Overcoming COVID, cancer, and personal loss, Trumbull teacher picked to run NYC Marathon

TRUMBULL — There are many reasons James McCaffrey loves running. He enjoys the exercise and the solitude. But most of all, he cites running’s ability to help him clear his head and cope with his personal grief.

“The thing that's great about running is, it is totally personal,” McCaffrey said.

McCaffrey, 40, has been chosen to participate in the New York City Marathon this November under the Team TCS Teachers Program. The program only accepts 50 teachers throughout the United States and Canada.

Running has been part of McCaffrey’s routine for years. He literally runs his errands, and also coaches cross country at Trumbull High, where he also teaches English.

And when his daughter Mia contracted rhabdomyosarcoma, a rare cancer, he ran with her, pushing her stroller as they attended medical appointments in various cities.

So after Mia died at age 6 on St. Patrick’s Day in 2017, McCaffrey continued running as an outlet for his pain, pushing himself to his limits. In 2019, he completed the New York City Marathon in 3 1/2 hours.

The only thing that has stopped him from running is lung cancer, which he was diagnosed with and hospitalized in November 2020. To make matters worse, he contracted COVID while in the hospital getting treatment and had the upper lobe of his right lung removed.

But even that only kept him off the road for 26 days. Then he was back to running.

“The past traumas that exist in your life are things that should serve as fuel or as a mechanism for triumph,” he said.

His dedication to running is only matched by his dedication to teaching and coaching, according to Assistant Coach Jack Kelly. On a recent Wednesday, McCaffrey sat on a bench after school, waiting for the cross country runners to arrive for practice. The bench wraps around a tree with the name “Mia” in yellow paint on the trunk.

Kelly said McCaffrey coaches with the same dedication he runs with.

“The first thing that jumps out to me is his complete dedication to the girls on the team,” Kelly said.

McCaffrey runs with team, although not quite as easily as he did last year. Before his bout with lung cancer his resting heart rate, an indicator of someone’s physical conditioning, was around 39 beats per minute. Now it’s usually between 56 to 60, which still far lower than the average rate for a person of his age according to the American Heart Association which is anywhere from 90 to 153.

When he was chosen to participate in the New York City Marathon coming next month, McCaffrey set a to improve his previous time. But he had a difficult time running again so soon after lung surgery, so a lot of his training this year he said, revolved around his breathing.

Still, when the TCS Teachers Program asked him if he wanted to participate, McCaffrey didn’t hesitate.

“Hell yeah,” he said

At some point during the marathon in November, McCaffrey plans to unburden himself physically, like running allows him to unburden mentally and emotionally. He’ll be carrying a rock with him.

Near the tree with the bench where the runners gather before practice is a collection of rocks, and the bench is inscribed with his daughter’s name transformed into an acronym. It reads Make It Amazing.

Since Mia’s death, he has had his runners carry a rock to the starting line for races. The rocks he said, symbolize the burdens they carry.

So when a race starts, the runners drop their rocks and start running, unburdened. The pick their rocks up when they reach the finish, symbolizing that their burdens, while a part of their lives, won’t slow them down.

During the 2019 NYC Marathon, McCaffrey carried a rock with him. As he crossed the Queenboro Bridge, the same bridge McCaffrey ran with his daughter in a stroller when she was battling cancer, he had planned on throwing the rock into the East River. But he couldn’t bring himself to do it, he said.

But this year, he said he intends to set an example for his students and try to do what his students do.

“I may take the moment to get rid of that rock at the top of the Queensboro that I carry with me and try for the last 10 to 12 miles to let go a little bit and just enjoy the experience,” McCaffrey said.