Teacher Cara Nelson ’09 brought the experience of completing an impossible feat to her students. Along the way, she learned that succeeding is all mental.

By Kris Dreessen

Check out Cara’s “ultimate motivating playlist” for tunes to keep you going on a run or exercising. 

Last spring, Cara Nelson ’09 accomplished something that may seem impossible. She completed seven marathons on seven continents — in seven days. Nelson first ran 26.2 miles in Antarctica, the coldest, driest and windiest place on the planet. She ran on ice, and at times sunk into snow. 

“Crossing the finish line, I was relieved and exhilarated,” said Nelson. “This may have been the most difficult run of my life, and the thought of six more marathons was daunting. But a mere nine hours later, my shoes were laced up at the starting line in Cape Town!”

After South Africa, she would repeat a marathon in Perth, in Dubai, across the cobblestone streets of Lisbon, and through the walled city of Cartagena, Colombia, before breaking through the victory tape for a final time in Miami.

“I heard family, friends and strangers cheering me on. All I could see was the finish line,” remembered Nelson. “I was a World Marathon Challenge 2018 Finisher! All of the blood, sweat, and tears, mental mind games, moments of doubt or failure, periods of physical and mental exhaustion — I had found a way to overcome them.”

Nelson was one of 50 competitors in the World Marathon Challenge. She was one of several teammates who also raised more than a total of $1 million for 11 charities.

“I could do two things I love — travel and run — and do something good,” Nelson said.

Her goal was to challenge herself and inspire young people. Along the way, the importance of mental strength was reinforced, wherever she landed. She started her positive thinking early: When Nelson heard about the Challenge from a friend and signed up, she had never completed a marathon.

“I thought, ‘Go big!’” said Nelson. “That’s part of the challenge, to test the limits of what you can do.”

Nelson then trained for a year and half to physically prepare. Her mindset, she learned, was crucial.

While competitors flew via private plane to each destination, they had just eight hours to complete each run.  Cara slept only on the plane. The longest flight was 13 hours, and the shortest was less than two.

“Every marathon was about my mental fortitude,” said Nelson. “I told myself I was going to finish each race and take it one race at a time. I never let myself think about how far I had to go. I looked at how proud I was and what I was doing at the moment.”

All the competitors supported each other, she said.

“We were 50 strangers from all different places around the world, sharing this experience,” said Nelson. “That’s what was so wonderful. Regardless of our background, we cheered each other on to make sure we all crossed the final finish line in Miami.” 

A seventh-grade social studies teacher, Nelson wanted to bring her students at East Hampton Middle School on Long Island on the journey. She created a virtual classroom via Skype discussions, live video feeds and research projects focused on each destination.

“In today’s world, technology allows us the ability to share the same experience or moment without actually being in the same place,” said Nelson. “It is important to stress acceptance of different cultures and ways of life, and that differences between people may just be based on culture. We all have something to learn from one another. That may have been one of the biggest take-aways for my students.”

For Nicole Velez, her teacher’s success has made her believe in her own: “I learned that I can do anything I want, as long as I put my time and effort into it,” she said. “… Ms. Nelson did the ‘impossible.’ I hope one day I can do something ‘impossible,’ and I will remember Ms. Nelson when doing it.”