In the fall of 1996, Adrian Garcia ran his first marathon — by accident. Lacing up a pair of borrowed sneakers, his only intention that November morning was to watch the New York City Marathon from the sidelines. Running was not his sport.

“I run in training for the soccer only,” he says. “I don’t like so much to run.”

Having made the perilous journey across the border from his native Mexico a week earlier, Adrian, forty-seven, was beginning a new life with family members in Borough Park, Brooklyn. His cousin, Lidia Garcia, forty-five, a feisty running enthusiast, encouraged him to join her in cheering on the marathoners as they wound their way through the borough.

“That morning, we go to see the marathon — my cousin and one friend. Somebody give me sneakers because I just come back from Mexico,” Adrian says. “I have no clothes. They give me sneakers, like ten size — so big. One pants. One sweater. And we go to see the marathon.”

Adrian, Lidia and their friend joined the crowd of milling spectators curbside. Standing on tiptoe to catch a glimpse, Adrian spied the first small swarm of female runners who kick off the race; their brightly colored shirts polka-dotting the horizon. They had just crossed the Verrazano Bridge from Staten Island, only three miles into the 26.2 mile race. They glided buoyantly, a synchronized surge of pumping arms and legs. As the runners approached, cheers and chanting erupted. A steady clapping began. The helicopters overhead hummed in chorus and cameras flashed like daytime fireworks.

“I never seen this before. Ever,” he remembers. “When they come, you feel like, wow. You feel so nice. You feel like, oh yeah, this is so, so nice.”

“My cousin says, ‘O.K., so you want to run behind them?’” Lidia posed the idea as a joke of sorts. “When you tired, like maybe in two, three blocks, we’ll take the train. Go to Central Park and wait for them to finish. O.K.?”

Why not?

Suddenly, Adrian found himself running. “I run,” he says. “In my big shoes and maybe five dollars in my pocket. I run.”

The initial few blocks went by in a blur. His legs were urged forward by a frenzy of adrenaline, nerves and sheer joy. Children ran alongside him, offering candy and cheering. The yelps of support incited a wide grin to spread across his face as he ran.

Intoxicated, exhilarated, Adrian looked around to share in the moment with Lidia and with his friend. He looked to his left, spun his head to the right. Nothing.

He was met with the steady stream of unfamiliar faces of passing, panting runners. Strangers. The only people he knew in all of New York City were nowhere in sight.

A moment of panic.

A flurry of thoughts:

“I don’t know the train to take here.”

“Where is she? What do I do?”

And then: a calm. “Screw it,” he said out loud. “I’m going to run.”

And so he did.

He ran through Bay Ridge and Sunset Park. He passed the businesses that freckle Bed-Stuy. He barreled past Williamsburg and through Greenpoint.

“I kept running. I don’t care. Run. Run. Run.” Adrian says. “I see Queens. I see the Pulaski Bridge. ‘Shit,’ I think. I’m in Queens. I keep running.”

As he approached the base of the Queensboro Bridge, the halfway mark of the marathon, exhaustion crept in. His chest ached. His legs wobbled in agony. His borrowed sneakers had rubbed blisters onto his heels and toes. He could feel the dampness of blood in his socks. He slowed to a walk. Doubt registered for the first time that day. The finish line was a world away. Sweat-drenched and well past tired, he began to consider stopping.

Unexpectedly, from the crowd: sounds of home. Vamos, Mexico! You can do it! C’mon, paisa! Vamos! You can do it!

Adrian looked toward the cheers. Other Mexicans had gathered to lend support just as he had earlier in the day. Recognizing a fellow countryman, they belted out encouragement and hoisted their Mexican flag higher, still higher into the air. Wiping the combination of tears and sweat from his eyes, pride erupted from his veins. He was reinvigorated. He crept from a crawl back into a full gallop. Over the bridge and into Manhattan, he pushed past exhaustion and fought to believe again.

Up First Avenue, Adrian kept his focus angled towards the ground, concentrating on the white traffic lines beneath him and the in and out of his breath. He began to fear that the barks of “Where’s your number?” from volunteers patrolling the sidelines for marathon crashers would ultimately be directed at him. He dreaded that the “bandit catchers” would take notice, as they had with others, and foil his completion. When he saw one, in their blue jacket, he would pump his arms in front of his chest, trying to cover the fact that he was not wearing a bib with an official number on it. His other strategy: “I run behind all the tall people.”

Adrian kept pace. He journeyed through the Bronx and then south through Harlem.

Finally, Central Park. The finish line lay before him like a mirage. “I was so tired, I wanted to die. I am so hot. Tired. But, all the people, everybody is cheering. And I did it. I finished. I finished the marathon.”

“I kept saying ‘thank you.’ They wrap you in like plastic to keep you warm.

Like a blanket. They give you bananas and water. I kept saying ‘thank you’.”

“They asked me, ‘where’s your number?…Where’s your number?…Where did you start?….Where did you start?’ I said, ‘from the beginning. I just run the marathon…From the beginning.’” One of the volunteers narrowed her eyes at him, but continued to scribble on her clipboard. In truth, he had just completed nearly twenty-three miles of the fabled race without a stitch of preparation.

Utterly spent, Adrian staggered onto the subway and headed back to Brooklyn. Lidia was waiting for him at home. “Where were you? What did you do?” she asked him. Adrian triumphantly pulled a marathon medal from his pocket and presented it to his cousin. “This,” he said. “This is what I do.”

Adrian would go on to run four additional marathons in the years that followed. All of them, like his first, were run illegitimately. “I am an illegal here,” he says. “So I run the marathons the same. Illegal. I am an illegal everywhere.”

“But, maybe next year, I run again. I feel good. So, maybe next year.”

*   *   *

Jamie Maleszka is a freelance writer, born and bred in New York City. Follow her on Twitter at @jmaleszka.

Rachel Dukes is a 2013 MFA graduate from The Center for Cartoon Studies. She frequently draws comics for BOOM! Studios’ Garfield, Mitch Clem’s As You Were, and is a regular contributor to anthologies and fanzines.