You know how a runner will swear off marathons within minutes of crossing the finish line...only to find themselves signing up again when they hear about a cool race in, say, Paris? (It's a scientific fact: Your Brain Forgets the Pain of Your First Marathon.) Sandra Cotuna is one of those runners, only she's been willfully seduced into running on every continent on Earth.
Cotuna, 37, is a petite wisp of an actuarial analyst who lives in Brooklyn, NY, and was born in Romania. "I grew up under Communism, brutal Communist leadership," she says. "Everything was rationed: water, energy, TV." The important things in life, though, were abundant. "At the same time, I was surrounded by a wonderful and loving family that really nurtured happiness and love, kindness and compassion, and a curiosity for the world."
Her adolescence was a happy one—she got an education and even traveled the world as a competitive chess player—and all of those gifts allowed her to move to the United States in her early twenties and pursue an even better life. Her parents had instilled the necessity of charity, and she sought out to find ways to give back to her greatest passion: education.
"I decided to make education my priority. I wanted to build schools or do something big for children, because I know there is a global crisis for education," Cotuna says. "I researched different nonprofits and I found buildOn," an organization build schools in developing nations and runs after-school programs here in the United States.
After reaching out to buildOn, she set out to start raising funds. The how was easy: "Looking back at my childhood, I always used to be outside playing and running. I started running longer distances, and I [trained] for my first marathon last year, the New York City marathon. I just loved it," she says. "I decided to combine my passion for running with my passion for giving back," she says. "And I just came up with this idea—I could run to build schools. Why not run around the world to raise money, and then build schools?"
Her sunny personality likely played a role in how quickly she was able to pull in major donations, as did her company, AIG. The multinational insurance company double-matched her colleagues' gifts to buildOn, and within a year she had raised enough money to open a school in Nepal.
Where to go from there? If you're like Cotuna, you want more-more-more. "The first year, I raised so much more than I expected, and it gave me so much confidence to try for more and push for more and brainstorm more ideas." There were other races, maybe a half-marathon, maybe a triathlon—or how about running one full marathon on every continent?
And so a plan was hatched and races were scheduled many years out. Cotuna ran the Iceland marathon in September, Chicago in October, and New York City (again) in November; after that, there's the marathon in Torres del Paine National Park in Chile in September 2016, one on the Great Wall of China in May 2017, the Antarctica marathon in 2018, the Victoria Falls marathon (through Zimbabwe and Zambia) in 2019, and the Great Ocean Road marathon in Australia in 2020. (Oh, and that's not counting the ones she's doing just for fun.) It's a back-breaking itinerary that means she's, essentially, in nonstop training mode. "It''s not easy, especially when I have a full-time job. It can be very tiring at points, and I also get injured." At the time we spoke, she hadn't run in three weeks after a nasty, facedown fall that left her concussed. She records the fun and not-so-fun moments on her Instagram, Twitter, and personal blog.
"I have so many pictures of me taking ice baths. I find them extremely helpful," she says of her post-race routine. "It's hard to get the signals your body is telling you, but I'm getting better at it. I try to be very careful and listen to my body and not push it when it tells me, 'Don't!'" (Would you recognize these Tell-Tale Signs You're Exercising Too Much?)
It's easy to be charmed by Cotuna's attitude and efforts, and she makes it easy if you'd like to donate to her cause. "Go to my blog, and follow my journey. From there, there are donations buttons everywhere," she laughs. She's also working on a sportswear line with designer (and friend) Susana Monaco, all proceeds from which will benefit buildOn, as well as writing a book for kids about chess. Yep, the book money will go to buildOn too. Presumably, she will find sometime to sleep in the next few years too.
For now, she's just unbelievably happy at her success so far, and for the many races to come. "I'm very excited about all of them, to be honest, but I'm really excited about the one in Antarctica. And the Great Wall of China in 2017!" Try to keep up (and learn more about how you can help) here. (Inspired? Check out the 10 Best Marathons to Travel the World.)