account and I saw that the money had come out of my checking account so that’s how I found out.” She said the email finally came that night. “It was so exciting. I’ve never been to New York and I was super excited to go to New York and I was super excited to run the New York City Marathon and—it’s the world’s largest marathon.” Etter also spoke of the inspiration she drew from Shalane Flanagan, who won the TCS New York City Marathon last year, becoming the first American woman to win the women’s race in four decades. “To know that she had run it was great.”
Etter flew out to the NYC Marathon with her husband Dave, sons Anthony (20) and Josh (18), along with Anthony’s girlfriend Allie, and Etter’s mom, Susan. The family got to tour the city for a few days before the race on Sunday. Finally, the main event arrived.
With 55,000 runners, not everyone gets to start at the same time. “You put in your time—what your estimated time is, and I put in right around four hours. Luckily I got in the second wave.” For the race, Etter said the elite women go out first, then the first wave with the elite men and the “really fast people” followed by three more waves of runners. The longest time in the second wave is right around four hours, Etter said. Before you can start the race, however, you have to get to it.
“At 5:15 in the morning I hit the subway. I then took that to the ferry, and I rode the Staten Island Ferry over to Staten Island. I then got on a bus and took a bus over to the start line, to go through security and to sit for about two-and-a-half hours to wait for my corral to open up. It’s a process to get over there.” Etter crossed the starting line at 10:33 a.m. “which is really late for a marathon.” She estimated others didn’t get across until almost noon. “It’s a very long day for a lot of people.”
Etter said that once it started, it went fast, however. “It was a beautiful morning, beautiful day. You couldn’t have asked for better weather.” The first two miles of the race are across the bridge back into the city, where the excitement really ramps up.
“You just go through the five boroughs,” Etter explained. Every area has their own little neighborhood and their own thing that they do for you. Some of them had bands—actually there were a lot of bands. Some of the firemen and police were out there... You got to see the heritage (of the different neighborhoods) and stuff like that. It was awesome.”
The Struggle is Real
Even the excitement of hundreds of thousands of cheering people wears off as the miles wear on. “I think you get to the point where you’re just so zoned out,” said Etter. “It’s a hilly course with some challenging bridges.” However the hardest part of every marathon, according to Etter, is the mental battle. For her, that battle really starts to rage about two-thirds of the way through.
“About mile 17 or 18 it starts to get difficult, and by mile 21 you just want to be over it—you just want to be done. There’s truly something about mile 20, hitting that wall—it’s a true fact, let me tell you.”
It becomes more of a mental game at that point. I know that I can physically do it, it just whether or not I have the desire to finish that race, which obviously you always do but sometimes it’s more of a struggle than others.”
There are smaller battles along the way, too. Etter utilizes almost every water station, though she doesn’t stop at them. She grabs her cup and keeps on moving. “Stopping is hard... In fact, one time (at another marathon) I had to have someone time my shoe for me. I couldn’t even bend over to tie my shoe. I was like I’m sorry I need you to tie my shoe for me. I just asked some random person.”
The Light at the End
Etter’s family met up with her at strategic points in the race, around miles 18 and 22. “Having my family watch me at a race was just awesome. My kids have never been to a race before so that was fun. I met up with them twice. That’s what kept me going. I was super excited to know they were there.” She said it was the highlight of “the biggest race of my life.” She said, “it’s always fun to see someone you know. To see the kids cheer for me was awesome.”
Finally, the end was in sight. “No matter what race you do that final mile there’s crowds everywhere and you just know you can do it... I push myself too hard, I think, at the beginning of that last mile, so you really hope you still have the energy to finish, but... (when you hit that final stretch) it’s just the rush of knowing where that finish line is that you’ve actually completed the race is just great.”
And then came the act of actually crossing the finish line—as Etter called it, “the exhilarating moment of knowing that you’re done.” She was officially a finisher in the world’s largest marathon. However, she still had to get out of the world’s largest marathon—her and 55,000 other people. “you just have to stop. You’re body wants to keep going but there’s nowhere to go,” Etter said. “This race was so crowded you literally had to stop (at the finish line)... or you ran into somebody.”
The finishers’ chute was another two miles long and took Etter another 30 minutes to accomplish. Etter didn’t mind much, though. “Walking is very good, so normally I do try to walk around a lot.” After finally making it through the finishers’ chute, she met up with her family and walked to the subway, rode the subway back to the hotel, took a quick shower, then they all went out for supper.
“I don’t usually sit still much after a race. It really helps the next day.” She said she felt fabulous the next day as they finished their tour of the city. “It was my sixth marathon so my body’s a little more used to it. Obviously that first one was worse.”
The family had an eventful return home due to delayed flights and missed connections, finally making it home on Wednesday. Etter took a few days to wind down and recover, using things like staying hydrated, Epsom salt baths, and compression socks. She said she planned to hit the gym again earlier this week.
So how do you follow the world’s biggest marathon? By signing up for another marathon. Etter said her next one will be in May.
Melissa and her husband live in Mankato, where she works for Scheels doing special orders, data entry, and as part of the web team. She is the daughter of the late Scott Roloff and Susan (Kietzer/Roloff) Hunstand. Her grandparents are Gary and Gwen Roloff and Hartwin and Iona Kietzer, of Truman.
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