Felicitas Perez was welcomed to the finish line of the New York City Marathon on Sunday by hundreds of onlookers cheering her on and singing to Frank Sinatra's “New York, New York.” While the energy was high, the sky was dark, as it was 9:55 p.m. The 26.2 miles had taken her 10 hours and 21 minutes to complete. It's the slowest marathon the 60-year-old has ever run and the “grand finale” she’d only dreamed of.
Perez, from San Antonio, Texas, isn’t a stranger to strenuous long-distance courses. In fact, she’s run numerous 5Ks, marathons and even a 50K race (which is just over 31 miles), she tells Yahoo Life. Her personal record for completing the 26.2 marathon distance is six and a half hours. But after suffering multiple brain aneurysms and a burst appendix over the last five years, being among the last to finish the 2023 NYC Marathon remains a great accomplishment.
“New York has been on my bucket list for a long time, and in 2019, I got my bib,” Perez says. Medical emergencies left her with no choice but to defer her participation until this year. “I had to put this run to rest. I didn’t know how my body was going to handle it, but I knew that I was gonna finish it no matter what.”
A video captured and posted to Instagram by photojournalist Michal Blank can be credited for the bulk of the attention Perez has received since the marathon's end. It shows her being assisted by staff members of New York Road Runners (NYRR), the organization that puts on the marathon, as she crosses the finish line and receives her medal. People surrounded Perez to cheer her on and take photos of the spectacle.
“I really didn't know that was going to happen at the end. I really did not know that was going to be the finale,” says Perez. “It was just so impressive to see people still out there.”
Blank, who didn't immediately respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment, labeled Perez as “the very last runner at the NYC Marathon,” which a representative for NYRR has since clarified. The final official finisher was Joel Kaufman, who crossed the finish line at 8:17 p.m, they tell Yahoo Life, while many others crossed the finish line after the race cut-off time and are not listed as official finishers. Those results still appear on the NYRR website, where it shows that Perez was followed by three other runners — the last being Francine Silver, who closed out the route at 11:11 p.m.
The hoopla of Perez's finish, however, uniquely captured the spirit of the New York City Marathon and the awe of the hundreds of thousands of people who have reacted to the video on social media. What it couldn't fully reveal was the years-long struggle that came before Perez's journey to the finish line.
“I had two brain aneurysms in 2019. One ruptured and one didn't. So I had two brain surgeries in 2019,” says Perez. That kept her from running the NYC Marathon the year that she received a bib. She recalls doing a lot of therapy and having bits of time when she began to gain strength. Then COVID hit in 2020, and the marathon was canceled. But Perez's medical challenges weren't finished.
By December 2020, another aneurysm was discovered, leading Perez to get a craniotomy (a type of brain surgery where a surgeon removes part of the skull to access the brain) in early 2021 to remove the aneurysm, which had wrapped itself around the cranial nerves of her left eye.
She was left with a paralyzed eye, although she still has her vision, and had to relearn how to walk and use her jaw. Nevertheless, she was notified that she still qualified to race in the NYC Marathon either that year or in 2022. Her neurosurgeon allowed her to opt in for the 2022 run “because what you've been through and what you've survived is a miracle in itself,” she says he told her.
When the time finally came, she had one final obstacle to face. Perez's appendix ruptured just days before she was set to leave Texas for New York for the 2022 marathon. She was septic, and again, miraculously saved.
After another year in recovery, the 2023 marathon crept up. “I'm ready. I'm going to do it no matter what,” thought Perez. So, she did.
“My run was dedicated to all brain aneurysm heroes, whether they made it or not,” she says. “So I was going to finish that run, and I was doing great — until mile 18, when my whole left side just went limp.”
Perez was on track to finish the marathon in just over six hours, when suddenly she found herself walking the remaining 8 miles with just the right side of her body functioning (she has a plate on the left side of her head from the brain aneurysm, and that resulted in her body feeling limp and malfunctioning). She was offered support by NYRR staff members, who walked alongside her. She was even encouraged to quit and get medical assistance.
“For me to have finished, it took a lot. It was all heart,” says Perez. “But it was my last [marathon], I was not going to do another one, and I wanted New York to be my last. ... I couldn't have asked for a better finale.”
The emotional celebration captured on video was followed by a trip back to the hotel, where Perez and the friend who accompanied her ordered room service. The following day, they had a celebratory lunch, and they eventually returned home to San Antonio late Tuesday night.
“Physically, I'm not even tired,” she said on Wednesday, just three days after the marathon. "I believe that God has a purpose for everything, and God wanted me to have that grand finale because I do things in a big way all the time.”
And while that's the end of Perez's days running marathons, she says she'll continue to do 5Ks and half-marathons. “I live my life to the fullest. I live it blessed and peaceful with a lot of love to give.”