Today we know Robin Arzon, aka @robinNYC, as a New York Times best-selling author, a brand ambassador for Adidas, and a kickass instructor at Peloton Cycle, where she's also the vice president of fitness programming. (You might also recognize her as the trainer behind our 30-Day Treadmill Challenge.)
But there's one thing you probably don't know about Arzon: She experienced a traumatizing brush with death that changed her approach to life entirely.
"I had a life-or-death experience when I was 20," Arzon told us when we caught up with her at the Adidas' Future/Fit event at SXSW. "I was held hostage at gunpoint. Ever since that day, I have actually lived every day at my last."
Back in 2002, Arzon was a junior in college at NYU, and she decided to meet up with some friends at a bar in New York's East Village. As reported by the New York Times, that same night, a man with AIDS took the streets, armed with three pistols, a sword, and kerosine—declaring his plans to die while killing as many people as he could. His first victim was a pedestrian, who was shot in the torso, but managed to get away and run into the narrow wine bar where Arzon had stopped by for a drink. Unfortunately, the gunman followed, shooting the young man to his death and ordering the 40 or so people in the venue to huddle in the back. He then sprayed them all with kerosene and threatened to light them on fire.
During this time, the man chose Arzon to serve as his line of communication to the police. As he held her by her hair, she tried to talk him out of his hysteria, still drenched in kerosene and with a gun and lighter held to her head, she says. Eventually, two patrons managed to jump the man—and while one was shot, it gave police the time to barge in and make an arrest.
The haunting experience was enough to uproot anyone's life, but Arzon shares that she fought through it, continuing to pursue the career in law that she had always aspired to. After attending law school and practicing for seven years at a prestigious firm, she found herself at a crossroads, thinking back to her resolution to live each day like it was her last.
"I realized that in my law career, I had spent years on something that no longer inspired passion and didn't make me feel like I wanted to pay forward as a warrior of any particular message," she said. "And it was really important to me to change that."
While pursuing that change, Arzon developed an irrevocable passion for running—a passion so strong that it convinced her to ditch law and reinvent herself in the fitness world. Before long, after hustling hard and refusing to give up, she was able to create a new life for herself as a running coach, cycling instructor, and ultramarathoner.
Arzon shares that her resilience was once again put to the test when she was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes at 32-years-old. "It came as a huge shock," she said. "I thought it was jet lag from a trip to India and it wasn't. It was a pancreas that no longer produces insulin."
What many would perceive as a huge hurdle, Arzon viewed as nothing but a small bump. "I knew I was going to run marathons and ultra marathons irrespective of any medical diagnosis," she said. "The first question I asked my doctor was, 'How do I continue to do ultramarathons? How am I going to run my next 100-mile race?' "
Today, over a decade since her life-threatening incident and three years since her diagnosis, Arzon has continued to log several marathons and ultramarathons, proving that there's no shame in starting small, as long as you have the courage to start in the first place. (Related: How Small Goals Lead to Big Success)
"I completely relate to telling yourself the story that you're not an athlete," she said. "I told myself that throughout much of my life—before I even ran my first mile. That said, you have to fake it till you make it and start small."
Arzon shared similar advice for others who might feel intimidated to take a leap of faith. "I tell people to go out in minutes not miles," she says. "It's important to dream big and hustle hard, but you can also hustle small and then build your way up. I think people forget that." It's advice that clearly holds true outside of fitness, too.
Arzon attributes her entire career to owning the path of most resistance. "I know strength because I've known fear—deep fear," she said. "I have redefined myself over and over again and my life goal is to be an epic superhero in my own story."