When the first New York City Marathon took place in 1970, a six-year-old Ceil Witherspoon watched runners cross the Queensboro Bridge from her window in Queensbridge Houses.
In awe of the runners’ dedication, stamina and tenacity, the marathon is something that’s fascinated Witherspoon for her entire life. But at the same time it felt unattainable due to her asthma, limited athletic experience and discouraging comments from others.
This year, Witherspoon went against all odds and achieved her lifelong dream of running in the New York City Marathon.
For some, the normalization of mask wearing during COVID-19 is a hassle, but for Witherspoon it was a blessing in disguise that inspired her to enter.
“Keeping my mask on helped with my asthma because I wasn’t inhaling any of the pollen, dirt or leaves,” she said. “This year, my lungs are completely protected and I got the breathing under control.
“A lot of people don’t know how to properly use a mask and breathe, so I found myself showing them,” she added. “I haven’t had a major asthma attack, I haven’t had to go to the hospital and I’m in perfect shape to do this.”
In addition to teaching people how to breathe again, Witherspoon actively shares her knowledge about food through her work with City Harvest, the city’s largest food rescue organization.
She was one of 75 City Harvest volunteers who ran the marathon with a goal of raising $250,000 to continue the organization’s effort of providing New Yorkers with nutritious food.
Witherspoon works at City Harvest’s Mobile Markets, in which she helps distribute fresh produce and participates in cooking demonstrations to educate visitors about how to utilize the ingredients in beneficial ways.
“One thing I like about City Harvest is that I get to pass on what I know to people,” she said. “Oftentimes when we’re giving away food, people don’t know what to do with it, they’ve never seen it or tried it before. I love telling people how to cook spaghetti squash or yams, plantains or potatoes.
“I’ve always liked to help people, but I’ve never had the outlet to do it,” Witherspoon added. “City Harvest lets me do it.”
Self-described as having zero athletic training in her early years, Witherspoon truly began to build her endurance in 1990 after she was hit by a city cab.
To bounce back from her injury, she walked to her job on 83rd Street in Manhattan from her Long Island City residence every day.
Eventually, she realized she could bike the 3.5-mile distance (where she still works today), which was what sparked her passion for bike riding. Witherspoon combined these two skills to train for the marathon
“I get up at five in the morning, walk the dogs, walk around my neighborhood for a mile or two and repeat it,” she said. “According to how you figure out the mileage, I’ve been biking 10k in a day and walking about 5k in the mornings, so I think I’m pretty good.
“I know I’ve got this,” she added.
And she was right. As one of the last runners of the day, Witherspoon crossed the finish line after 11 hours.
She attributes her achievement to her daily routine , along with the help of a bottle of water, three Life Savers and two Tylenol.
Witherspoon said that she’s had to deal with people underestimating her abilities, suggesting that her knees or body type might prevent her from completing the marathon.
“I’m not the skinniest person in the world, but I have a lot of stamina,” she said. “They don’t see that.
“If someone thinks they can’t do something and has people telling them they can’t, thank them for their opinion, but don’t believe them,” Witherspoon added. “The worst that could happen is you fail.”
You can donate to Witherspoon’s cause here.