Like many New Yorkers, Salvatore Polizzi had for years told himself he would run in the New York City marathon by the time he reached 30.
The decision to run a marathon usually rests in achieving a life-long goal and testing your limits. But the year Polizzi, a native of Ridgewood, turned 30 coincided with his mother, Anna, being diagnosed with cervical cancer. He always had a desire to run; now he had a reason.
“I’ve made it a point since 2009 to stop imagining a world without cancer, but actually start fighting for one,” Polizzi said.
Not wanting to just sit on the sidelines, Polizzi’s fight began with running the ING New York City Marathon that year as part of Fred’s Team of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center, helping raise money for cancer research.
This year, the 32-year-old will continue raising money during his run while also competing as the Queens representative in the Foot Locker Five Borough Challenge.
For the 12th time, Foot Locker is pitting five strangers – one from each borough – to participate in a unique “race within a race.” Foot Locker chooses competitors who overcome challenges through sheer will, positivity and running.
“It’s an honor to be among the group chosen and I hope that, among the many wonderful experiences that will undoubtedly present themselves, my efforts will shine a spotlight on my cause,” he said.
The marathoners will run together over the first half of the race. Once they finish mile 13, the race within the race commences and the runners will be competing for borough bragging rights, along with a Tiffany trophy and a $1,000 donation to the charity of their choice.
The Pace University graduate owns and operates the pizzeria and Italian eatery, Tony’s in Bushwick, which his parents opened 35 years ago. The long days and nights running the restaurant do not provide Polizzi with optimal training time, but he manages to find opportunities – usually while the rest of the world sleeps.
A normal day begins at about 5 a.m., allowing Polizzi to get a one-hour morning workout before beginning his workday that lasts until 11 p.m. This is where the real marathon training begins. Once Polizzi gets back to his Astoria home, he grabs his running shoes. Those two hours when many have already hit the sack is when Polizzi hits the streets.
“They call it ‘the city that never sleeps,’ but it’s very peaceful,” he said of running at night.
The alone time and peacefulness of the runs is something Polizzi has needed in a turbulent time.
Polizzi, the second oldest of six, lost a brother in September to wounds suffered during a home invasion.
“Running alone puts you at peace to some degree,” Polizzi said. “No matter what challenges; no matter what’s going on, every step you take is a challenge. [Running] settles me, it grounds me, it focuses me. Not that you put things on the back burner, but you can put things into perspective.”
Polizzi was born and raised in Ridgewood, attending Grover Cleveland High School where he played baseball and ran track – to the dismay and surprise of many doctors.
The summer before Polizzi’s freshman year, he was struck by a car, shattering his ankle which required surgery and pins to be inserted.
“Doctors told me I would have to say goodbye to certain things,” Polizzi recalled. “I wasn’t going to be able to do the things athletically I did before.”
But being told he couldn’t do it made him all the more determined to prove the doctors wrong.
“I was on the track team for all four years,” he said. “The doctors thought I was crazy.”
That hard work and determination will come in handy when Polizzi is racing through the five boroughs. He aims to finish the marathon within three-and-a-half hours. During the race when many marathoners run to the sounds of their iPod, Polizzi will rely on the sounds of the city and its residents for inspiration.
“I would miss the feel of the crowd, the excitement from the crowd,” Polizzi said of racing with an iPod at the November 6 race. “The best thing about the marathon is [the spectators] inspire you to run faster. It’s an amazing feeling. You got a feel for what New York is really about, how amazingly inspiring they could be.”
And Polizzi knows what New York is really about, having grown up in Queens, with a family restaurant in Brooklyn and attending college in Manhattan, which is why representing his borough is all the more nerve- racking, he said. He wants to put his and the borough’s best foot forward.
“Queens is my home, Queens is where I grew up,” Polizzi said. “I want to bring this home for Queens, put the spotlight on Queens. I think I’ll be able to pull it off.”
To donate to Fred’s Team of Memorial Sloan-Kettering Cancer Center in support of vital cancer research visit http://mskcc.convio.net/site/TR/FredsTeamEvents/Freds_Team?px=1961618&pg=personal&fr_id=1460