By Nicole Pope
WASHINGTON, D.C. – When Sebastiano Battaglia isn’t working on lifesaving cancer research at Roswell Park Comprehensive Cancer Center, he’s cross-training for his next race.
In the five years Battaglia has run marathons, he’s crossed the Big Sur International Marathon off his list, passed through local villages on a half-marathon route through the Alps in Italy, and even finished a 50-mile ultra-marathon race.
His latest feat? The Marine Corps Marathon last Sunday in Washington, D.C.
The Marine Corps Marathon draws more than 30,000 people to its scenic route, making it one of the largest in the world. Due to its popularity, those vying for a spot enter a raffle each year for a coveted race bib. Participants pass landmarks including the National Mall, Korean War and World War II memorials, the Pentagon, and the Potomac River on the way to the finish line at the Marine Corps War Memorial. Participants have seven hours to complete the 26.2 mile journey.
Established in 1976 after the Vietnam War, the marathon was initially named The Marine Corps Reserve Marathon. Its aim was to showcase the Marine Corps and serve as a recruiting tool. Today, the Marine Corps Base Quantico is responsible for organizing the event, which honors servicemen and women and “remains a repository of inspiration, ambition, desire, stamina, tenacity and resilience,” according to the organization’s website.
You’d be hard pressed to find better words to describe Battaglia than ambitious and resilient.
Following his passion to study abroad, Battaglia left his hometown near Milan, Italy, after obtaining his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in medical biotechnology. He studied toward his Ph.D. at the University of Birmingham in the United Kingdom, as a visiting student at the Max Planck Institute for Molecular Genetics in Germany, and at the University of Luxembourg. Most recently, Battaglia completed his Master of Science in bioinformatics at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. He works as an assistant professor of oncology at Roswell Park , where he investigates how the body’s immune system can be used to combat certain types of cancer.
His introduction to his first passion, running, came much earlier in life. During middle and high school, Battaglia ran the 110-meter hurdles and other short distance events in track and field competitions. Battaglia laughed as he recalled dreading endurance training.
“I started doing track and field because a lot of my friends were doing it, and I turned out actually to be pretty good,” he said.
As he entered college, Battaglia stopped running competitively, but never put his dedication to physical fitness on the back burner. He began practicing martial arts and ran long distances to complement his training.
Battaglia said that he was inspired to run his first marathon because of his wife, Heather Burger, and her commitment to pushing herself to go beyond her expectations. She is an avid marathoner, and ran alongside Battaglia in the Marine Corps Marathon. She ran the race in 2015, as well.
“Seb is passionate,” said Burger. “Whatever the task at hand, Seb puts in the work to pursue his goals.”
In addition to his wife’s support, Battaglia relies on his longtime friend and training partner David Hooper to keep him motivated during marathon training. Shortly after moving to Buffalo in 2009, Battaglia began teaching martial arts at KC’s Fitness in the city, and met Hooper there.
Hooper remembered how Battaglia helped him propose to his wife, Maggie. His unconventional idea was to carry her engagement ring throughout the grueling Beast of Burden Summer 100 Mile Ultra Marathon and pop the question at the finish line.
“He [Battaglia] ran 25 miles of it with me during the worst of it at 4 in the morning, and I think that speaks to the type of person he is,” said Hooper. “ He saw my vision and wanted to help me accomplish it. He was even there to cheer me on through the last five miles of the ultra-marathon.”
The pair began participating in GORUCK events, in which a "Special Forces Cadre" lead teams through a 12-hour trek through difficult terrain, as well as the Ride for Roswell 100-mile bike ride and Spartan Race obstacle courses. Several months ago, Battaglia and Hooper started their own chapter of GORUCK, called Ruck 716, and are in the process of establishing a new member base for future courses.
Each of these endurance-based events contribute to Battaglia’s goal of developing a cross-training program that focuses on more than just running. Some days this involves conditioning, Muay Thai boxing, and stretching, and other days it means a nonstop overnight endurance course that pushes him to the ends of his limits.
“You’re going to hit something where your body tells you: ‘I’m not going to go any further,’ and you’re going to learn how to deal with that,” said Battaglia.
One of the ways Battaglia deals with "the wall" is by what he calls “finding his why.” For example, being a positive role model for his 5-year-old niece is a constant reminder to keep going.
“There will be moments when you want to give up,” he said, “but when you think about the things that inspire you and the example you can set for people around you, that will bring you a very far way.”
After months of preparation, Battaglia was humbled to participate in the marathon.
“The marathon is a very touching event,” he said. “Being able to run it and honor people who have served and given it all is the least we can do.”
Nicole Pope, a Buffalo native, wrote this story for a journalism class at Catholic University in Washington, D.C.