Actor Paul Sparks, facing his 40th birthday in 2011, was finally ready.
"I've lived in New York for 20 years," said the man who portrays gangster Mickey Doyle in the HBO series Boardwalk Empire. "The marathon is such a mythic sort of race that I think anyone who runs even a little bit thinks about it. I kind of eyed it cautiously for a long, long time."
To get a coveted spot on the starting line, Sparks—a Type 1 diabetic—called the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation (JDRF) to ask if he could raise money for them by running the 2011 ING New York City Marathon. He didn't tell them he was an actor, and he's not sure how they found out. Regardless, Sparks has been happy to speak out.
"What this organization does is so great, if they feel I can be of some use to them then I want to be of use to them," he said in a recent telephone interview.
After finishing the marathon last November in an impressive 3:52:46, Sparks has turned his attention and fundraising efforts to Sunday's NYC Half, where he's hoping to run "extremely fast." While living in Los Angeles over the winter, where his wife, actress Annie Parisse, was performing on stage, Sparks ran the Allstate Life Insurance 13.1 in 1:42:17.
Also competing in the NYC Half will be Kelly Killoren Bensimon, a former star of Bravo's Real Housewives of New York as well as a model and author. Bensimon, who will be looking to improve on her time of 2:21:40 from the 2010 Rock 'n' Roll Chicago Half-Marathon, is running in support of Generosity Water, a nonprofit organization dedicated to ending the clean-water crisis in developing countries. Her fourth book, I Can Make You Hot, which presents a healthy and high-energy eating and exercise plan, will be published in May.
Sparks was still a struggling actor, living alone and working construction jobs to make ends meet, when he was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, in which the pancreas produces little or no insulin. Feeling ill and having shed more than 40 pounds, he went home for a visit to his mother and recalled that she almost passed out when she saw him.
In shock at first, he listened as doctors and counselors told him there was no reason why his life should be much different if he took care of himself, ate well, exercised—things, Sparks pointed out, that everyone should be doing.
"I can tell you that although I'm a diabetic and it's a very, very serious disease, I'll probably live longer because I take better care of myself [than I used to]. I certainly exercise more," he said.
Early in his marathon training, a scientist at the JDRF introduced him to a continuous glucose monitor, a sensor under the skin that checks blood sugar levels every few minutes and quickly relays the information so nutrition can be adjusted. Sparks said he now wears the device even when he isn't running, and that it has changed his life. Thanks to the discovery, he said, the marathon would have been a huge success even if it had taken his seven hours and he'd hated every minute of it.
But not only did he love last November's race, he even liked the months leading up to it. When he first signed up for the marathon, his goal was "to finish and still be alive." Eventually, that morphed into wanting to finish in less than four hours. For someone who used to run just because it was a convenient way to exercise, Sparks was surprised at how much he enjoyed training.
"Now when I don't run, I really miss it," he said.
After the NYC Half, Sparks plans to turn his attention to preparing for the 2012 ING New York City Marathon, and to recruiting some Boardwalk Empire cast mates to join him. He said that Michael K. Williams and Steve Buscemi, who stars as Nucky Thompson, are on the list.
"I think he's interested," said Sparks of Buscemi, who was born in Brooklyn. "He's curious. I'm working on him."
“Our races are to our sport what Wimbledon and the Australian, U.S., and French Opens are to tennis, and what the Masters, U.S., and British Opens and PGA Championship are to golf. Each race has the history, the tradition, the honor roll of legendary champions, and a special place in the eyes of all to make them stand apart from the other events.” Mary Wittenberg