Marathon Challenge

Video Diary Sama ElBannan

A rough start

Q: Why did you decide to do this? Why run a marathon?

Sama: Well, I decided to run the marathon because I wanted to do something for my mom. I got an e-mail from my sister. She forwarded the whole [NOVA] ad to me. And she said, "I want you to do this for mom and for all of us." And I thought about it, and I said, "What a great idea. Just do something for mom's memory and for my family." My mother was such a special women, not just to me and my family. She was a source of inspiration to many people. When she was younger, she supported her family and her friends, financially and emotionally. She was such a motivated person, strong-willed and yet always very cheerful.

Sama's mother was struck by a car and killed in the fall of 2005.

Sama: I didn't understand that the marathon was very difficult. I thought, "Oh, it's just a marathon," which was kind of ignorant of me.

Q: When did you find out that it was hard?

Sama: The first time we ran together a mile! I was a smoker for nine years, so you can imagine how difficult that was for me. I could not run one whole mile. I had to stop, I had to walk. I was looking at Jane, and Jane was running. And, I mean, Jane is older than me. [Jane was 59 at the time; Sama was 28.] That's when I'm, like, "I have to quit smoking and take this seriously, because it is challenging. If a mile is difficult, then 26 will be very difficult."

Q: So did you stop smoking?

Sama: I did. I smoked two cigarettes, enjoyed them, and woke up the next morning and never smoked again. And it's great.

E-mail between Sama and Coach Don Megerle, late July 2006
Hi Sama –
I was truly impressed with our conversation this morning ... it takes courage to be so forthcoming ... I know this is a difficult time for you ... and in order to bring about the results you are looking for, you must make a decision...take a few days to think things over ... we can talk more next Sunday ... I believe it takes a little time to sort things out while you are evaluating what is best for you!!!!
Your friend!
Don Megerle

…Thanks for your supportive words. I have not smoked since our first run. I am still resisting. I really want to do this and cigis will not help. I was tired and not very motivated today… I hate it when I stop ... I will start challenging myself not to stop.
kisses to best Donaldo ever

Q: What did you make of Don?

Sama: I enjoyed every moment with Don. Actually, I called him "Donaldo." He is a very unique person. He knows how to motivate you. He knows when to be a little tough and tell you, "No, you need to be strong." And I just enjoyed having him around, because he is very funny. He told me something very important. He told me, "Act as if you're happy, as if you're successful, as if you are the best. If you act with this attitude, you'll always achieve your goals." And it has worked for me. He's a great person.

Q: What did you think of Uta?

Sama: Every word Uta has said is in my heart and in my mind. I remember when she said, "Do not feel pity for yourself." When I was running, and I started feeling pity for myself because I was in pain, I remembered her words. And that gave me strength, and I said, "I can do it." I look at her, and I say, "Maybe I cannot be an Olympic winner, but I can use her experience and her motivations to reach something good for myself."

Q: And what did you make of the team?

Sama: Every single person is great. I see each person as a unique, exceptional person. I think all of us completed each other. There was the person who motivates, the person who is funny, you know? All 13 of us made one good package. I love every person, and it was just great to have such a diverse group.

During Ramadan, from Sept. 24 – Oct. 23, Sama fasted each day but continued to train.

E-mails between Sama and Betsey, mid-October 2006
Hi Sama,
… I must say, from my perspective you are doing great ... you have perseverance and in spite of your fasting managed to complete the 7.8 miles on Sunday, with a gorgeous smile! I have such respect for your determination and stamina!! … Happy to work out with you, or do some of our training runs after you break your fast, or just happy to support you in any way I can!!

Betsey :)
Thank you so much for being supportive. Fasting will be over in a few days and I can stop by after work and run together. kisses and kisses and more kisses and some hugs :)
-Sama bAnAnA

Q: During the winter, you were out of commission for a long time with a knee injury. Tell me about that.

Sama: I had an injury on December 3rd, on our 10-miler. And I stopped running until almost the end of February, so that was a very long time for me. I was very scared. I felt like, "Oh my God, how am I going to do it?" [run the marathon] But they kept telling me that it will be best for me to stop running and give my body the time to cure.

Q: So you didn't run at all?

Sama: No. I didn't run from the first week of December to the second or third week of February. I missed all the runs.

Q: Did you feel disconnected?

Sama: Well, I tried to go and see the team and the runs, and how Donaldo was coaching them about the water and stuff. I wasn't able to go every Sunday, but I tried to go as many Sundays as possible.

E-mails from Sama to Team, late December, 2006
Hey everyone,
Nick said I should not be running for the next couple of weeks. But I would like to see everyone and I will be joining you on the 31st. I will be the "water holder" too. Kisses to y'all!

… I hope you guys had fun on Sunday! Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah and Happy  Eid :) In short Happy Holidays!
Sama :)

A painful trial

Q: At the end of January, you had to face something pretty difficult—the trial of the man responsible for your mom's death. The result was a guilty verdict. And was the sentence 20 years, something like that?

Sama: Yeah.

Q: Can you talk a little bit about how you felt at the trial? Did it bring you any relief?

Sama: Well, when I went to the trial with my sister and my brother, it was very difficult. For me and my sister, it was our first time to see the person who caused my mom's death. It was very emotional. The trial lasted four days, and that was extremely exhausting—I mean physically and emotionally.

When we heard the verdict, I wasn't happy, because I look on the other side of the room and I see another family that is going to lose a member as well. You know, the whole situation is no victory for anyone, because both families are losing someone. We've lost a mother; they have lost a son. And seriously, our hearts went to them. We actually walked to the other side and told his mother and his father and his sister that we're sorry. So it was very difficult for us, and we did not ask for the maximum punishment, which is life, because hopefully, after he stands his sentence, he will have a chance in life, too.

As everyone in my family said, this whole situation could have been avoided by a five-dollar cab. Just all it would have taken is, call a cab instead of driving. So it's no victory, and there is no happiness or relief in seeing someone go to prison for 20 years.

Moving onward

Q: When you started running again, what was it like?

Sama: Well, after I stopped running for three months, I went back to train with the team. And I did a four-mile run. We started at Hopkinton, and for them, it was about a 12-mile run, but for me it was just four. I was behind everyone, really. I was very slow, and it was very cold. But I was very excited that I was back and able to do four miles.

Q: So at that point, it's like two months away from the marathon, and you're only running four miles.

Sama: I was two months away from the marathon, and I was only doing four miles. And even after that, in the time before the marathon, my longest run was 16 miles. I did not do my 20-mile run. [Team NOVA's physical therapist and trainers advised against it.]

Q: So, did you think you weren't going to make it?

Sama: I always believed that no matter what, I will do it. I had to finish it, because I made the promise to myself and to my family that I will do that. I promised it to my mom, you know, and I promised it to my brother and my sister. And there was no turning around; I had to do it. So I always told myself, even if I'm not doing well in my training, I will do fine on the marathon day, because it's the will—it's psychological. Unless something goes wrong with my body, I will be able to finish.

Notes from a NOVA producer, April 4, 2006 (two weeks before the marathon)
Sama is feeling mixed about the marathon—excited and nervous. She says, "I cannot wait to be on the Marathon course … but I wish I had more time to train."

Marathon Day

Q: On marathon day, how did your body hold up?

Sama: I was exhausted. My knees were hurting, my feet. And on mile 18 or 19, I started to feel pain in my left foot, in my toe. It was just unbelievable pain. And so my last six miles were very, very difficult because of that injury.

Q: But you made it. How did it feel at the finish?

Sama: When I crossed the finish line, the first thing I felt was guilt: "Oh my God, it took me more than six hours to finish it." I wasn't too excited at the very beginning. But later, I started thinking, "I finished it!" And I felt like mom would be so proud of me. She was always my source of inspiration. And I was able to do something dedicated to her. And it's a remarkable thing—I felt, "She's here with me, and she will always be here with me."

The marathon was not just a race for me. It gave me closure for my mom's accident and the way she left, because I realized that she left me with something very valuable, which is determination and strong will.

Now I feel it's easier to talk about my mom, because before, I wasn't able to. I never mentioned anything about her, but my mom was 62 years old when she died, and she was getting her masters. She was actually hit by a car at two in the morning, when she was coming out of the lab, because she was studying until two. Seeing how determined she was to get her masters at that age made me want to run, and made me feel that I am not alone. She has left this part of her in me.

Q: When you first started, about a year ago, you talked about turning your anger and grief into something positive, a positive achievement. Do you feel like that's what happened?

Sama: Yes. I really wanted to turn all my anger and sorrow into something productive and something that can inspire other people. Running the marathon, and having to go through all this experience, has definitely changed my life. And now I tell my friends, "Let's go run, exercise." I look at people and say, "You can do it. I ran a marathon, and I was a smoker, and I was able to quit. Anything is doable. Set a goal, and you can reach it."

I find myself talking to people with a very positive attitude because I have had a positive experience. I went from someone who never exercises to a marathoner, and I am very proud of it. And I like to share it with people and tell them that you can do anything in this world if you set your goal and try to reach it. Difficult, but you can do it.

Q: So what's the future? Are you going to continue running?

Sama: My plan is to run twice or three times a week, which is what I do now. I go for short runs, like three miles (that's short now!) every couple of days or so. I definitely want to run small races, because running a race is an experience. And I would like to run the Boston Marathon one more time and finish it within six hours, like 5:59 would be okay! I want to run it one more time.

Q: So would you say you are you a runner now?

Sama: Yeah. Running is still not easy for me. But now that I'm officially a marathoner, and I don't have that burden on my shoulder of training, I go out and enjoy it. Uta always said, "Enjoy your run. Have fun." And now, when I go out to run, I will chase my shadow, or look at the water, enjoy the leaves falling down, paint a picture of nature. Now I do enjoy it, and Uta's words come back to me.

Interview conducted in May 2007 by Dan McCabe and Hillary Wells, producers of "Marathon Challenge," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online

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