MIDDLETOWN —— Sarah Claffey wasn't much of a runner four years ago when she decided to join her school's half-marathon relay team at the ING Hartford Marathon.
Years earlier, as a student at Old Saybrook High School, Claffey had made it through exactly one day of track practice before deciding that the sport was not for her. She was a field hockey player. She hated running.
But on that October day in 2009, as Claffey ran 3 miles — her part of the relay — with her Macdonough School students and fellow teachers, something happened. She turned into a runner. And she kept going. Claffey ran the full 13.1 miles.
Two years ago, she did it again. On Saturday, Claffey, a fourth-grade teacher at Macdonough, will run the full marathon for the first time.
The marathon, half-marathon and 5K begin at 8 a.m. at Bushnell Park in Hartford. About 16,000 runners are expected for all the races, including the relays and kids' races.
Macdonough will again have a team of students run the half-marathon, but Claffey won't be with them this time.
"In that sense, it's a little scary because I constantly had them with me, through the whole 13," said Claffey, who was honored as a member of the Hartford Marathon's Elite Inspiration Team and will receive VIP benefits on race day. "And now I'm going to be by myself."
But the school's running community will be cheering her on. About 15 of the approximately 25 staff members at the school run, including Principal Jon Romeo, who has completed more than a dozen marathons and an Ironman triathlon. He is organizing Saturday's half-marathon relay. Between 6 and 12 students are expected to participate.
"It's just a vehicle here to engage families and kids and staff together," he said. "It's really a community-building event."
Macdonough, which serves students from preschool through fifth grade in a neighborhood in the shadow of the Arrigoni Bridge, has a recess running club in which 100 kids participate. One loop around the athletic field is one-fifth of a mile, and runners receive small plastic feet for each mile they complete.
They also run in road races on the weekends.
"If there's a local race and they'll give us a break on the entry fee, we'll do it," Romeo said. "We bring whoever wants to come. We have a group of teachers — Sarah led the initiative — who got their bus driver's licenses. Now we can get the district van and bring the kids to races ourselves."
"To have a teacher who makes the commitment to go to a 30-hour training to get her bus driver license so she can bring kids to events, that's a pretty special thing for us."
A group of teachers and parents is running in Hartford on Saturday with the students. Michelle Currier, a special education teacher, is running 3 miles for the first time. After signing up for 1 mile last year, third-grade teacher John Ferrero is running the half-marathon this year. A parent, Meghan Wilks, has signed up to run the entire half-marathon. Her daughter Taylor, a first-grader, is running a mile. The school secretary Kelli Swan is not running, but she will help shuttle people to different checkpoints. Romeo will run the half-marathon and two student-teachers are running, as well.
Kate Antonucci, the school social worker, decided to try her first marathon.
"I was never into distance running until I started working here and did the relay the first year [in 2009]," Antonucci said. "My principal said, 'You know, you could do a half.' I said, '13 miles, no way.'"
"But I did. I trained and did the half the following year and again last year and I thought maybe I can make the jump to the full. I'm nervous. It's a big jump."
By Lori Riley