To run and complete even one marathon—a physically and emotionally grueling distance of 42.195km—is a great feat. For Jacob Sternfeld, the Tokyo Marathon coming up in February will qualify him to receive a “Six Star Finisher Certificate,” awarded to those who’ve completed the World Marathon Majors of Boston, London, Berlin, Chicago, New York City and Tokyo. So it’s hard to imagine that, not long ago, the now-dedicated runner underwent quadruple bypass surgery. A lifetime of heavy smoking led to a heart attack, an experience that motivated Jacob, who now never skips training—and has even inspired the man who used to sell him cigarettes to quit smoking himself.

Sternfeld and his wife at the London Marathon

Sternfeld and his wife Andrea
at the London Marathon

The simplicity of running is what appeals to Jacob, who explains how “you only need your feet and your shoes

and you can just go. No special skills needed …  you can potentially do it everywhere.” The level of commitment and self-discipline needed to train for and run a marathon are great, but perhaps even greater is the return. As Jacob explains, “Running a marathon is not a victory over others but over yourself—you do it with others but for yourself.”

“Running,” he says, “has given me a focus, a satisfaction and strength that I never knew I had.” It has also given him “a new way of discovering a city or country,” and has brought opportunities to “[see] and [meet] people from all over the world.”

Jacob calls the upcoming Tokyo Marathon the “crown jewel” of the World Majors, not only because it will be his last, but also because he’ll be running it with Dr. Michael Bowdish, “the only person who has ever touched [his] heart.”

Jacob inspired his heart surgeon “to get moving,” to compete in Ironman 70.3 triathlon races, and the Tokyo Marathon will be the first event they run together. “I feel awesome,” says Jacob, “about running the marathon with him … I hope we will get the chance to do even more races together.”

Jacob’s journey has touched many others, including his family, who have “collectively lost hundreds of pounds of weight.” On witnessing Jacob’s transformation, his wife Andrea says, “I am very proud … and feel like running has transformed him into a person who is focused on his health, on others’ health and on learning about the sport and the body.

“I always tell Jacob,” she continues, “that the marathon is really run before the race—it is the hard work and the perseverance that are the true marathon. The glory is on race day, but showing up for the daily training is the true test of character.”

“In some ways,” says Jacob, “there is no explanation for what I have done and will continue to do. However, I want people to know that life is not over after a heart attack or after half a lifetime of smoking and sitting on the couch. Life is a search and I was able to find a path—much later in life—that inspired me to change and share my transformation with others, with the hope that my story will inspire people to set goals, move and feel good about themselves.” 

Jacob is looking forward to an “unforgettable experience with [his] wife and Dr. Bowdish,” and the chance to “meet Japanese people and [get] a deeper feeling for the culture and the Japanese way of life.”

Those in the area on race day (February 22) can look out for Jacob wearing a shirt with his name written in katakana—and don’t forget to cheer on the countless other runners who have dedicated their time and effort gearing up for the big race.