The first person to cross the finish line in the New York City Marathon on Nov. 1 did so in 2 hours, 10 minutes and 34 seconds—and more than 50,000 runners followed him, after taking off in Staten Island and pounding 26.2 miles through Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens and The Bronx.
One of those runners was massage therapist Julia Khvasechko, L.M.T., making this her 154th completed marathon.
For Khvasechko, a cancer survivor, running is more than a recreational pastime. After she was diagnosed with a brain tumor in her 20s, she became bedridden. Eventually, she learned to walk again. As her strength grew, she decided to become as healthy as possible, and set out to train to run a 5K. Five months later, she crossed that first finish line.
“When I finished that 5K, I felt like I’d run in the Olympics,” Khvasechko told MASSAGE Magazine. “I felt so good and so proud, and decided that’s why I survived, to do this.” She began training for a 10K next, then a half marathon. She ran her first marathon, the Marine Corps Marathon, in 2005, and ran the New York City Marathon for the first time in 2007.
Now, 17 years after surviving cancer, Khvasechko trains by running 50 miles every week. She competes in 24 marathons a year. Sometimes she runs 100-mile marathons, making her, in the parlance of avid runners, not just a marathoner but an ultramarathoner.
“I am very lucky to be here and to be able to run at all, and I wanted to use my second chance as an opportunity to give back to those still fighting—but also to inspire others,” she said. “I wanted to show people who are still fighting that if I can do it, so can you, [that] being diagnosed with a brain tumor doesn’t have to be the end of your life; it could be the start, a marvelous beginning.”
“Massage Found Me”
In New York this past weekend, she finished the race in just over five hours.
“I nailed my pace,” Khvasechko said. “I became the 5:15 pace in the end, and am grateful to have had the pleasure of pacing so many first-timers across their own finish lines.”
The help Khvasechko provides to runners goes beyond pacing: Her massage clientele consists of, by her estimate, 90 percent athletes, primarily triathletes and marathoners. She’s built her practice mostly by word-of-mouth, with athletic clients telling friends and colleagues about the help they get from her. Before she trained in massage, she received it.
When Khvasechko lost her finance job in 2008, she said, she looked at her massage therapist—whom she saw to stay injury-free as a runner herself—and asked, “‘How do I become you?’”
The answer: Enroll in massage school, become licensed and launch a new career.
“I decided to follow my interests in bodywork, to go to massage school so I could learn more about bodywork, help myself become less injured through the knowledge of anatomy and be aware of my own body—and then in turn help others to become the best runners they can be,” Khvasechko said. “I would have to say that massage found me, not the other way around.”
On a Journey
Khvasechko said what thrills her most about practicing massage is the opportunity to empower fellow runners by helping them stay injury-free and becoming the best version of themselves.
“My clients and I are on a journey together,” she said. “[I help] people be healthy in their bodies and lives—it’s such a gift to be able to use your body without any kinds of restrictions.”
One of those clients is Karen de Saint Phalle, a 1989 All American Division 1 Collegiate cross-country competitor for Georgetown University who also competed in the 2015 New York City Marathon.
“Julia is passionate about running, and brings her knowledge to bear in her massage work,” de Saint Phalle told MASSAGE Magazine. “She has been an incredible asset in my healing and return to running.”
This spring, de Saint Phalle tore both of her hamstrings. She began seeing Khvasechko for massage weekly. When she spoke to this publication just before the New York City Marathon, de Saint Phalle said she was “feeling great.”
“Basically, I beat myself up each week and she sets me straight and is a key component of my recovery,” de Saint Phalle said of Khvasechko. “I am not sure what I would do without her.”
Types of Injuries
Marathoners have mostly lower-body issues, Khvasechko said. “I see tight iliotibial bands, shin splints, [gastrocnemius] that are hypertonic, a great deal of plantar fasciitis—and mostly, what I note in almost every runner is tight psoas muscles, [and] hypertonic hamstrings exist in almost all distance runners.”
She spends the majority of runners’ sessions on lower-body ailments, with a particular focus on the psoas, and said loosening up the deep lateral rotators of the hips seems to alleviate most lower-leg issues.
Khvasechko uses a combination of Thai massage, which includes lots of stretching; shiatsu; myofascial release; neuromuscular therapy; and Swedish and sports massage.
Having experienced the benefits of massage from both sides of the table, Khvasechko is a believer in the importance of very regular bodywork sessions, especially for athletes.
“I see it all the time—the level of fitness you can sustain, and then maintain, is a direct correlation to who gets regular bodywork [compared with] those who come in just once in a blue moon when something is already bothering them,” Khvasechko said. “I myself am not just a therapist, I’m also a client—I get bodywork weekly to keep myself in marathon-ready shape all year ’round.”
Khvasechko said she loves the New York City Marathon “more than words can say” and receives great personal satisfaction from helping fellow athletes reach their goals. And what is her goal for the future? She said she hopes to continue running marathons into her 80s—“with the help of bodywork.”
About the Author
Karen Menehan is MASSAGE Magazine’s editor in chief. She has also served as MASSAGE Magazine’s editorial assistant, managing editor and editor. Menehan has reported and edited for additional publications and organizations, including Imagine Magazine, the Sacramento Bee newspaper and the LIVESTRONG Foundation.