Before the sun had even risen, Sandeep Rustagi stood among thousands of fellow runners stretching and jogging early Sunday morning to keep warm in the cool fall air.
The starting position on Long Street near North Bank Park was a place with which Rustagi first became familiar in 2019 when he ran in the half-marathon distance of the Nationwide Children’s Hospital Columbus Marathon. But this year, at 54 years old, Rustagi decided to do something he’d never done before and run the full marathon.
It wasn’t merely the result of an impulse to challenge oneself physically and mentally, though that would have been enough. Rather, Rustagi was motivated by a poignant personal reason.
On July 25, Rustagi and his wife Sonika Rustagi, 50, celebrated their 25th wedding anniversary. As he enters his 26th year of marriage to his wife, Rustagi set his sights on completing, fittingly, all 26.2 miles of the marathon.
“This long of a marriage shows a commitment to a person,” said Rustagi, who lives with Sonika in Powell. “What could be a better way to celebrate that than showing a commitment to a goal like a marathon?”
Sunday also signified a special date to Rustagi, whose mother would have turned 75 years old this Oct. 17. Although she died two years ago, Rustagi viewed the race as his tribute to his mother and celebration of her life.
Rustagi was one of about 8,000 runners competing in the first Columbus Marathon in two years after last year’s event was cancelled because of COVID-19 concerns.
“Here it is, the moment you’ve been waiting for,” an announcer said around 7:30 a.m. to spectators lining Long Street in anticipation of the start of the 41st Columbus Marathon.
Bruce Springsteen’s “Born to Run” blared and fireworks exploded in the sky as the runners ranging in age from 12 to 91 took to the course starting and ending at North Bank Park near the Scioto River. Thousands of cheering spectators were estimated to have lined the course, which wound through Downtown streets and nearby suburban neighborhoods.
Because the COVID-19 pandemic is still prevalent largely due to the delta variant of the virus spreading among unvaccinated people, organizers took extra precautions this year to keep people safe. Runners were required to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test within the past 72 hours, said Darris Blackford, who has been the race director for the past 12 years.
“I couldn’t be more excited; I’m excited by it anyway every year,” Blackford said. “But it’s a tempered feeling of excitement because we don’t want to negate the fact that it’s been a tough year-and-a-half for everybody.”
In 2019, about 13,000 runners crossed the finish line of the Columbus Marathon. Organizers did not reduce the cap for this year’s participants, but Blackford said fewer runners likely registered because many popular spring races were postponed to October — including the Cincinnati and Cleveland marathons.
All told, this year’s event helped raise $600,000 and counting for Nationwide Children’s Hospital.
Rustagi was among the second wave of runners who crossed the starting line around 7:40 a.m. Around the 22nd mile, his 22-year-old son Sachit Rustagi handed him a sign reading “26.2 miles for celebrating 26th year of wonderful marriage” that he would hold aloft in front of cheering family and friends as he crossed the finish line at 1:19 p.m.
The sign was a surprise to Sonika, who knew her husband was running the marathon but did not know that she was his motivation.
“I was so proud of him,” Sonika said afterward. “I have no words for it; that was really amazing.”
Rustagi and Sonika met 26 years ago in their home city of Delhi, India’s capital territory, and were married within a month.
Rustagi was completing his doctorate in business administration at Pittsburgh University at the time, so the newlyweds moved to the United States to live in Pittsburgh. Rustagi, who works at a global technology consulting firm, said his work has allowed the couple to travel and live all over the country, including in Dallas, Texas; Richmond, Virginia; and Boston.
In addition to Sachit, the couple also have a 20-year-old daughter Sonam Rustagi. Both of their children are students at Ohio State University.
Rustagi took up running as a hobby only two years ago when his friend introduced him to a local running group. In 2019, he ran the Columbus Marathon’s half-marathon, which he said was a good introduction to long-distance competitive running.
He said he’s been training for the marathon for the past few months, running a mix of longer and shorter distances most days of the week. However, he wasn’t concerned about maintaining a certain pace or finishing at a particular time.
“I know for sure there will be a lot of people running faster than me and I’m OK with that,” Rustagi said before the race.
The preparation allowed Rustagi to finish the marathon in 5:48:23. Even when the race became challenging, his drive to surprise his wife with a loving message was what spurred him on.
“It was harder than I expected,” Rustagi said as he walked to greet his family. “But she was definitely the inspiration.”
Eric Lagatta is a reporter at the Columbus Dispatch covering public safety, breaking news and social justice issues. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @EricLagatta