The inspiring stories of the Miami Marathon, from Paralympic hopeful to Ukrainian refugee

The Miami Marathon once again took over Miami-Dade County on Sunday, flooding the streets of Miami and Miami Beach with almost 18,000 runners from 50 states and 69 countries.

They carried flags from their home countries, including several from Ukraine, and donned Lionel Messi jerseys, with one even carrying a replica World Cup trophy with him along the half-marathon route to celebrate Argentina’s victory last month.

As always, the stories ranged from the inspiring to the offbeat, with some distinctly South Floridian flair thrown in for good measure.

Brandon Lyons, 32, holds his medal after winning the marathon race chairs at the Miami Marathon in Miami on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.
Brandon Lyons, 32, holds his medal after winning the marathon race chairs at the Miami Marathon in Miami on Sunday, Jan. 29, 2023.

Paralympic hopeful wins Miami Marathon

Brandon Lyons’ dream to compete in the 2020 Summer Paralympics were dashed when the COVID-19 pandemic postponed the games by a year and a slew of injuries disrupted Lyons’ training.

Now, the 32-year-old has his sights set on representing the United States in the 2024 Summer Paralympics and he kicked off his 2023 calendar — a crucial one for the Paralympics aspirant — with an emphatic victory in the marathon race chairs in Miami.

Lyons was the first racer to cross the marathon finish line, blazing through the 26.2-mile course in 1:12:53 — almost 26 minutes faster than anyone else in his race.

The timing worked out perfectly for Lyons, who grew up in Pennsylvania and now lives in St. Augustine: He and his family were in town to see Billy Joel at the Seminole Hollywood Hard Rock Hotel & Casino on Friday, so he stuck around to race as a tune-up for the Swamp Classic, which is Saturday in Gainesville and will determine whether he makes the national team for events later in the year.

“I was like, OK, I just want to see how hard I can go,” said Lyons, who hoped to make his debut at the Miami Marathon last year until a a conflicting competition arose. “I felt really good.”

Lyons has been a budding star in his sport for the better part of the last decade.

Lyons, who graduated from Pennsylvania State University in 2012, became paralyzed in 2014 when he dove headfirst into shallow waters while on vacation in Ocean City, Maryland, and raced in his first competition just about four months later. He was already registered to run in the Marine Corps Marathon through Washington and Arlington, Virginia, so his family, friends and co-workers started a fundraiser to buy him his first handcycle while he was still in the hospital, and he took to it right away.

In 2017, he moved to Colorado Springs, Colorado, to train at the United States Olympic Training Center — he moved in exactly three years to the day after his injury — and stayed there until COVID forced it to shut down in 2020. He believes he was in good shape to make the 2020 Paralympics until he got an infection in his leg — the early stages of sepsis, he said — and broke a foot, which hampered his training.

Two years after those Summer Paralympics, which actually happened in 2021, Lyons is optimistic about his chances for next year.

“I’m hoping this year is full health,” Lyons said, “and we’ll see what happens.”

Diane Leigh Sumner, a 63-year-old from North Carolina, was the top woman in the marathon race chairs, finishing in 1:50:11.

Algimantas Valaitas, a 46-year-old from Lithuania won the half marathon race chairs with a time of 1:05:30. Yakalis Colon, a 32-year-old from Miami Beach, was the top woman in the half marathon race chairs with a time of 1:58:49.

Kenyans sweep Life Time Miami Marathon again, miles ahead of 18,000 runners

Ukrainian refugee runs in Miami

This time last year, Valentyna Veretska’s entire world was different. The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine was still more than a month away from starting and Veretska was still at home in Mykolaiv, Ukraine.

A month later, everything was changed. One day after the war began, Veretska fled her homeland, crossing the border into Poland with her daughter, while her husband stayed back to fight. A month after that, she became something of an international running celebrity, turning a last-minute invitation into the Jerusalem Marathon and a pair of borrowed shoes into an unlikely, emotional win in Israel.

Finally, she and husband Pavlo Veretska, also a professional runner and her coach, are reunited, living together in Staten Island, New York, as refugees from a conflict still ongoing almost a year later. In Florida, she made a long-awaited return to the sport, running the 13.1-mile half marathon in 1:18:41 for the second fastest time among women.

“I’m starting to run [again],” said Veretska, 32. “After the war started, I finished.”

She was invited to run in the New York City Marathon last year, but didn’t make it to the U.S. on time. The Miami Marathon was her first race in almost four months and her first in the U.S.

“I like this weather, I like these people,” she said. “The people are funny, strange sometimes.

“This race pushed me to run again. ... Here is my first race in the USA, so I’m hoping this was a good step.”

Half-marathon man and woman streakers

Mika Shevit, 48, of Sunny Isles Beach, and Helen Ryvar, 42, of Wales in the United Kingdom, prevailed in continuing their half-marathon streaks. The two had never met in person before the marathon weekend, but were featured in a Miami Herald story this past week.

Shevit completed a half marathon for the 669th consecutive day, and Ryvar stretched her world-record half-marathon streak to 274.

“I was so overwhelmed by people who knew my story from the Miami Herald,’’ said Shevit, who finished arm-in-arm with Shevit in about an hour and 45 minutes in his first official, organized half marathon after running 10 marathons. “Maybe 250 of them took selfies with me on the course. It was a beautiful, incredible run. My intention is to be back next year. It was a magnificent experience.’’

Dade police honor slain partner

A few hours before he was killed in a shootout in Miami, Cesar Echaverry sent his partners in the Miami-Dade Police Department’s Robbery Intervention Detail a video of himself breaking in a new pair of running shoes.

After Echaverry died, four of his partners decided they’d honor his life by taking up the hobby he loved and run in the Miami Marathon — something he never got to do.

On Sunday, Joe Rodriguez, Justin Heller, John Childress and Sean McVay followed up on their goal and finished the half marathon in Miami, with “Echy” written on their shoes.

“Crossing the line, it was a lot of emotions, especially seeing his family there with smiles on his face,” said Rodriguez, 30. “We obviously wished that he was there next to us running this race, but we did it for a good cause and we loved him.”

Singer Elvis Crespo runs ‘suavemente’

The Miami Marathon is always a destination runs for celebrities, particularly from Latin America, and 2023 brought yet another.

Almost two hours into the race, the distinct horns of Elvis Crespo’s “Suavemente” blared near the finish line just as the Grammy Award-winning singer was about to complete his half marathon.

Crespo, who was born in New York and raised in Puerto Rico, lives in Doral and finished the half marathon in 1:51:47.