What training for the New York City marathon taught me about America

It’s not about the race.
It’s not about the race.
Image: Flickr/Josiah Mackenzie/CC 2.0
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I always hated running.

In middle school, growing up in Italy, I couldn’t pass the basic endurance test of a kilometer run (just 0.6 miles). I’d be out of breath after just 250 meters—a lap around our school’s courtyard. I was the nerdy girl who was the last to be picked for any team sport. Every single physical education class was a reminder of my unpopularity—and running was the embodiment of my athletic shortcomings.

“At the right pace, anyone can keep going for a long time,” my PE teacher would try to convince me. I just never believed that was true for me.

But on Nov. 6, if my body (and my mind) don’t fail me, I will stand on the starting line of the New York City marathon.

I decided to run the marathon mostly out of an angry, rebellious desire to prove myself wrong. Even as an adult, I still believed that I couldn’t run far—or accomplish much of anything, really. But what actually made running a marathon possible—what made me even conceive of the idea and then helped push me past all the hardships and self-doubt and weeks of training—was America.

From couch to 5K

For years—decades, really—just talking about running was a kind of Proustian madeleine. Whenever the subject came up, I’d profess that I hated the activity and was terrible at it. I felt like my early teen self, again: unimpressive, unpopular, and scared. Other things—professional goals, relationships, and body image—held a similar power over me. (Some still do.) At times, life seemed like an exhausting exercise in fending off thoughts of all the things that I am useless at.

A few years ago, when I felt like I was drowning in my own ineptitude, a wild, redemptive idea came to me out of the blue: What if I ran away from that feeling?

I downloaded a couch-to-5k program. It was daunting. I lived in India at the time, and almost every day I would go to a gym inside a mall, get on the treadmill, and start my workout. Walk one minute; run 30 seconds. Then run one minute and walk one minute. Run three; walk one. Just run. Run some more. Not being able to complete a workout would often bring me to tears. But when I finally was able to run a 5k in 38 minutes (a pace known as “running backward”), I felt like I had defeated a small monster.

A year ago, that was the farthest I’d ever run. And a 5k is one thing—a marathon is quite another.

Once I started thinking about the possibility, my initial reaction—”not me”—gradually became a question: “Why not me?” This burgeoning confidence was bolstered by the very normal, if very inspiring, people who had run their own marathons. I began to think that such a goal might be within my reach as well.

“At the right pace,” my teacher had said, “anyone can keep going for a long time.”

“Yeah you can”

The US has a reputation for positivity. Growing up, my family and I would make fun of American TV shows where the main character inevitably responds to something tragic by whispering: “It’s gonna be OK.” No, it’s not! Whatever awful thing that just prompted that reassurance is not going to go away. Life is sorrow—and Europeans know that. Living in America, on the other hand, means being exposed to serious doses of optimism.

This positivity was confusing for me when I first moved to the US four years ago, but it eventually became invigorating. Living here has taught me a thing or two about believing in a bright future, and about daring yourself accordingly. Similarly, training to run 26.2 miles has shown me something new about the way that Americans channel optimism toward achieving their goals.

“Wow, that’s impressive,” said Quartz’s editor-in-chief, Kevin Delaney, when he learned that I was going to run the marathon. Many months ahead of the race, and with no confidence that I would actually be able to follow through, I rushed to clarify: “Well, it’ll be impressive if I do it! I have done nothing so far.”

Kevin’s response was as genuine as it was powerful, and I’ve thought about it many times over the months that followed. “You are willing to try,” he said. “That’s impressive.”

There was that word again: trying.

It’s easy to be condescending about the ”everything will be OK,” “you can do anything” brand of unrealistic American optimism. It’s a lot harder to dismiss that optimism, however, when it is rooted in the belief that yes, you can do anything—if you are willing to put in the work.

“I’m just not sure that I can do it,” I said, over and over, to my American flatmate. His answer was the same every time: “Yeah you can.” He said it not as encouragement, but as fact. The question wasn’t whether I could do it, but whether I’d be willing to stick to the training, and commit so much of my time to the pursuit.

This is a two-step, practical form of optimism: Assuming that ambitious goals can be achieved puts all the stress on the work. That way, the work itself becomes the goal, because it’s what gives value to your achievement.

Owning it

“I’m not a runner,” I declared eight months ago. I was talking to one of the pacers at the Nike running club, which I occasionally joined on three-mile runs after work.

By then, I knew I had been picked in the lottery to compete in the New York marathon that fall. I couldn’t shake the thought that I had set myself up for failure. But I was determined to try to exorcise it, one run at a time. Each jog was a challenge: Even the slowest pace—”sexy” as the club calls it, or between 10 and 11 minutes per mile—felt fast to me.

The pacer I was talking to, Jodi Brodsky, was 61 years old with 54 marathons under her belt at the time. (In the months since, she’s completed four more, including her fastest-ever marathon a couple of weeks ago in Hartford, Connecticut; New York City will be her 59th race.)

Brodsky was as calmly excited about my first marathon as I was anxiously terrified by it. And when I said that it seemed impossible for me to run the marathon because I was not a runner, she nodded and said, so confidently that I nearly believed her: “Well, you are now.”

In the months that followed our conversation, I often ran with one of two training groups: Nike’s, which has a solid “sexy pace” representation, and the New York-based running team called The Dashing Whippets. The latter lives up to its name because—oof—do they dash. The first time I went to one of their workouts, I lost sight of them before I had finished starting my running app. But no one in either group ever seemed to doubt that I belonged there—that I was a runner.

Even so, I still felt like an imposter for a while. But the feeling faded gradually, leaving me with yet another lesson derived from America’s optimistic practicality: If you run, you’re a runner.

The same logic applies to other endeavors or professions. As I trained my mind to believe that I was a runner, I thought about how long it took for me to stop using awkward paraphrases and to start calling myself a writer and a journalist. I thought about how hard it still is for me to be confident in my own abilities.

But no: I am a runner because I run. I am a writer because I write. Sometimes, things are as simple as you allow them to be.

Running like a girl

My cultural heritage isn’t the only reason I have a hard time owning up to my own effort and ambitions. Part of it also has to do with being a womanwhich often means, necessarily, doubting yourself.

Right as I started training, I was reading a book meant to inspire teenagers to be “gutsy.” Reading it, I found myself on the verge of tears—tears of anger, and recognition. Here was an answer to the sarcastic voice in my head, asking what in the world made me think that I could run a marathon.

The voice has had a lot of experiences to draw on. It remembered all the times, growing up, that I had been made fun of—for running, playing, or even just feeling like a girl. All the times others had assumed, and I had assumed, that I would not be good at sports. And it remembered the equally dangerous brand of benevolence that had often discouraged me from pursuing adventure or taking risks or pushing boundaries.

It’s only since moving to the US that I’ve fully embraced feminism as a way to reflect on my own experience. It may be the particular historical moment we’re in as well as the physical place. But I now live surrounded by a culture, and a city, that understands the importance of fighting for gender equality.

And with that understanding in mind, I knew I wasn’t going to let my fearful teenage self stop me from taking on a new challenge. Uncomfortable as it was, I took her out on runs with me, and I explored what I was capable of.

A couple of months in, the training was no longer about the marathon—it was about doing something that I liked, and that I wanted to do. It was about building a relationship with my body that wasn’t only based on shape and size, but on strength and performance.

Most importantly, the training was no longer about proving something—to myself, or to anyone else. That, too, felt like a feminist victory. I’d freed myself from the need for some kind of external validation of my abilities. I don’t need to run the marathon to prove that I’m a runner; I will, inshallah, run the marathon because I am one. And I will run it like a girl.

Everybody runs

“Theoretically, somebody who’s healthy should be able to run a marathon,” running guru Hal Higdon told me when I interviewed him a few months ago, trying to calm my runner’s jitters by reporting on them.

The idea that practically anyone can run is part of what made me believe that I could do it too. Running with groups has shown me that runners come in all forms: young, old, tall, short, fat, thin. To watch runners has been to forget about conventional notions of physical beauty, and marvel at how no two bodies move in the same way. I know an elegant woman who runs with her arms mostly straight down; a fast one who seems to shuffle her feet at impossible speeds, barely lifting them off the ground; a powerful one who jumps from one step to the other.

In a country like America, there’s no shortage of diversity among runners. The barriers to access are very low—literally (1) have shoes (though I have seen barefoot runners) and (2) find a place to run. For this reason, running is the most egalitarian of sports. And so, during the many miles I have spent running alongside strangers (many of whom, gradually, stopped being such), I have met salespeople and hedge-fund investors, creative individuals and practical ones, doctors and mothers running to fill the empty nests left by their college-bound offspring. I have met single and married people; once, a whole family—mom, dad, and two children—came to a run. I’ve hung out with loud, funny team members and shy, focused athletes. Black, Asian, Latino, white, and everything in between; I’ve run with them all.

Someone once described running to me as a “community-based, individual sport.” No one can run for you, but your pack makes a big difference. To me, joining not one but two teams has meant finding my place in a community that does not necessarily reflect my social background, career path, or even my values, and meeting people I would not otherwise have crossed paths with.

I know that runners are everywhere. But when I think about the people I met through the running community, I see the best of America. And, of course, the best of that gritty, gorgeous monster that is New York City.

You can’t hide, but you can run

People often ask what I think about during long runs. I think about all sorts of things—writing and people I know; good comebacks for past conversations and what I’m going to eat afterward. Most of it isn’t very exciting or important.

What is important is what I feel. Even on a good running day, I’ll go from feeling excited to demoralized to angry to serene and back to anxious. Each feeling evolves into the other, sometimes predictably, sometimes unexpectedly. Sometimes I go out on a run and I hate the whole thing, and hate myself for putting my body through it. But even when I’m furious, I just try to keep going. Pushing through is what distance running is all about. When I manage to do it, it feels awesome.

I started running to get away from myself. That didn’t exactly fly. But if running didn’t cure all my neuroses or turn me into an entirely new person, it sure helped me get through some days when the anxiety of not being good enough felt like a paralyzing cramp. If all else failed—see?—I could still run.

And so the last thing that running taught me was, I think, about how to live. Some days or weeks or years, life feels like an endurance sport, and you question how you can possibly keep going. And then, usually, you can. Slowly maybe; sometimes stopping to rest. But still pushing through.