How I Went From Never Running More Than A Mile To Finishing The NYC Marathon In 1 Year

Hint: A lot of blood, sweat and carbs.
Nov 4, 2018: hardest, best day of my life.
Nov 4, 2018: hardest, best day of my life.

“I could never run a marathon.”

“The longest I run is from the couch to the fridge.”

“You’re crazy.”

That’s pretty much what I heard when I told anyone with ears that I was running the New York City Marathon. And I did tell anyone with ears.

It wasn’t all that long ago that I would have had the same reaction. A longtime listener and first-time caller, I’ve ugly cried on the streets of Brooklyn watching thousands of runners glide by in neon waves and questioned year after year why anyone would willingly put themselves through one mile of running, let alone 26.2.

Then, about a year ago ― Oct. 14, 2017 ― I ran my first race, a half marathon. It was only eight weeks before then when I ran more than a mile for the first time. Ever.

I spent the first 28 years of my life avoiding sports like the plague. I spent the last year and change not quite easing into long-distance running as much as going from 0 to 26.2 real quick. Take that, all those years at summer camp spent in the arts and crafts room.

The first question I’m usually asked is how did I get to this point in long-distance running? And the truth is, I got here in a lot of different ways. Some I remember and some I don’t. It didn’t happen overnight, obviously, but it’s not so easy to pinpoint the exact moment I felt like a “real runner.”

I trained. A lot.

I followed runner Hal Higdon’s (free!) training program for both my half marathon and the marathon. It’s a mix of mostly running, with some cross-training and some rest. I also cursed. A lot. Like a bad boyfriend, training for me is 95 percent low, with 5 percent extremely high. Running can feel impossible, unfulfilling and endless. But a runner’s high is real, and it’s fantastic.

And like time spent with a bad boyfriend, I would forget every bad thing about a shitty training run the second it was over, then throw myself right back into the next one.

Totally unlike a bad boyfriend, those hardest moments made me stronger, faster, more confident and more capable, both physically and mentally. The three miles that felt impossible one day felt a little less so the next. And so on, slowly but surely, mile by mile. I came up with mantras, stocked my playlist with almost 18 hours of music (you can find it here as long as you don’t judge the songs on it!) and forced myself to just, well, do it. Sure, it’s a cheesy slogan, but it became an integral part of my daily reminders. Just put on the clothes, get out there, you can always stop and walk, but just try.

If I’m being honest ...

I started running because I wanted to lose weight ― despite many conflicting articles that debate running’s effectiveness in weight loss and my own journey toward self-acceptance the way I am. And I did lose some weight, gain muscle ― the whole shebang. But what running has done for my anxiety, my cluttered mind and my relationship with food has proved itself more important.

Let me explain: I am a firm believer that you don’t need to “earn” an indulgent food with exercise, and often get on a soapbox about eating that goddamn cheeseburger, regardless of whether you made it to your workout class that day. And I’m often times full of shit. I give myself grief about every piece of food that goes into my body and feel leaps and bounds more comfortable “treating myself” after a hard workout.

The hardest part of my 20-mile run day? Picking an ice cream afterward. (I picked both.)
The hardest part of my 20-mile run day? Picking an ice cream afterward. (I picked both.)

When you’re running long distances, you have to eat a lot. You need the fuel. When I started looking at food as fuel to help get me over that hill, past that threshold, my mindset changed. It’s not so much that I lost the “earned it” mentality as much as I just stopped giving food so much power to take over my thoughts. It is so. Incredibly. Refreshing.

There are a few things I learned along the way, some on my own and some with the help of a friend/stand-in running coach, that I’d like to share with anyone interested in embarking on this journey.

Training for the NYC Marathon means starting in the summer, when it’s hot, hazy and humid.

It’s OK to miss some of those runs, and it’s normal for those that you do to leave you totally defeated. Once the cooler temps hit, you will feel a lot better.

Never not sweating through all my clothing.
Never not sweating through all my clothing.

But don’t miss a run after Sept. 1. You’ll feel a lot more ready mentally on race day if you go in knowing you’ve done everything you can to prepare. And trust me, it’s one big mind fuck.

Running really messes with your head.

One day you’re cruising through 20 miles, the next day you’re dragging through three. It’s normal! Well, normal is relative, but it happens to everyone.

Before my first half marathon, I had so much anxiety about finishing, to prove to people that I could do it. After speaking with a sports psychologist who reminded me I wasn’t running for spectators, my mindset changed. My mom was still parking the car when I got through the finish line of my first race, and I (mostly) didn’t care.

You can do it. Believe me. The number of shocked friends and family members who have looked me in the face and said they quite frankly can’t believe it’s ME running a marathon has been vast. One of my friends cried when she told me how proud she was that I was doing it. Sure, we were three tequilas in at a wedding, but still.

I was so lucky to have the support of many friends and family members along the way, including HuffPost's own Emily McCombs and her son at mile five!
I was so lucky to have the support of many friends and family members along the way, including HuffPost's own Emily McCombs and her son at mile five!
Emily McCombs

It gets more doable, but no less unpredictable. In September, I ran another half marathon, and I went into it feeling pretty cocky. I was training for the marathon, after all, so what’s a measly 13.1? Except that I ate the wrong thing the night before, had to stop to use the bathroom almost every mile, and dealt with cramping pretty much the whole way. Remind me why I’m doing this again?

Oh, because it’s incredible.

Two weeks before the marathon, I finally took the advice of runners around me and joined a running group practicing the last 12 miles of the course. I was always afraid of running with people ― I can barely breathe while I run, let alone have a conversation ― and I worried about holding the group back. But runners are the most supportive people in the world. I spent most of the course chatting away, high five-ing other training groups and getting a feel for the strenuous end of the marathon route, something I was told many times is a must-do. The energy I felt from that day alone made me want to cry. Side note: Many running groups are free, and I highly recommend seeking them out.

Struggling at mile 23.
Struggling at mile 23.
Ori Demri

The experience is also so much bigger than you. I am proud to say I raised almost $4,000 for the American Cancer Society, and I ran alongside others who raised thousands for other charities.

So, even when I wanted to quit, when I was lost in Chinatown roaming the streets in search of Gatorade and unable to feel my legs, I kept going.

A few other quick things: Every single Taylor Swift song has a perfect running tempo ― trust me. You don’t need to read every single piece of literature on the internet about running the marathon before you do it, but you will. Bring plenty of warm clothes you don’t mind throwing out for the long, long wait in Staten Island. And, most importantly, ENJOY IT. Or try to, anyway.

The actual race day arrives.

Enjoy it I did. Most of it. It’s true that if you have your name on your shirt, you’ll feel like a goddamn celebrity. I did for all six (yes, six) hours it took me to make my way through the five boroughs. Standing on the Verrazzano Bridge with 50,000 other people, the Manhattan skyline in the distance, is emotional. High-fiving kids on the sidelines is adorable. Seeing how genuinely happy people are to just cheer on random strangers is faith-restoring.

When my legs started seizing up around mile 14 and never stopped, I thought for a long stretch that I wasn’t going to make it and started questioning why I wanted to do this in the first place. But then I’d see friends and family, who followed me all over this city like real champions ― and my energy was renewed. My friend and running coach, who had an incredible drawing made for me, ran with me when I was on the brink of tears, rubbed muscle cream into my aching legs and reaffirmed that I could do it. I smiled the whole way, no matter how I was feeling. It helped.

I burst into hysterics when I crossed the finish line. Partially because I couldn’t walk, partially because I thought I would have been faster (I’m trying to push that one away, but just being honest), and mostly because I never in a million years thought I would see this day.

The END.
The END.
Kristen Dwyer-O'Connor

My immediate thought was that I would never put myself through something like that again. It was physically, mentally and emotionally the hardest day of my life. Twenty-five minutes later on the subway ride to meet my friends and inhale a cheeseburger, I was already talking about signing up for Chicago.

I think that’s what they call marathoner initiation. Sign up for that race, do that scary thing you never thought you could do. Because you can do it ― and if you can do it, who knows what else is possible?

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