Winter Garden resident Lelia Higgins may be the branch manager at Windermere Library during the day, but during her vacation time, she runs marathons around the world.
In early March, Lelia Higgins found herself on the other side of the world — standing in the mass of humanity waiting for the start of the Tokyo Marathon.
The day before had been perfect — sunny and in the 50s — but race day was a different story.
“I had to be there two hours before the race in the corral, and during that time, it was raining, so I was soaked to the bone before I could even start the race,” Higgins said. “It was cold, and we were wet, and that in itself was different. Most races corral you, but not for that length of time, so it was strange.”
Not only was she freezing and wet, but also the jet lag from flying in a few days earlier still lingered. When you throw in the whole aspect of being a stranger in a strange land — where few spoke English — it was a lot to take in before running a 26.1-mile race.
Nevertheless, she persisted; even if it did take a full 20 minutes for her corral to get past the starting line of the race. That’s what happens when you have 30,000 to 40,000 runners competing in a race.
Over the next six hours and 17 minutes, Higgins made her way around the winding track, fighting strong headwinds and cold, miserable weather. For a native of Jamaica and a Florida resident of 30 years, this was unfamiliar territory.
But she had prepared for the race, knowing where to eat, where to drink and where to use the restroom if she needed — all while facing the cutoff times she had to meet if she wanted to finish the race.
“The race was relatively flat, and they were very strict if you didn’t meet certain cutoff points — they’d take you off the course,” Higgins said. “Your race ends if you don’t get across that cutoff point. About 1,000 people got caught, because they either stopped to take pictures or took a potty break.”
By the time she had made it through all the checkpoints and crossed the finish line, Higgins was dealing with hypothermia and was given warm tea and care. Then, Higgins enjoyed a nice little vacation with her husband — taking in sites such as Mt. Fuji — while celebrating her completion of the Abbot World Major Marathons.
The Abbot World Major Marathons comprises the world’s six biggest marathons — Boston, New York, Berlin, Chicago, London and Tokyo — which Higgins started before she knew it existed.
“It was not on my radar,” Higgins said. “It came about long after I started to run, and by that point, I had finished the Chicago (2006), New York (2010) and Berlin (2007) marathons. When I did Boston (in 2016), someone mentioned about the world marathon majors and I said, ‘Huh, I’ve done three and there are six of them — maybe I should try for the Six Star.’”
So all that was left for Higgins to conquer the Abbot World Major Marathons were the London and Tokyo marathons.
The London Marathon is one of the hardest races to get into, because despite there being 50,000 who compete, only 1,000 Americans are accepted. Higgins managed to get in by running for a charity.
“I got into London and I said, ‘OK, I’m nearly done — one left, here I come; do or die,’” Higgins said.
Higgins capped off the challenge this year with her run in Tokyo. And to think: This whole journey simply started with Higgins wanting to get healthy.
A WAY OF LIFE
Back in 2004, when her daughter was graduating high school, Higgins went shopping and noticed she had gained a couple of pounds. From there, she decided to make the lifestyle change.
“I started walking, and in nine months I dropped 40 pounds just by walking three miles a day,” Higgins said. “After a while, you get bored with just walking, and there was a running group in Orlando, and I started running 5Ks, 10Ks and half marathons. The problem for me is it takes me a mile or two to warm up … so the 5Ks weren’t working for me.”
And just like that, the longtime Orange County Library System employee — and current Windermere Branch Library manager — started running marathons.
Since that start in 2004, Higgins has run 44 marathons and many other half marathons, 5Ks and 10Ks, and there doesn’t seem to be any stop for her.
But where does she go from here? Higgins is currently on a quest to run a marathon in all 50 states — she already has 39 — while also running on every continent. It’s the drive of a person who doesn’t know the word “quit.”
“I hope it will take me to my grave — I hope so,” Higgins said with a chuckle. “For me, it’s a way of life. When I dropped the weight when I started running, it dawned on me that this is all we have. I try to be healthy, and for me running is the way to do it.”