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by Kate Silver

When Gertjan Ophorst completed the TCS NYC Marathon in early November, his finish time was more leisurely than past marathons he’d run. But that was exactly his goal: he wanted to bask in the race. “I was aware that this is very likely going to be my first and only New York City marathon, so I just needed to enjoy every step of it,” he says. It was about the experience, not the clock.

Ophorst, who lives in the Netherlands and is Senior Brand Manager for Hematology, International Developed Markets with Pfizer, was elated to have the opportunity to join in what he considers the “holy grail” of running. “It’s New York itself. It’s the Big Apple. It always sort of feels like the capital of the world,” says Ophorst. He’d dreamed of running through the storied streets—along avenues and past buildings that looked nearly as familiar as his own home town, thanks to countless movies, television shows and a couple of personal visits. He’d entered the lottery to run the world’s largest marathon in the past, but had no luck. So in the spring, he was giddy when Pfizer opened up a lottery of its own, offering 10 employees the chance to run on a Pfizer charity team benefitting the Thomas G. Labrecque Foundation.

The organization was founded by the Labrecque family in honor of Thomas Labrecque, who was diagnosed with lung cancer in 2000 and died eight weeks later. Labrecque was a member of the Pfizer Board of Directors, and he’d been in good health, never having smoked a cigarette when he was diagnosed. Today, the Foundation raises money to support lung-cancer research. While in New York, Ophorst even had the chance to have dinner with Thomas Labrecque Jr., the son of the foundation’s namesake and the leader of the organization. It was one of the many highlights of the trip.  

And then, of course, there was the main event. The marathon, itself, was more fulfilling, more heartening and more inspirational than Ophorst could have imagined. First, there were the sights—taking in the skyline views of Manhattan and running through the lush greenery of Central Park. But there was also something less tangible—a feeling that came with the experience. It was the cheering of the 2.5 million spectators, the surge of the adrenalin, the pride of seeing his own co-workers cheer him on and the knowledge that he was doing something for a greater purpose. “You suddenly realize that every step you take is not just for you, and not just for having fun,” he says. “To be able to do something for these patients and hopefully do something for curing these patients in the longer term, it made it extra special. I must say I was very proud to be a part of that.” Although Ophorst had completed five marathons before, none had a charitable connection, and that added gravitas to the event.

Ophorst finished with a time of 4:05. To his surprise, even though his race ended, the enthusiasm around the city didn’t. Everywhere he went, he says spectators shook his hand and congratulated him. He went to a coffee shop wearing his medal and was given free coffee. At dinner later that night, his server overheard that he’d run the marathon and gave him a discount on his bill. “The way that people make you feel like a hero, it is really spectacular,” he says. “It felt like I was an Olympic champion or something.”

Now that he’s returned to his home in the Netherlands and his sore muscles have started to relent, Ophorst says he’s starting to think about the next marathon. He likes the idea of running more races in different countries and seeing the world on two feet. Something he’s learned from his work with Pfizer is to live every day to its fullest. “You never know what’s going to happen, so you need to enjoy and do the things you can do now,” he says. He’s grateful that his work helped him arrive at that realization, and that it also enabled him to complete his most recent journey.