Despite suffering stroke, this marathoner stays on pace
This wasn't supposed to happen to her.
Marie Bartoletti was 57 and in outstanding shape. By late 2015, she had run 315 marathons and 25 ultra marathons. In one two-year stretch, she ran a marathon in every state plus Washington, D.C. — a feat that takes others a lifetime to accomplish. She qualified for Boston, then decided it would be fun to run the course in reverse before turning around and running the official marathon with the rest of the field.
Her personal record was 3 hours, 40 minutes, but Marie also liked to slow down and run as an official marathon pacer — volunteers who hold up signs showing how fast they will finish the course so less experienced runners can follow their lead. She loved pacing because it allowed her to help first-time marathoners reach the finish line. She had paced every Pittsburgh Marathon since it returned from a five-year hiatus in 2008.
And now she was in a hospital bed, and she couldn't even say her name.
They had been visiting her family in Michigan for Thanksgiving. The last thing she said that day, at 7:42 a.m., was: "We need to get to moving."
Her boyfriend, John Rosatti, looked up at her.
Something was wrong. Her right side drooped, and her mouth curled down on one side. Rosatti, a former volunteer firefighter in Forbes Road, Westmoreland County, had seen this before.
"You're having a stroke," he said. "Lay down on the floor."
When she awoke in the hospital the next day and saw her son, she knew it was bad. Not because of his expression; because of his presence.
"He lives in Maine," said Marie, 59, of Bethel Park. "When I saw he was there, I knew."
Doctors explained what had happened:
Marie had a hole in her heart through which a blood clot had passed and traveled to her brain. Her stroke score was a 25 on the National Institutes of Health Stroke Scale. Anything above 21 is "severe."
"I was scared," Marie recalled. "I didn't know what would happen."
All she knew was that she wanted to run.
Even before doctors knew whether she would live, she wanted to get out of her bed and run. Running is how she clears her mind, she said. Running is where she finds shelter.
So a few days after the stroke when a nurse gave permission for Marie to walk, she leaped from that bed, nearly causing the monitors connected to her to tumble to the floor.
She stayed in Michigan for four weeks with her cousin, Kathy, a retired nurse. She began speech therapy, struggling to relearn the seemingly simple act of forming words. The first word she worked on was "John," for the man who would always be by her side. But it was hard. Marie had run distances beyond the reach of most people. Now the clearest thought in her head could not travel inches to her mouth without collapsing.
"I did not like it and I was crying," she said. "I could not understand why I was still unable to speak."
Still, she stuck with it. Because she understood that, as with running marathons, recovering from a stroke is no sprint. It is slow. Plodding. Painful.
Tiny accomplishments passed like mile markers. That Christmas, Kathy told Marie about a country singer named Mel Tillis who stuttered while speaking but sang without faltering.
"Sing with me," Kathy urged. " Hark the herald angels sing ..."
Marie tried: "... Glory to the newborn king."
It came out perfectly. She still couldn't talk. But she could sing.
Next, her doctors cleared her to run marathons again. They were hesitant, but John took them aside and explained how important this was to Marie.
"There's mental health and there's physical health, and they have to be in balance," said John, 58, of Somerset. "If she wouldn't be able to run, she'd be physically healthy, but she'd be a mental disaster."
So they said yes, and Marie laced up her shoes.
Six miles later, there she was, smiling for the first time in a long time.
She returned to Pittsburgh. She continued speech therapy. She ran every chance she got.
She also battled depression.
Before the stroke, Marie was a physical education teacher at West Jefferson Hills School District. She founded the Kids of Steel running group and coached tennis. She missed her students but was not cleared to return. She still hasn't, and that pains Marie. The threshold of her old school is a finish line she has yet to reach.
But Marie is determined to get there.
And who would doubt her?
This is a woman who has run 45 marathons since her stroke, 369 in all; whose speech remains halting but steadily is returning; who will run Pittsburgh on May 7, again as a pacer, again helping others reach their finish line.
She'll get there.
For if Marie Bartoletti has proven anything, it's that she knows how to finish a race.