From London to New York City to Tokyo, running helped me travel the world—and learn a ton about fitness and tenacity

By Caitlin Carlson
Updated: March 22, 2016
Caitlin Carlson

I never thought I would run a marathon. When I crossed the finish line of the Disney Princess Half Marathon in March 2010, I distinctly remember thinking, 'that was fun, but there is no way I could do double that distance." (What makes you a runner?)

Two years later, I was working as an Editorial Assistant at a health and fitness magazine in New York City-and had the opportunity to run the New York City marathon with Asics, the official shoe sponsor of the race. I figured if I were ever going to run a marathon, that would be the one to do-and now was the time to do it. But after training for three months and getting amped to hit the starting line, the news came echoing down the halls at my office on a Friday night: "The marathon is canceled!" After the city was devastated by hurricane Sandy, the 2012 New York City marathon was canceled. While understandable, it was a crushing disappointment.

A London-based marathoner friend empathized with me over the cancellation and suggested I come to his side of the pond to "run London instead." Having lived and studied there for a year, I figured a marathon was as good an excuse as any to revisit a city I love so much. During the month of downtime I had before training for the April race began, I realized something important: I like training for marathons. I enjoy the weekend long run (and not only because it justifies pizza and wine Fridays!), I like the structure of a training plan, I don't mind feeling a little sore-often.

Come April, I headed to London. The race was just a week after the Boston marathon bombings, and I'll never forget that moment of silence before the starting gun went off in Greenwich. Or the overwhelming, breath-taking feeling of crossing the finish line with my hand over my heart as instructed by the race organizers-in memory of the Boston victims. I also remember thinking, "That was epic. I could do this again."

That's when I learned about a little thing called the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a series consisting of six of the most renowned marathons in the world: New York, London, Berlin, Chicago, Boston, and Tokyo. For elites, the point of running these specific races is for the massive prize pot of money; for regular humans like me, it's more for the experience, a cool medal, and-of course-the bragging rights! Less than 1,000 people have earned the title of Six Star Finisher to date.

I wanted to do all six. But I had no idea how quickly I would speed through them (collectively that is; I'm more of a four-hour marathoner than a speed demon!). Just last month, I checked the final Major off my list in Tokyo-perhaps the most life-changing experience of them all. But through training for and running each marathon, I've picked up more than a few lessons about fitness, health, and life.

London Marathon

April 2013

Training during the winter really sucks. But it's worth it! (See: 5 Reasons Why Running In the Cold Is Good for You.) There's no way I would have done even a quarter of the amount of running I did if I didn't have this race on the horizon. I always thought running was a solo sport, but finding people that support me through those cold runs (literally and figuratively) was actually the key to completing all that training. On many of my long runs, I'd have two friends on board to tag team each other-one would run the first few miles with me and the other would finish with me. Knowing someone is counting on you to meet them at a set time and place makes it harder to burrow under the covers, even if it's 10 degrees outside!

But having a support system isn't only important for runners, it's key to sticking to any fitness goals (research proves this!). And that philosophy goes way beyond the road or gym: Having people you can count on is crucial to success in work and life. We sometimes get this incorrect idea in our heads by asking for help or relying on someone else we're being "weak"-but really, it's a sign of strength. To succeed in a marathon or at any other goal, knowing when to call in back up can mean the difference between imminent failure and achieving your wildest dreams.

New York City Marathon

November 2013, 2014, 2015

Since the 2012 race was canceled, I had the chance to run the following year. Fresh off the exhilaration of London, I decided to go for it and began training again shortly thereafter. (And, yes, I loved it so much that I ran again the following two years too!) New York is a hilly, undulating race course, which is tough. This race takes you across five bridges, plus, there's the infamous "hill" climb in Central Park just meters from the finish line. (Check out 5 Reasons to Love the Incline.) Knowing that it's there, though, is helpful, because you can prepare for it-physically and mentally.

You won't always have the opportunity to prepare for tough challenges on a race course, at work, or in your relationships, but when you do know they're coming, you can do everything in your power to to make sure they're not so scary when you have to eventually face them-whether it's a seemingly impossible climb during the final mile of your 26.2 mile journey or standing up in front of an important client to deliver a potentially game-changing presentation.

Chicago Marathon

October 2014

Two of my girlfriends wanted to do this famous race, so the three of us entered the lottery shortly after I finished NYC. I ended up improving my PR by almost 30 full minutes in Chicago (!), and I credit my newfound speediness to the interval workouts in my training plan (designed by running coach Jenny Hadfield), plus a little self-confidence. (You can also check out these 6 Ways to Run Faster.) Chicago is a notoriously flat course, but there's no way the terrain was the only reason I shaved off so much time!

I had a yoga teacher help me nail a headstand for the first time a few weeks before this race. After class, I thanked her for her help and she simply said, "You know, you can do more than you think." It was a simple statement, but it really stuck with me. Whether she meant it this way or not, that phrase was about so much more than that headstand. Just as you may hesitate to flip yourself upside down in yoga, you may not be so quick to believe you're capable of running 26 consecutive nine-minute miles or accomplishing whatever crazy-seeming goal you want to set for yourself. But before you even start training for it, you have to believe you can do it Women tend to sell themselves short and be way too self-deprecating ("Oh, it's not that cool," "I'm not that interesting," etc.). You have to believe that you can crush a four-hour marathon. You can finally nail that headstand, crow pose-whatever. You can get that job. Hard work and drive go a long way, but self-confidence is just as important.

Boston Marathon

April 2015

When CLIF Bar company emailed me nine weeks before this marathon with an offer to run with them, how could I possibly say no? As the world's oldest and possibly most prestigious marathon, it's also one of the most difficult to qualify for. It was also one of my most difficult races. It rained, it poured, and it rained some more on race day. I remember sitting on the bus to the starting point 26.2 miles outside the city, watching the rain hit the window with a pit of dread growing in my stomach. I already had low expectations for this race because I trained for half the amount of time you're "supposed" to train for a marathon. But I did not melt running in the rain! No, it's not ideal. But it's also not the end of the world-or the marathon.

What hit me during that race was the fact that you can't, unfortunately, prepare for everything. Just like you get dealt curve balls at work, you can pretty much guarantee that you'll get at least one "surprise" obstacle to overcome during 26.2 miles. If it's not the weather, it may be an outfit malfunction, a fueling mistake, an injury, or something else. Know that these curve balls are all part of the process . The key is to stay calm, assess the situation, and do the best you can to stay on track without losing too much time.

Berlin Marathon

September 2015

This race had actually been planned pre-Boston. One of the same runner friends that I ran with in Chicago wanted to tick this one off next, so we decided on it in November when the lottery opened. Post-Boston and post-injury recovery, I laced up my Ultraboosts once again (thanks to race sponsor Adidas) to train for Major #5. When you're not in the good 'ol USA, you don't get mile markers. You get kilometer markers. Since my Apple watch hadn't been charged (don't forget your converters when going abroad for a race!) and I had no idea how many kilometers were even in a marathon (42.195 FYI!), I was running basically "blind." I started to freak out but soon realized that I could still run without technology.

We've become so reliant on our GPS watches, heart rate monitors, headphones-all this tech. And while it's so great, it's also not totally necessary. Yes, I guarantee you that it's possible to run with just shorts, a tank, and a good pair of sneaks. In fact, it made me realize that I can also probably live without my cell phone switched on at work or social media on the weekends, even though I never would have considered that "crazy" idea before this happened. I ended up finding a four-hour pace group and stuck to them and their big bopping balloon like glue. Even though I did this out of "desperation," I found that I actually liked the camaraderie of being in a group-and being even partially unplugged made me even more tuned in to the amazing feelings of the race.

Tokyo Marathon

February 2016

With only one marathon left to tick off my list, I was realistic about the fact that, logistically, it would be the most difficult. (I mean, jetting to Japan isn't exactly as easy as hopping on a train to Boston!) With a 14-hour flight, 14-hour time difference, and an intense language barrier, I wasn't sure when I'd get there. But when three of my best friends expressed interest in coming along to spectate (and, of course, explore Japan!), I had my chance. Thanks again to Asics and Airbnb, we pulled the trip together in under two months time. Talk about breaking out of my comfort zone! I had never been to Asia and really had no idea what to expect. Not only was it a huge culture shock-period-I had to run a race in a very foreign environment. Even as I walked alone to the my starting corrall, the voices over the loudspeakers were in Japanese (the extent of my vocab includes "konichiwa," "hai," and "sayonara.") I felt like the clear minority amongst the runners and the spectators.

But instead of feeling uncomfortable when being so forcefully tossed out of my "comfort zone," I actually embraced it and really enjoyed the whole experience. After all, running a marathon in general-whether it's in your neighborhood or across the world-isn't really in anyone's "comfort zone," is it? But I've found that forcing yourself outside of comfortable is how you ultimately get the best, most incredible experiences in life, like studying abroad in Paris while I was in college, moving to NYC to start my career, or running my first half-marathon at Disney. While this marathon was by far the most intimidating and culturally different for me, it was also probably one of the most impactful experiences I've had in my life thus far-running or otherwise! I feel like my trip to Japan changed me for the better as a person and it's because I allowed myself to be uncomfortable and to just soak it all in. From the kind people we encountered to the incredible temples we visited to the heated toilet seats (but seriously! Why don't we have those?), the experience broadened my world view and makes me want to see more of it-whether that's by running it or otherwise. (Check out these 10 Best Marthons to Run the World!)

Now What?

About one-mile out from the finish line in Tokyo, I felt that familiar lump of emotion in my throat and-having experienced this many times before-suppressed it, knowing it would lead to that panicky 'I can't breathe' feeling when too much emotion combines with too much physical exertion. But once I crossed that finish line-the finish line of my sixth World Marathon Major-the waterworks began. What. A. feeling. I'd do it all over again just to experience that natural high once more. Next up: I hear there's something called the Seven Continents Club...


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April 16, 2017
just curious, were you sponsored to get in all these races? London is notorious for being difficult to get into as it's a lottery and not so easy to just hop over the pond and run the marathon.