Something inside Island Park resident Tonya Bettineschi told her she should run a marathon.
After taking part in the Long Island Half Marathon in May 2018, however, she didn’t think it would happen. “I remember crossing the finish line and saying, ‘I’ll never do a full,’” she said. “It was so insane and challenging.”
Bettineschi, 24, returned to her life as a substitute teacher and cheer coach at Massapequa High School, a graduate student and cheerleader at Stony Brook University, and a part-time restaurant worker.
She still ran races on the side, such as Island Park’s annual Jimi Gubelli Foundation 5K each June, and the Stephen Siller Tunnel to Towers 5K in Manhattan, which she and her family run every September.
“I was never a runner growing up,” Bettineschi explained, “but I started doing the 5Ks in [Island Park] and loved it. So [the New York City Marathon] was always something that I wanted to do, but I always made up excuses not to do it.”
In the summer of 2018, she received a devastating text message from one of her Massapequa cheerleaders. Lexi Shaw, 15, and her family contacted Bettineschi to tell her that Lexi had been diagnosed with Ewing’s sarcoma, a rare cancer that forms in bone or soft tissue. She wouldn’t be returning to the cheer squad that year.
“We were absolutely heartbroken,” Bettineschi said. “She’s just the most positive girl — so friendly and happy — and to hear she was going through that at such a young age was so shocking.”
As Lexi battled the disease, Bettineschi still mulled the idea of the New York City Marathon. After 10 months of chemotherapy, Lexi beat cancer in April, and Bettineschi was thrilled. “I was inspired,” she said. “She spent her whole sophomore year fighting this and never skipped a beat. I thought, ‘I have to do something I never thought I could do.’”
Bettineschi finished the New York City Marathon in five hours, 23 minutes on Sunday. She raised $3,000 for Northwell Health, where Lexi was treated. “When I asked Lexi’s sister where I should donate to, she said ‘[Northwell’s] Cohen’s Children’s Hospital literally saved her life,’” Bettineschi said. “I wanted to do something nice for the charity that did everything for her family.”
So she ran 26.2 miles. She spent months raising money online for Team Northwell and training in between work, classes and cheerleading practice. “She’d wake up at 4 a.m. to run,” said Tonya’s sister, Kayla, 28.
In May, while running her normal route around Harbor Isle, she hit a pothole and sprained her ankle. This set her back two months in her training, but she managed to wobble through the 5K in Island Park in June. “When she was injured, she was still trying to do as much as she could,” said her younger sister, Kira, 22.
“[After the 5K], she was in so much pain,” Kayla said. “So I’m really proud of her.”
“She would run one mile and come home devastated,” Kira added. “So it’s pretty cool to watch it happen from the bottom up.”
Kira; their parents, Joseph and Audrea; and a group of friends came to cheer Tonya on from the sidewalk on Sunday as she raced through the streets of New York City. “It was incredible,” Tonya said the next day, on her way to a Marathon Monday event in Central Park to have her medal engraved. “There were nonstop crowds the entire time. I’m still so sore, but I think everyone should experience it at least once in their life.”
She described strangers cheering her name throughout the race and adrenaline taking over. Although there were thousands of runners, it felt like the crowd was there for her, she said.
Her parents saw her run at miles 8, 17 and 24. “My dad was sitting at the kitchen table with his glasses on, the week before the race,” Kayla recounted, “and he mapped a whole route to figure out where they would find her. It was so cute.”
Though Kayla couldn’t make it to the race, she live-streamed it. Tonya’s friends took photos as they huddled together on First Avenue. She felt the support even when she couldn’t see it, she said.
Two weeks before the marathon, she went for her longest run, from her home in Harbor Isle to Eisenhower Park in East Meadow — about 20 miles. “I was so worried because I didn’t think I could do the mileage,” she said, “but after that, I said, ‘I think I can do six more!’”
During the times that Bettineschi thought of quitting, she remembered Lexi Shaw’s strong will and resilience. Now 16 and cancer-free, Lexi is cheering and tumbling on the field with 32 other cheerleaders in Massapequa. And Bettineschi is back to coaching her.
“I’m just so happy for the support of my family and friends,” she said, “and I want to thank all the people who donated to my campaign for Northwell. I could not have done this run without them.”