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Life’s a marathon, not a sprint

Penelope North
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Just as our toes reached the starting line, a voice boomed over the crowded street, singing, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere, it’s up to you, New York, New York!” 

Thank you, Frank Sinatra. I whispered to myself, “We have made it here, after over 300 miles of training, surely we can make it 26.2 more.”

 I looked ahead to the towering Verrazano Bridge in front of me, and past it, the faint skyline in the distance. We are here in New York City, running the New York City marathon. It was finally happening. 

My eyes turned to my arms, which were tattooed in black sharpie with the phrases, “when the going gets tough, the tough get going,” “Let Go, Let God,” and “For Nana,” reminders for when the expected pain set in. I knew the demands of this goal upon setting it, however, all the proper training in the world still doesn’t fully prepare one for the tumultuous, transformative, poignant rollercoaster that is the 26.2 mile race called a marathon. In an attempt to provide a glimpse into my own experience, I invite you to lace up your shoes and join me in the journey of learning about what it takes to become a marathoner, and maybe you’ll be inspired to become one, too. 

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My head has long swirled with the thousands of lessons that come from marathon training, and has gained a million more since the actual race itself. One particular takeaway stuck out on that long, egregiously humid Sunday in New York: whether in a marathon or in life, don’t look too far ahead at the road in front of you. Measuring the distance you have to go as opposed to the distance you have traveled discounts the importance of the journey, which was an incredible feat of its own. This is one of the prized perspectives marathon training has taught me to have in all aspects of my life, to live within the current mile or minute and not be frightened by what lies ahead. 


We learn from a very young age to “put one foot in front of the other,” and there is no reason why we should outgrow that tactic. Your mind will give up before your legs in a marathon, so one must train their inner voice to seek optimism in the discomfort, the pain, and the uncertainty of such a long distance. That is how I survived not one, but two marathons, both in grueling weather conditions in which every part of my body begged, pleaded, screamed “QUIT.” 

The first few miles in New York went down like water, with crowds so powerful I nearly forgot the momentous task I had ahead of me. They say Brooklyn on Marathon Sunday is a nonstop party, and it was one I hope to have the invitation to attend again in my life. 

19 miles later, as I made my way north up First Avenue, all that occupied my mind was the incessant whimpering of my thigh and calf muscles. Desperate for a way to remove myself from the physical pain in my body, I looked up to the notorious green street signs that passed above my head every half minute or so. I was currently crossing 100th St, and I knew I had friends at 120th, but 20 more blocks? That number felt daunting, impossible even, given the depleted state of my legs and body. I stumbled past 101st, 102nd, and slowly 20 blocks became 10, which turned into 5, and before my mind could even process it, my body sensed a glimmer of hope. The faces of friends and family came into view exactly when I needed it. I reached my hand out partially to make sure they were really there, that the dehydration wasn’t causing me to hallucinate, but also in hopes of snatching some of their motivational energy. 


A friend, Elena, hopped the fence and joined the race alongside me: “What do you need, what can I get for you,” she generously asked. 


“A new pair of legs,” I joked, providing a lighthearted escape from what felt like the weight of the world on my lower body. What my fans might not have realized in the moment was that the mere ten seconds in which I passed them with their thrashing pom poms and roaring  cheers were the most important seconds of the entire race. They provided the necessary reminder that this day was not just about me. And if people came to support me in this race for which I crazily signed up, then I was finishing for them. 


For my mom, who obliges my Hoka addiction and worriedly supplies me with pepper spray to take on my runs. For my friends, who support me–near and far–in my running endeavors, especially my roommate who wills herself to sleep through my crack-of-dawn alarms. And even more importantly, for those I don’t know or can't see, who physically can’t run; I am privileged and honored to dedicate my runs to them.

No matter how much physical havoc had been wrought on my body at mile 20 by humidity, dehydration, and fatigue, I can distinctly recall a lingering sense of utmost belief in myself that I would finish this race. As I approached the last bridge, I snapped a photo of my defeated state, face covered in a mix of sweat and tears and sent it to my family with the caption, “So. Hard. Consciousness. Hard.” The wall was here–though I am pretty sure I’d been running up against it for the past five miles, when the humidity had stripped me of my ability to keep up the 8 minute per mile pace through Brooklyn. What I was faced with was a decision: let this invisible barrier stop me and quit now (I had already made it 20, that was close enough), or find a way around it. Whether I would surmount it or chip my way through it, the wall was not going to keep me from finishing what I started over two hours ago. 

Before this moment, before crossing the Verrazano Bridge, and even before arriving on Staten Island at 6:30 a.m., my heart was set on reaching the black and white checkered line in Central Park. The prior 16 weeks of training, of progressively harder workouts and faster mile times, built my determination that I had what it takes to endure the trek from Staten Island to Central Park in November. 

This is the beauty of the marathon. 26.2 miles seems like a certifiably insane distance to put the human body through as a form of exercise. But it’s more than that; it’s a sustained period of time where you can prove to yourself your limits of resilience, as you face demons trying to get to the end. It is three, four, even five hours of continuous running that allow you to reflect on your journey; on the cumulative days spent on runs in preparation for this longest one; on the early mornings when you have woken up before the sun, because you have 20 miles to run before a 10 a.m. meeting–true story, which leads to a piece of advice about training for a marathon in college. 

Don’t do it, unless you’re willing to sacrifice a “normal” college semester, you love cutting your sleep short to beat the Durham summer heat, or you want to experience soreness and hunger like never before (which limited food points don't easily satisfy).

Many often–incorrectly–think you must be superhuman to run a marathon. Contrary to this opinion, I believe every person–tall or short, runner or not–has the ability to run a marathon, with the right combination of consistency, discipline, and determination to push yourself beyond your own limits. Everybody can become a runner, because to become a runner, you just need a body (and a good pair of shoes–I recommend Hokas). 

Over the summer, just as my training was beginning, I had a meaningful conversation with a friend (thank you, Sofie) about running, specifically how and why I do it for such long distances. My journey into the sport is much different than the typical “crazy runners” you see today. I didn’t run cross country in high school, though I did in eighth grade and vividly remember faking an ankle sprain to get out of practice for a couple of weeks. 

I only began running during the pandemic, as my chosen form of escapism from the suffocating isolation and confinement. Each day from March to May, I would lace up my shoes and start my Fitbit, going 2 miles straight down my street, stopping for 5 minutes, and trekking the 2 miles back. 4 miles was all it took to get me hooked. One day during my typical halfway point rest stop, I asked myself, “What would it look like if I kept going?,” a question that unknowingly would change my life forever. Four miles became five, which turned into six and on weekends, eventually 9 and 10. Each new distance milestone gave me a tangible measure of my progress and imbued me with the courage to see how far I could go. 

I detailed this story to Sofie to reveal to her just how much of a not-runner I was, and yet here I am, preparing for the New York City Marathon. She explained her frustrations, common to most, that running “hurts too much” or “is too hard” and so she feels forced to stop and give up. I told her the issue at hand, that so many others face, was unattainable expectations. If you have ever asked me about running a marathon, I have likely told you that you, too, are capable of conquering the 26.2 mile challenge. People usually balk with a cough or a chuckle, dismissive of any such magnitude of self-belief, but let me convince you otherwise:

Running is NOT supposed to be easy. That’s part of its glory. Step one in learning to love running is meeting yourself where you currently are and treating every run as a fresh starting line. Forget the numbers–time, pace, distance–that make it seem so intimidating, and run wholeheartedly by feeling; if that means slowing down, do it. 

There’s a profound saying, the same one that titles this article; “life’s a marathon, not a sprint.” The value in slowing down extends beyond having more time to relax and take notice of your surroundings–like the subtle turn of the leaves from summery green to autumnal orange or a vibrant, unexplored pocket of a new city. In long distance running and in life, it's neither sustainable nor productive to sprint the entire distance; it’s actually strategic to lengthen your stride, slow your cadence, and be intentional with your time. For me, each extra minute running  presents another opportunity to discover more about my own capabilities, life goals, or generally the world. 


Our time on this Earth is precious, and we can and should use it to do incredible things with our unique abilities. Running has been my avenue of self-discovery, unlocking not only a talent of mine I never knew existed, but a level of self-confidence and ambition unfathomable to my younger self. I dare you to believe in yourself enough to run a marathon, or even just to run 2 miles out and back down the road. I promise you, it will change your life as it did mine.

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