Kathy Ehrich Dowd
March 11, 2015 03:30 PM

As Massachusetts native Uzo Aduba trains for this year’s Boston Marathon, the Orange Is the New Black actress says she’s relying on a lesson she learned while running the New York City Marathon in 2013 to see her through to the last mile.

“Just keep going,” she tells PEOPLE. “That ended up becoming a motto for my life as well, because if you just keep going eventually you’re going to hit the finish line.”

Aduba, 33, who has garnered Emmy and SAG awards for her gripping portrayal of Suzanne “Crazy Eyes” Warren on the hit Netflix series, also agrees her motto could be applied to the characters serving time on the show.

“Life is going to try and beat you down,” says Aduba, who is running on behalf of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute. “Whether you’re going through hills like Heartbreak Hill [the Boston Marathon’s final, legendary incline] or hills like prison sentences, if you keep going the other side of the hill is down. You just have to push through because what’s on the other side is glorious.”

Running the Boston Marathon is deeply personal for the actress, a Medfield, Massachusetts, native and Boston University graduate who is running the race with friends including a pal she’s been close to since the first grade.

“It feels like the right thing to do,” she says of her decision to run the race this year, just two years after the bombings. “It still feel pretty raw, and with [the trial] it almost feels like a Band-Aid getting pulled back again. That’s where I grew up, where I learned what a marathon even was … to be a part of it, it feels particularly special.”

She also chose to run on behalf of Dana-Farber for personal reasons since losing a woman she considered almost like a second mother to breast cancer last fall, as well as a cousin to cancer two years earlier.

Aduba, who has almost reached her $4,000 fundraising goal – the minimum amount needed for invitational runners on the Dana-Farber Marathon Challenge Team – is raising money specifically for the institute’s Claudia Adams Barr Program in Innovative Basic Cancer Research, which studies potential causes of cancer at the most fundamental molecular and genetic level.

“I just felt like too many good lives are leaving this Earth over something I want to see change with cancer research,” she explained. “When Dana-Farber invited me to be part of their team, it felt like a no-brainer. I just wanted to do something other than cry.”

To prepare, the New York-based Aduba says she spent the winter running on a treadmill in her building four to five days a week. Now that the snow is finally beginning to melt, she is eager to begin outdoor runs this week. She’s also about to begin work with a trainer to help develop core strength through Pilates and other techniques, which she hopes will build her stamina on race day.

Aduba says it’s too early to anticipate how she will feel once she crosses the finish line in Boston, but knows she will be thinking of the people she’s lost, who will be on her mind every mile.

“It’s not the finish line I think about,” she says. “It’s the number of thank-you’s to these amazing souls I know who I get to speak to in my dreams.”

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