This Sunday, over 50,000 runners will storm from the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge for 26.2 miles in one of the great footraces of the world, the New York City Marathon.
Among this year’s entries are 50 educators chosen as part of a five-year-old program from race title sponsor Tata Consultancy Services as a tribute to teachers and administrators who make an impact.
For Greg Puckett, an Arkansas high school assistant principal set to take on his third NYC Marathon, it’s another chance to do something he has grown to love at a special place.
“It’s like running through a party for 26 miles,” he said. “I feel like I’m on the top of the world. The New York City Marathon is the funnest party you’ll run through on any marathon course.”
This upcoming jaunt will be Puckett’s 31st marathon and continues what he describes as an unlikely journey. Growing up young and closeted in Bentonville, Ark., he never saw himself running yards let alone miles.
“I knew I was gay early in life, but I didn’t have shame. I had fear,” he recalled. “I was fearful that I would get hurt, beat up or killed. I was that kid that stood up against the wall and I never wanted to draw attention to myself.”
The turning points came over the years as an adult. As a student at the University of Arkansas, he came out to his parents in 1996, and they stood with him in acceptance.
The next came starting in 2007. Puckett took a job as a teacher; he is now an assistant principal, at Bentonville High. He has grown from unsure and hidden to out and proud, and again he was bolstered by a great deal of support.
“I wanted to be a teacher from the beginning but I never thought in Arkansas they’d hire a gay person to be a teacher,” he said. “It’s important that students who are LGBTQ see people who are positive role models. It is important to see people in leadership, and I don’t shy away from that.”
Running came into play three years later. Puckett befriended a colleague who was an avid marathoner and he was looking to get started, with an eye toward doing a marathon. “There was a colleague who was a fantastic teacher who I wanted to connect with,” he remembered. “Randomly one day she said, ‘Hey Mr. Puckett, would you like to train for a half marathon with me?’ And I said, absolutely.”
Puckett finished that first race. Later that year, he was crossing the finish line at the Chicago Marathon. It was his first triumph over 26.2 miles.
He was also finding that identity that was missing from his youth, and finding a place to grow and heal in the present day. “Sometimes I tell my straight friends that growing up gay is like carrying around a sandbag everywhere you go,” he stated. “Running is what I found to deal with it.”
Around Bentonville High, Puckett is asked as much about when his next race is as much as he’s asked about lesson plans. He’ll toe the starting line Sunday excited to challenge the Five Boroughs again.
“I love the big stage and being in the big crowd,” he noted. “When I’m at the start line, the moment I’m in that start corral, I am king of the world.
He continued: “I am definitely going to cry at some point during the race, probably around mile 18! I’m going to be overwhelmed with emotion.
“I will be incredibly grateful, and then I’ll be ready to do the next one.”