Top Model Goes Down a New "Runway"

The glasses clink and the liquor flows at Felix, a Parisian-style bistro in Manhattan’s Soho. Manager and maître d' Anthea Robles, a statuesque gamine with pageboy hair, schmoozes with the tartare nibblers, aperitif sippers, and beer drinkers who pile into the restaurant well into midnight on a recent October evening. At 11:30 p.m., Thea--as she's fondly called by her friends--slips on her fur vest, its tails flapping behind her, as she whisks out of the chic spot. She has an early day tomorrow—a 7:00 a.m. run, to be exact. A former model, Thea, 46, is used to early calls. However, this one is of her own choosing: early-morning runs are part of her training for her first marathon, the ING New York City held last Sunday.

Early mornings, Thea hits the running path in Central Park, Battery Park, or along the East River. She follows a running program, which alternates long runs of about 15 miles with short runs of about eight miles. During routine “speed work,” she does bursts of fast and slow speeds in one run. When she’s not on the track, she’s on the yoga mat, perfecting her breathing, as she has been doing for a decade before she even strapped on her running shoes.

Such drills prepared her for her longest run yet: the 26.2 miles through the city’s five boroughs. This year, the annual run attracted a record 50,740 runners, including those who won slots in last year’s race, cancelled by Super Storm Sandy. Runners flew in from places all over the world, including Robles’ country, the Philippines, where she immigrated from 20 years ago.

Over the years, Thea has managed to keep in touch with her model friends in the Philippines, from whom she caught the “marathon fever” two years ago. As newly minted running enthusiasts, they encouraged her to try to run distances, a challenge that intrigued her.

“When I turned 40, I promised myself I would do it,” she says. “But it never happened.” She would always put it off, saying it was too cold to run when friends tried to persuade her in the fall, and too hot, when they tried to persuade her in the summertime.

Coming to America

Born and raised in the beach town of Puerto Princesa, the tan, five-foot-eleven beauty modeled in the Philippines’ capital, Manila, in the ‘80s, briefly reigning as a beauty queen and the country’s representative to the 1988 Miss International pageant. A side trip to New York with two best friends left her awestruck, and she relocated to New York in 1993. The transition wasn’t easy. After signing with a small agency, Robles struggled to book jobs: small shows, the occasional music video, and the high point: an invitation to a go-see by Calvin Klein himself, who spotted her at a coffee shop in Union Square. Robles recalls how casting directors preferred skinny frames to her strong torso and broad shoulders.

“I had a hard time becoming the waif, like Kate Moss,” Thea shares.

She then shifted to restaurant work, first as a part-time hostess and coat-check girl downtown. She eventually got a job at Felix, where she has worked for 14 years, allowing her to support herself. Every time Thea enters the restaurant, she is a towering presence, albeit with a ready smile.

Running Start

In late 2011, Thea decided to commit to running by starting small and joining the New York City Road Runners (NYRR), the organization that helps mount the New York City Marathon. “Starting small” was relative; Robles ran 10 kilometers, or 6 miles, in her first race, egged on by her friend, Lucia Santiago, a top Filipina model in the ‘90s, striding beside her. Prior to that, Robles had only casually jogged near her apartment, but she felt an urgency to keep going.

“I would say to myself, I got to do this, I got to do this, I got to do this,” Thea reveals.

She had since completed 12 more races prior to the New York City marathon. This earned her a spot in Sunday’s run, under the NYRR’s 9+1 program for members who complete nine qualifying races and volunteer at one other race, as Robles has done in the last year.

Now, as before, friends continued to play an important role in Thea’s five-hour-and-27-minute journey to the finish line. She ran with a friend from Switzerland, a serious runner with a 10-marathon track record, who accompanied her at her pace. Her model pals, who flew in all the way from the Philippines, also followed her to various checkpoints and were there to greet her at the finish line in the crisp fall cold, as she shrugged on the orange plastic cape given to each runner.

Thea also ran for more than just a personal goal. She is raising money on behalf of an old classmate from Puerto Princesa whose family she had just hosted in her apartment on their recent vacation to New York. Her voice quivers when she narrates how her friend’s house burned down in September, claiming the lives of their firstborn son and household helper. When people offered to pledge money for Robles’ run, she decided to donate the proceeds to their family instead.

“Other people run for a charity. I’m trying to raise money for a friend.”

(All photos courtesy of Anthea Robles)

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