Steve Kowalski, an elementary school teacher from Trenton, MI thought long and hard about completing one of his “Bucket List” events – the New York City Marathon. He said, “I spoke with a few friends who are endurance athletes back in Michigan, and they advised that an event like this is made better when you do it for a purpose.” After doing some research, Steve decided to connect with the Companions in Courage Foundation and support their efforts with his run.
He said, “Although runners often run solo, we never run alone. We are all connected. Runners are connected by the paths we trod, by the air we breathe and through the sunshine, rain and snow on our faces. Running is bigger than all of life combined. One of the main reasons to run is not only for ourselves, but to run for others. We run for our spouses, for our children, and for many others.”
With the support of his wife, Nora, their 5-year-old daughter and two Cockapoos, Steve set out to tackle New York! A few years earlier, Kowalski and a few teacher friends started a running club at the two elementary schools in his district. The running club encourages students in grades kindergarten through fifth to show up 30 minutes early to school and run. Some students run one mile, some students run a 5k before school. The running club culminates with a family fun run where families run a mile or a 5k together. The running club also allows the students to have the opportunity to run a children’s marathon.
As the November date for New York City neared, Kowalski walked into school one day to find a huge hand-drawn banner in the lobby. It read, “Good luck Mr. K! Running the NYC Marathon. HEDKE will be cheering for you!” Steve was living the elementary school’s motto, “Inspire students today for their success tomorrow.”
Kowalski was joined on the November trip to New York by long-time friend, Aaron Tockstein of the Detroit Zoological Society. They met up with Steve’s brother in a New York City suburb and prepped for the big event.
Runners gathered at the base of the Verrazano Bridge in Staten Island on a chilly, but sunny morning on November 6th. Steve locked into his runner’s corral and marveled as a sea of humanity (50,000+ strong) began the climb up the bridge that would inspire memories for a lifetime.
Kowalski was amazed by the number of spectators lining the streets as he made his way through Brooklyn and Queens. “It seemed like there was a band playing on every other corner,” he said. “Inspiration was everywhere!”
As he made his way across the Queensboro Bridge at about Mile #15, he could see the mass of humanity – lined 10 people deep – on either side of First Avenue. Somewhere in that crowd were his brother and Tockstein. How on earth was the runner supposed to pick them out as he completed Mile #16 and headed straight uptown toward the Bronx?
There was no need to fret because the resourceful duo had crafted dual-sided signs that were impossible to miss. A huge blow-up of Kowalski’s daughter’s face was accompanied by a cartoon balloon that read, “You can do it daddy!” When you flipped the signs around, the opposite side read, “You look like you need a beer!”
The runner said, “What a pick-me-up it was to see that on the race course. I came all the way from Michigan, and it was so sweet to see my daughter’s adorable face on First Avenue in New York.”
The last 10 miles of the race clicked off with no problem for the school teacher and he cruised across the Finish Line in Central Park in about 4 hours and 30 minutes. The following morning, the trio celebrated in NYC with a breakfast hosted by CiC Foundation founder and Hockey Hall of Famer Pat LaFontaine. He had completed the NYC Marathon a few years earlier, so the hockey star and the school teacher compared notes on their mutual experiences.
LaFontaine thanked Kowalski for raising more than $1,000 for the CiC Foundation and for the awareness he raised by wearing a Team COURAGE shirt on race day. Kowalski said, “No need to thank me. I ran this marathon for those who cannot run, and so that other children can fight their battles.”
As a parting gesture Kowalski mentioned the foundation’s upcoming Santa Connection event. In December, patients at a dozen Lion’s Den hospitals will get an opportunity to participate in a Google Hang-out with Santa Claus. The CiC Foundation provides gift cards for those patients and the local Child-Life staff will purchase gifts and distribute them to the kids. For many of these patients, many who come from underprivileged environments, it is the only holiday gift they will receive. Kowalski asked if the proceeds from his run could be used to purchase some of those gifts.
LaFontaine was very moved by the gesture. He said, “Typical Michigander. Always putting the needs of others first. I am proud to be able to call you a Companion in Courage!”