Fifty thousand people are at the starting line. Thousands more line the streets to cheer them on.
Whether it’s 26.2 miles or 42.195 kilometers depends on where you are in the world. About a million runners every year clamor at the start line to become a marathoner. Less than 1% of the world’s population has ever completed a marathon.
A joke in the running community after completing a marathon is to say, “Never again” — and then sign up for another one. For some, the goal is to run each of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors: Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York City and Tokyo, earning a star for each one finished. There are 8,066 six-star finishers following the 2022 Chicago Marathon, representing 103 countries around the world.
On Sunday, the New York City Marathon will be the final major of the year, and 73 runners at the start line will be aiming to join the list of six-star finishers. Who are these athletes? It’s not just elite runners.
Here are five who’ve done it — and one who’s looking to earn his sixth star in New York on Sunday.
Ron Romano, age 61
Ron Romano logs onto the Zoom interview decked out in Abbott World Marathon Majors gear. He has his hat and his gaiter around his neck. Behind him is his medal rack and other running paraphilia.
It’s very clear, even before he speaks, that running is his passion. Romano is full of life and lots of energy. He has an active Instagram and Podcast called “Ron Runs NYC,” where he talks to runners from all walks of life. He always loves to talk about running.
At 58, Romano decided to tackle the world majors. He had run the NYC Marathon, but he wasn’t trying to be competitive. He didn’t start running until he was in his 30s. Once he realized that long distances suited him better, he hired a coach and started to really work on his training.
Romano’s motto is, “You gotta stay in the fight,” based on his 90-year-old mother. She has gone through so many challenges in her life, and yet she just keeps going. This is a big motivator for him. In 2019, Romano ran all six marathon majors in one calendar year at an average time of 3 hours and 15 minutes. He was one of only 19 people to do it that year — and only 82 people have ever completed their six-star journey in one calendar year.
Romano ran Berlin in September this year and will run New York on Sunday, with a goal of finishing sub 3:30.
Edna Kiplagat, age 42
“Let’s go Mom!” This is what Edna Kiplagat hears throughout her long training runs in Longmont, Colorado, as her husband drives alongside her with her kids in the back, cheering.
No matter the race, they’re supporting her during her running journey. Kiplagat grew up in Iten, Kenya, and started out playing soccer before switching to track. Kiplagat was already running faster than her peers, and this was obvious in middle school. She started qualifying for international races at a young age.
“Running doesn’t come without lots of training and working hard,” Kiplagat says, though she adds that the best athletes find happiness, joy and excitement from their sport. Kiplagat feels this way about running.
She won her first major marathon in New York City in 2010 and since then has won two of the other majors — London in 2014 and Boston in 2017. She is also a two-time gold medalist in the marathon at the world athletics championships and will be returning to New York to race on Sunday.
Gilbert Koech is her husband as well as her coach. They work together and plan for months to make sure she’s ready for race day.
“Eating a healthy diet, staying hydrated, getting enough sleep and seeing the big picture are all important components to being marathon ready,” she says, “To have a good experience you need to be prepared.”
Manuela Schär, age 37
An accident at 8 years old forced Manuela Schär to look for a sport that would replace running. She started wheelchair racing when she was 11 years old — and hasn’t looked back.
Switzerland has a long and storied history in wheelchair racing, and Schär is a part of it. She won seven marathon majors in a row in 2018 and 2019 and has a PR of 1:28:17 for the distance. In Tokyo last year, she won the gold medal for the 400 and 800 meters in the Paralympic Games.
Schär loves traveling and the marathon distance, and she appreciates all of the challenges that the different majors throw at her. “To be the total athlete,” she says, “You have to be good at both the flats and the downhill sections of the course.”
The Boston Marathon became the first major marathon to include a wheelchair division in 1975, and now it has become a standard event at every major marathon.
“It’s really special that wheelchair racing is included in the Abbott World Marathon Majors,” Schär says. “This gives these athletes a world stage and more possibilities from sponsorships to the ability to be a role model. Including wheelchair racing in these events helps support the future of the sport.”
Schär will aim to win her fourth NYC Marathon on Sunday — she won three in a row from 2017-2019.
Rene, Dirk and Gijs van Hunsel, ages 65, 37 and 33, respectively
One marathon turned into six for Rene and his sons, Dirk and Gijs. Rene has been running for 50 years through five small villages in the Netherlands. In 2007, he ran his first marathon. In 2012, all three of the van Hunsels signed up to run the New York City Marathon together, but Hurricane Sandy hit and the event was canceled.
A year later, they finally were able to run in New York. They joke that they still don’t know why they sign up year after year to wake up at 6 a.m., then wait three hours in cold weather to run with thousands of people.
“Training for a marathon is healthy, but running the marathon isn’t,” Rene says. “I enjoy the distance because it’s just a little too far for me, so I feel accomplished when I finish.”
The van Hunsels like to motivate each other during training. They don’t live close to each other in the Netherlands so they can’t run together as much as they would like to. But they make it work.
“When I found out my dad ran more kilometers than me [one] week, Gijs and I felt we needed to catch up,” Dirk jokes.
When they heard about the marathon majors, they decided to run all six races. But it was a challenge getting all three of them into every race. They would enter the lottery or use a tour operator to get in, while Rene typically qualified into his age group based on his times.
In April, they completed their sixth marathon, in Boston, to receive their six-star medals. As a family running together, the van Hunsels stood out — and they said the cheers they received made them feel like celebrities.
Ciaran Diviney, age 50
After taking a 20-year break from running, Ciaran Diviney decided to start again. In 2011, he opted to run the Berlin Marathon with a few friends. He completed it in 3:09. “I caught the running bug,” he says.
When he started training it was more of a solo mission, but that quickly changed when he started to run into others on his runs. The following year, he met with others who were also training for the Dublin Marathon and they suggested that he join their local athletics running club.
This changed his life. He met the love of his life, Ciara, at the running club and they now have a family with two young boys. Diviney self-trains and does about 70-80 miles a week, with a marathon PR of 2:35:30.
He didn’t start out to complete all of the marathon majors, but the more he learned about it, the more he wanted to. “[They] have that element of prestige about them. Then I realized that this is something I could complete and it became a milestone that I was looking forward to.”
He has now run 15 marathons — and even ran the Dublin Marathon last Saturday before flying across the ocean and lacing up for New York this Sunday. If he completes NYC, he’ll earn his sixth star finisher medal.
Jennifer Solomon, age 49
Jennifer Solomon was smoking a pack of cigarettes a day until 2008. “I smoked for about 15 years,” she says. At the age of 40, she decided she needed to change to a healthier lifestyle. She quit smoking, and when she began to gain weight, she started running.
She had never considered herself to be an athlete. As a single mom with three children, she didn’t have much time for herself, but she had just enough time for running.
Solomon started with 5K races before opting to run the Manchester City Marathon in New Hampshire in 2014 and the Boston Marathon in 2018 as a charity runner for Boston Children’s Hospital.
“As a grown-up I feel like we have such few things that we do that we can be proud of ourselves for,” Solomon says. “Every training cycle and race came with that rush of finishing. I just loved that feeling.”
Solomon completed all six marathon majors in 12 months in 2019. She ran with charity bibs for five of the majors and raised $60,000 for children’s charities. It became something she did just for herself — and she didn’t mind that her kids would brag about her marathons to their friends.
“Don’t stop until you’re proud,” she would think to herself.
After each race, Solomon was always on a flight home the next day to see her children. Then, after she finished all the world marathon majors she kept going: In February of 2020, she ran the World Marathon Challenge — running a marathon on seven continents in seven days.
“Truth be told it was hard and in hindsight I’m not sure how I pulled it all together. I think if I thought of everything in totality, I would’ve been scared off so I just planned for the week ahead.”