Meghan Holohan
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When Samantha Roecker lined up at the Boston Marathon start, she was on a mission. She hoped to break the Guinness World Records title for fastest marathon run in scrubs to raise awareness of the need for mental health support for nurses.

She smashed the record — coming in at 2 hours 48 minutes and 2 seconds, about 20 minutes under the previous record — and surpassed her expectations.

“The record was just a nice bonus,” Roecker, 30, a nurse at an outpatient surgical practice at Penn Medicine and family medicine nurse practitioner student at University of Pennsylvania, told TODAY. “The overwhelming part was really the audience that was reached and the money it ended up raising.”

The Guinness World Records title for fastest marathon run in scrubs was last set in 2019 by nurse Jessica Anderson during the London marathon. Anderson finished in 3 hours 8 minutes and 22 seconds, according to Runner’s World.

Breaking the record felt personal to Roecker. Over the winter, she wrote letters to a high school friend who had worked as a physician assistant in New York City during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic. She now has post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety so severe that some days she struggles to get out of bed. Roecker hoped her letters would encourage her friend to at least go to the mailbox.

As she tried finding support for her friend, Roecker realized how tough it was for health care workers grappling with their mental health to find the help they need.

“I wish her story was unique, but unfortunately I don’t really think it is. I was just doing everything I could to try to find resources to help her as a health care worker and what I found was there’s really nothing out there,” Roecker said. “I was really motivated by her to try to make a difference somehow.”

Roecker ran track in middle school, high school and college, but the longest distance she'd ever run was 10K. Her marathon career started after she was a spectator at the Boston Marathon in 2014, just a year after the bombing.

“It was just a really amazing year to watch the Boston Marathon. It was a beautiful, sunny day, and I was like, ‘Oh my gosh, I need to run this next year,’” Roecker explained. “I signed up for the last possible marathon that you could qualify for the Boston Marathon.”

She didn’t just qualify for Boston at a marathon in Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania; she won it.

“I wasn’t expecting it. I went in there literally wanting to Boston qualify,” Roecker said. “At mile 22, my mom told me I was in third place, and I wasn’t too far from winning. I had no idea and then I just tried to turn it up the last couple miles. It was pretty surreal. I feel like I blacked it out.”

When she ran the Boston Marathon that year, she did “fine” and ran it a second time, which was “the worst marathon ever.”

“I definitely have some unfinished business in Boston,” she told TODAY prior to running the race in 2022. “But I’ve never really run it for more than just a really cool … experience.”

Roecker doesn't know how her record-breaking run becomes certified by Guinness World Records, but she's not too worried about it. Helping nurses with their mental health was always the most important part of this adventure. She first had hoped to raise $26,200, but she's now raised more than $43,000.

“The original goal is $26,200, which correlates with the marathon being 26.2 miles. I was joking that I should convert it into kilometers, which is like about 42 kilometers, so $42,000,” she explained. “But that even was surpassed. It's wonderful.” 

The friend who inspired Roecker’s advocacy has since left her job and become a teacher at a physician assistant program. Roecker said she seems to be doing better and feels glad she can be a part of her friend's recovery.

“She has a lot of other good friends, too, and she knows that she was a big motivation for this, and I think seeing where this has gone is really motivating to her and inspiring to her, too. So that makes me happy,” Roecker said. “She’s trying really hard and doing everything she can.”

Running helped Roecker grapple with the stress she faced in the pandemic.

“I leave nursing, and I have this whole other world of running that I can open the door and go be a part of,” Roecker said. “Also it’s not a bad hobby, too. I get a lot of natural endorphins.”

She knows that many people are still struggling and need help. The money she raises with her fundraiser, which will be up through the end of May, will support the American Nurses Foundation’s Well-Being Initiative. She wore scrubs from Moxie Scrubs and got a "little warm" when the sun was shining, but she didn't notice it that much, thanks to the crowd's encouragement.

“So many people were yelling out in support, so that made it really special,” she said.

Roecker is passionate about reducing the stigma associated with mental health and providing support to health care workers who need it.

“There is a gap between what health care workers are actually going through and what resources they need. We went into this profession expecting a physically and emotionally demanding job, but nobody expected this,” she said. “It’s just a whole new level of trauma that people have endured.”

Roecker plans to celebrate completing the Boston Marathon in record time with friends and family and hopes her efforts help spread her message.

“There’s not really resources available to health care workers that are struggling,” she said. “This was a silly little thing to do to bring attention to that, but I hope that it makes people think about it a little more, look further and maybe something good will come of that.”

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