Second-grade Aquebogue Elementary School teacher Katy Pettit’s son Kyle suffered a critical brain injury a month before his high school graduation. The 51-year-old teacher, who has been running since she was in high school, used marathons to motivate him to continue on the road to recovery. She also brought the message of perseverance into her classroom. On Monday, April 15, she ran in the Boston Marathon for the first time, finishing the 26.3-mile-course in 7 hours, 12 minutes after taking a fall at mile 14, and walking the rest of the way.
To race through the streets of Boston has been a goal of Pettit’s since she rediscovered running 10 years ago. She competed in half-marathons with her best friend Karen Audia, a social worker for Eastern Suffolk BOCES, before quickly diving into full ones, including the New York City Marathon. A teacher for 30 years, including 25 in Riverhead, Pettit has been trying to earn a spot in the Boston race for five years.
“That was the hardest race I’ve ever done,” Pettit said, adding she was emotional crossing the finish line. “If you want something, you have to work for it. It was the greatest feeling knowing I didn’t give up.”
That’s been a theme for Pettit, who was ready to quit trying to earn a spot in the race. She first competed in the New York City Marathon in 2015 as a promise to Kyle, now 27, who was injured in a car accident in 2010, to teach him the very same thing.
“He would tell me, ‘This is so hard, starting over. You don’t know what it’s like,’” Pettit recalled. “I told him, ‘There are a lot of things that are hard.’ He said, ‘You don’t do anything that’s hard.’ So, I told him, ‘I’ll tell you what, I’ll put my name in for a marathon — I think that’s really hard — if you keep trying.’”
He left the hospital a week later, and was still in a wheelchair just 24 hours before graduation day, but walked across the stage to receive his diploma. When her son was married in October, Pettit said she sobbed the entire day. Kyle will begin FDNY state academy training in June.
“From the moment he opened his eyes after being in a coma we told him, ‘Let’s go. You’ve got this,’” Pettit said. “We were afraid we were going to lose him, and now look at him — he’s a gift, he’s a miracle. To me, we’ve been given a second chance, and I just enjoy every little moment of it.”
The Road To Boston
The teacher was chosen in a lottery to run in New York City after years of waiting, and ran the course again this past November, automatically earning a spot because she’d competed in nine other races and completed volunteer time. As for the Boston Marathon, that road was much tougher. You gain entrance either by submitting a qualifying time, which Pettit laughed at, saying, “that is never going to happen,” or by being chosen to represent a charity. She had tried with several different organizations over the last five years, but was always left on a waiting list.
A friend of hers asked if she’d heard of Hole in the Wall Gang Camp, a charity founded by late actor Paul Newman, which Pettit was familiar with because Audia had run the New York City Marathon to raise money for it. The nonprofit called her right before Christmas asking to set up an interview. She completed it on her lunch break at school after the holidays, and was offered a slot right on the spot. Pettit said she was dumbfounded. Her interviewer asked her if she wanted to talk it over with her husband after she hastily accepted, because it’s a big commitment. Runners must agree to raise $8500 for their charity, but if unsuccessful, must put up whatever the remainder is.
“I told them, ‘No. No. No. He’ll be so excited. I’ve been trying forever. I’m in! I’m in!” she said grinning. “I ran up into the faculty room screaming, ‘I got into Boston! I can’t believe it!’”
To date, Pettit has raised $7550 through CrowdRise.
Satisfaction In Giving Back
“Mrs. Pettit is really invested in how children grow socially and academically,” said Aquebogue Assistant Principal Vanessa Williams, who has worked with her the past 15 years. “She wants to inspire them to pursue their own goals, and by sharing and pursuing this goal of hers, it shows other kids that no matter what, you make sure you go after your goal wholeheartedly, whether you’re the first or the last leg of the race.”
The teacher’s greatest satisfaction is giving back. Each race she enters donates to charity, most involving kids, except for the Tour de Cure she competed in twice, which raises money for the American Diabetes Association, an illness she said many in her family suffer from.
“Children are the most precious resource we have, and I feel like sometimes we forget how important they are,” Pettit said. “If we don’t support them at this age, what is going to happen when they’re 20 or 25? So, it’s important to me that kids get the support they need when they’re younger. It makes a big difference as they get older.”
Any child who has had Pettit knows she wakes up at 4 AM to run three or four days a week, swims twice a week, and lifts weights. She brings in her medals to show her students, and lets the kids pass them around and take turns placing them around their necks.
“I spend my weekends training,” Pettit said. “I give up a lot of time just so I can do this, and it’s because in the end, what you reap is well worth every second of it. While out on the course I thought about what I’m doing this for. . . knowing that all the sacrifices and work I put into this is sending 110 children to camp.”
Giving It Her All
Students like Ava, Nicholas, and Madelyn were jumping out of their chairs upon hearing their teacher was chosen to race in Boston.
“I was pretty excited for her,” said 8-year-old Nicholas. “She’s been trying for a really long time. Her teaching has been really helpful.”
Because every other race she’s taken part in has been on a weekend, Pettit and members of the Parent Teacher Organization put their heads together to come up with a way to get the school involved in her big day. Students took part in an assembly, where Pettit and her class told them about the marathon and answered questions ranging from “What inspired you to do this?” to “Why do you get up at 4 AM every day to run?” They then predicted how long it would take her to finish the course.
On April 15, the day of the race, Pettit wore a tracking device so the school could monitor her time. Guesses ranged from 7-year-old Ava’s one hour, 3.2 minutes, who added, “I think she’ll be fast, but it’s a long race,” to 8-year-old Nicholas’ seven hours, and 8-year-old Madelyn’s 12.
“We’ve all been behind her,” said Principal Phil Kent. “That driving message for kids is go after your goal, the kids internalize that — it stays with them forever.”
Williams said Pettit even inspired teachers to run together after school, and walk the halls in the morning before class until the weather breaks. She said the lessons her teacher learned following her son’s accident have resonated.
“When Katy found out that Kyle had the devastating accident, and all throughout the recovery period, that was very hard for her and her family, but every day she still came in and gave it her all. That itself is motivation, that no matter what you’re going through, in or outside of school, you can still persevere,” Williams said. “She’s taken what was a terrible occurrence, they both have, and done so much, achieving such great accomplishments. To take that whole experience and turn it into a learning lesson for her and others is really