Elite Runner and Full-Time Nurse Will Race the Boston Marathon in Scrubs to Raise Money for Mental Health

Sam Roecker, 30, will line up at the 126th Boston Marathon wearing Moxie Scrubs to support the mental health and well-being of healthcare workers

Sam Roecker
Photo: jason ayre

Samantha Roecker got in the car in July 2020 and burst into tears. Her boyfriend had just picked her up from her nursing shift at the Hospital of the University of Pennsylvania to drive them to the track for their evening workout.

"I remember feeling particularly defeated that day and just being like, running doesn't even matter," says Roecker, 30. The world is going to s---. Why am I doing this? I should just go home and crawl into bed."

It was unusual for Roecker to feel down, but the pandemic was weighing on her. An outpatient nurse at an ear, nose and throat clinic, Roecker and other health care professionals across the country felt overwhelmed by their duties as the system bent under the pressure of the pandemic.

As she and her colleagues continued to deal with the pandemic and other stressful systemic issues, she realized the importance of increasing awareness about health care workers' mental health challenges.

She decided to run the 2022 Boston Marathon in nursing scrubs to raise money for the American Nurses Association Foundation, which has a well-being initiative that supports the mental health of nurses in the United States. They offer free group therapy counseling sessions, grief courses, financial consulting, wellness apps and other services.

Sam Roecker
Emily Maye

Roecker recalls how her own mental health began to suffer over the last few years.

"Early on in the pandemic, not having the answers for patients was really hard," she explains. "Somebody would ask, 'Should I get a test? Where can I get a test?' And I'd have to say, 'I don't know. I really don't know what to tell you.' It was frustrating because we felt helpless as healthcare providers."

"On top of really tough diagnoses like cancer or brain fluid leaks or whatever we deal with on a 'normal' daily basis, pandemic worries about who's going to accompany somebody to the hospital during their chemotherapy treatment or how they would get a test prior to treatment — all of those unknown stressors and barriers added up."

Luckily she knew how to use running as a stress reliever. A former Division 1 athlete at Providence College, she had returned to competitive running a few years before the pandemic. "When I started nursing school, I was really missing the running aspect of my life, so I joined the local run club in Philadelphia," she says. "I saw success that I was not expecting and got hooked all over again."

After reconnecting with her college coach, she started training for marathons, running 2:32 while representing the United States at the 2019 Pan American Games in Lima, Peru. She beat that time a year later, making her fastest marathon 2:29.

Through it all, she continued to focus on nursing. "I was very involved in my new career and wanted to excel there as well. I just tried to figure out how to best manage my time and energy between running and nursing."

Over time she began to understand more fully the systemic difficulties faced by nurses, such as emotionally taxing responsibilities and staff shortages, which can lead to mental health challenges.

Sam Roecker
Emily Maye

"In general, nurses are sharing really intense moments with patients and their families," she explains. "Oftentimes, we are the ones that are there to comfort them on their worst day, or be there as well during happy moments when something is going better than expected."

It's also hard to interact with patients when people cannot get the care they need, she explains. "There's just an overall frustration with shortages, and nurses are the people that face that frustration from patients," she says. "Dealing with that is hard."

Currently, the world record for someone running the Boston Marathon in a nurse uniform is 3:00, and Roecker plans to beat it. This will be her third time on the Boston course, and she will be wearing Moxie Scrubs.

Somehow she still manages to juggle a full-time nursing career and her athletic pursuits. "It's in my personality to try to maximize, get the most out of everything I'm doing," she says, admitting that it's not easy.

As for Boston, she's trained hard but says she's as pumped about her fundraising mission and creating awareness as she is about being the fastest nurse to ever run the course. "I'm not super fit right now, but it's a fun thing to reach for and to have a purpose. At the end of the day, I'm already so excited about the wave that it's made, with or without the record. So obviously that would just be the icing on the cake."

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