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Tales of inspiration and fascination at New York City Marathon

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Tatyana McFadden helps kick start youth wheelchair program (2:13)

Paralympic champion Tatyana McFadden helps New York City public schools kick start their youth wheelchair program, which teaches kids how to use a racing chair and answers their questions. (2:13)

Edison Pena was one of the 33 miners trapped deep underground for 69 days in the 2010 Chilean mining disaster. To maintain his health, he would jog up to 6 miles a day in his boots through the mines' tunnels. Less than a month after being rescued, Pena ran through the streets of Manhattan in the 2010 New York City Marathon, completing the 26.2-mile course in five hours, 40 minutes and 51 seconds.

"I'm here because I want people to feel free. I want them to strive for their own freedom," he said after the race. "That's why it was worthwhile for me to come this far to run a marathon, because I want to motivate people. I want to convince them that they can do what they set out to do in life. That they can do it."

As impressive as that was, Pena, who is a big fan of Elvis, also sang "Return to Sender" and "Don't Be Cruel" while addressing the media.

His story is just one of the many incredible tales from the NYC Marathon, which began in 1970 with a mere 127 runners -- and 55 finishers -- racing four loops of Central Park. Heading into Sunday's 46th edition, it is now the largest marathon in the world, with approximately 50,000 runners from well over 125 countries running the annual route through New York's five boroughs. More than 1 million runners have completed the course.

"I always tell people that if they have to do one marathon, it's New York," says 2009 winner and four-time Olympian Meb Keflezighi. "It's pretty unique. It's a spectacular place and a great way to see the city. ... The route is exciting because it's full of people. You feel the energy of the city. The different boroughs. It's the melting pot. If you want to see that vividly, just run the marathon. It's multicultural."

The race itself is as multicultural as the city, with nearly as many runners from outside the United States as Americans. International runners almost always win, particularly those from Kenya. Keflezighi is the only American, male or female, to win the race in the past 33 years. After having run his first marathon there in 2002 and feeling so awful afterward that he said he would never run another, Keflezighi won the 2009 race with a time of 2:09.15.

He finished that run by doing a pushup, just as he did at the Rio Olympics earlier this year after finishing 33rd.

"People usually kiss the ground or the track when they have a memorable time or win a medal," he says. "My pushup happened because when you get on your knees to touch the ground, it's hard to get back up."

Keflezighi knows how to get back up. The only person to win the New York and Boston marathons as well as an Olympic medal, he has run the NYC 10 times. He was unable to run in 2008 because of a broken hip that also kept him out of the 2008 Olympics.

"For me, winning the NYC Marathon, it was personal goal. ... Once I didn't make the 2008 Olympic team, it was like the NYC Marathon will be my Olympics," he says. "Winning the NYC Marathon means many things to me."

The New York City Marathon not only has meaning; it provides inspiration to runners and non-runners alike.

Running as long as they can

Every year, a life-sized bronze statue of Fred Lebow is moved from its Central Park location to the finish line of the NYC Marathon, which he founded in 1970. Runners of the marathon touch it for luck.

Lebow was a Jewish boy in Romania during World War II but survived and fled to the United States after the war. He ran 69 marathons in more than 30 countries during his lifetime. He was diagnosed with brain cancer in 1990 but was still so devoted to his sport that, according to Liz Robbins' excellent book on the 2007 marathon, "A Race Like No Other," he would do laps in the hallways while being treated at Sloan Kettering Cancer Center.

While in a temporary remission from the cancer at age 60 in 1992, Lebow ran -- and walked -- his last NYC Marathon with nine-time winner Grete Waitz alongside, helping him the entire way. He hugged her and kissed the ground after crossing the finish line.

Lebow, who died two years later, ran as long as he could.

Jonathan Mendes, a former Marine pilot who served in a squadron with baseball legend Ted Williams and astronaut John Glenn, was the oldest entrant last year, just two days short of his 96th birthday. He made it 16 miles before stopping. "It's not earthshaking," he had told USA Today the previous year. "It's just staying healthy and being able to put one foot in front of the other longer than anybody else."

Joy Johnson ran the NYC Marathon 25 times despite not running it for the first time until she was 61 years old. A physical education teacher who coached track and volleyball, she took up running in her late 50s. She became the oldest woman to run the NYC marathon at age 84 in 2011. Asked once how long she would run, she said, "Until I die."

At age 86 in 2013, running the NYC Marathon for what she planned to be the last time, Johnson tripped and hit her head on the pavement near the 20-mile mark. She got back up and completed the course in a time of 7:57.41. Sadly, she died the next day. But her inspiration lives on.

"She wasn't about the competition. Her main thing was about what it did for her mind and her body. She just really enjoyed running," says her daughter, Diana Boydston. "She would think over Bible verses while she ran. It just made her feel good, and I think that's what she wants people to do -- that it's not too late to get started, and you should do it for yourself, even if it's just walking. It doesn't have to be a marathon."

Dave Obelkevich, meanwhile, has run and finished every NYC Marathon since 1976. At age 73, he plans to run it his 40th consecutive year. "As long as I can keep running, I'll keep doing it," he says. "God will tell me when I cannot do it anymore."

In other words, keep on running.

A race that's not just for runners

The New York City Marathon isn't just for long-distance runners. Athletes from other sports who have run it include hockey Hall of Famer Mark Messier (4:14.27), former NFL running back Tiki Barber (4:50.56), gold medal speedskater Apolo Ohno (3:25.12), softball pitcher Jennie Finch (4:05.26) and cyclist Lance Armstrong (2:59.36 and 2:46.43).

Former No. 1-ranked tennis player Caroline Wozniacki of Denmark ran in 2014, finishing in 3:26.33. She said afterward that the experience was completely different from a marathon tennis match of three or four hours. "Every time I go out on the tennis court, I know exactly what to expect, and I know what to do out there," she said afterward. "Here, I just knew put one foot in front of the other until you see something saying 'Finish,' and that's when you stop."

The fastest run by a pro athlete from another sport came from Nordic combined skier Bill Demong, a five-time Olympian who compared the 2014 marathon to the running of the bulls in Pamplona, Spain. It was his first time running a marathon, yet he finished in a staggering time of 2:33.

"That's a great time, but I was still 20 minutes behind the top runners," Demong says. "I can spend the rest of my life chasing that dragon and never be there."

Demong won gold in the Nordic combined at the 2010 Olympics but says the marathon was a phenomenal experience as well. "It's just such a celebration," he says. "It's not like they're cheering you because you're running, but they're cheering on everyone because it's about sport and pride in their city. It's a huge party, a huge celebration. It eclipsed the normal sporting event."

As impressive as his run was, it also took quite a bit out of him. After the race, Demong walked a block to the subway but was unable to get down the stairs. Instead, he took the elevator.

Sometimes getting down can be as hard as getting up.

Dressing for the occasion

Bill Murray was on David Letterman's show in October 2014 when he suddenly halted the interview by saying he needed to train for the upcoming NYC Marathon. He left the studio and started running in his tuxedo down 53rd Street. He grabbed a candy bar and water from pedestrians and rode back to the studio on a pedicab.

Alas, he did not actually enter the race. Perhaps he didn't feel comfortable running 26.2 miles in a tuxedo.

Not that it hasn't been done, sort of. A man named Tom Young wore a top hat, bow tie, tails and black shorts when he and Pam Kezios married at the 8-mile mark in the 1993 marathon. The two then continued the race, crossing the line together in a time of 3:43.05.

Aside from tuxedos, runners have worn all sorts of costumes, ranging from Captain America, Superman and Spider-Man to Waldo, SpongeBob SquarePants and Chewbacca.

No limitations

Dick Traum lost a leg when it was crushed by a car at a gas station at age 24. He became the first amputee to compete in the marathon in 1976, running with a prosthetic leg. He says running that first marathon was a "life change."

"People talked about the 20-mile mark, that it's a wall. You get there and can't go anymore," he says. "I had done 18.7 miles before that, but I had never passed 20. I was concerned I would have trouble with that. It was something that no one [in my condition] had done."

The YMCA where he trained was even concerned about him attempting such a thing. And yet he did it, running with a hop and skip (prosthetics were not as advanced as they are today) through the streets and boroughs. He did not hit a wall. And when he reached Central Park and heard the music playing from the nearby carousel, it sounded to him like, "Congratulations! You made it! You did it!"

Traum went on to start Achilles International, a global nonprofit that supports athletes with disabilities. Now in his mid-70s, he still does the NYC Marathon in the handcycle category.

Wheelchair racers are able to complete the course faster than runners, but it still is a demanding route. One of the greatest challenges is climbing the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge near the start of the race.

"It's challenging physically because it's long and relatively steep," says Josh George, who finished second in the men's wheelchair division in 2015 and will be competing again this year. "And from a mental standpoint, you have to convince yourself that as hard as it necessarily is to get up to the top of the bridge, then you have to survive the next 25 miles."

And then there are the potholes. "Even last year, one of the biggest favorites in the race, Kurt Fearnley of Australia, he hit a pothole and went over and ended up crashing about 10 or 11 miles into the race," George says. "I had a teammate of mine who hit the exact same pothole. It's New York City. The roads are rough. It's just another thing you have to pay attention to."

Jimmy Choi, 41, has had Parkinson's disease since at least age 27, but he has completed 10 marathons in the past four years while raising money for the Michael J. Fox Foundation. He has said that he plans to run this year's race in around 3:20 despite having to drag his right foot. Inspired to get into the sport by reading Runners World magazine, he told the NYC Marathon website: "If someone can read my story and be equally inspired, that would mean a lot to me."

All that is impressive. And then there is Bob Wieland. A war veteran who lost both legs in Vietnam, he completed the 1986 marathon by using only his hands. No prosthetics. No wheels. He just walked on his hands. It took him four days, but he did it.

It took Lloyd Scott even longer.

A former English soccer player, Scott "ran" the 2002 marathon in five days and one hour while wearing a 128-pound deep-sea diving suit and 40-pound brass helmet. (He also wore the diving suit at the London Marathon earlier that year and wore an Indiana Jones costume while pulling a 300-pound round "boulder" in the 2007 London Marathon.)

A survivor of leukemia, Scott wore the suit to raise money for cancer charities. "It's a good example of what it's like for cancer and leukemia sufferers because it's slow and painful," he told the New York Post about doing the course in such a heavy, uncomfortable suit. "But like me, they'll win out in the end."

That's the lesson of this marathon. Even if you're down, get back up and just keep going. You can go farther -- and longer -- than you can possibly imagine.