Being open and honest with 14K+ strangers can have its ups and downs.

By Emily Abbate
November 04, 2019

Everyone uses social media for different purposes. For some, it's a fun way to share cat photos with friends and family. For others, it's literally how they make a living. For me, it's a platform to help grow my business as a freelance fitness journalist and podcaster, as well as engage with my audience. When I registered for the Chicago Marathon over the summer, there was no doubt in my mind: This would be great for the feed.

Check me out regularly on Instagram, and you'll see me doing all sorts of things—from tying my shoes before a morning run to interviewing guests for my show Hurdle. I check in occasionally with the standard love-to-hate-it "talk to the camera" story rant about career frustrations, and post photos of my best athleisure attempts.

My social feed didn't grow overnight, but it did build quickly(ish). Back in December 2016 with under 4K followers, I distinctly remember feeling like just any other person using the platform. Now I have roughly 14.5K followers who I'm constantly connecting with, all of whom came my way 100 percent organically. I'm not on Jen Widerstrom (288.5K) or Iskra Lawrence (4.5 million) level. But—well, it's something. I'm always on the hunt for opportunities to share my journey with my followers in authentic ways and my Chicago Marathon training felt like the perfect fit.

It would be my eighth time racing 26.2, and this time it felt different than the past—pertaining to the whole social aspect. This time, it really felt like I had an engaged audience for the journey. I realized early on that, more than anything else, being candid about my race day prep—including the good and the bad—presented me with an opportunity to help others. To empower someone, somewhere to lace up and show up. (Related: Shalane Flanagan's Nutritionist Shares Her Healthy Eating Tips)

It felt like a responsibility, almost. On days when I receive 20 different messages asking for running advice, I remind myself that I once would've killed for someone who understood what I was going through when I was just starting out in the sport. Before I got into running back in 2008, I remember feeling really alone. I was working hard to lose weight and didn't identify with other runners I knew of. What's more, I was surrounded by images of what I thought "a runner looked like"—all of whom were much fitter and faster than me. (Related: This Woman Spent Years Believing She Didn't "Look Like" an Athlete, Then She Crushed an Ironman)

It was with that in mind that I wanted to share a super real and hopefully relatable peek into my marathon training. Was it draining at times? For sure. But on the days I didn't want to post, those same people kept me going and made me feel like it was important to be 100 percent honest about what was really happening during the training cycle. And for that, I'm grateful.

The Good and the Bad of Social Media Accountability

IG is called the "highlight reel" for a reason. It's really easy to share the wins, right? For me, as the training cycle ramped up, my W's came in the form of faster miles. It was exciting to share my speed-work days–when I felt myself getting stronger–and quicker–without feeling like I was going to collapse afterward. These accomplishments were often met with celebrations from my followers, followed up with what felt like dozens of messages of how they, too, could pick up the pace. Again, sometimes overwhelming—but I was more than happy to help in whatever way I could.

But then, as expected, there were the not-so-awesome days. Failure's hard enough, right? Failing publicly is scary. Being transparent on the days that felt awful was difficult. But being open regardless was really important to me–I knew I wanted to be the type of person who showed up on social media and be honest with strangers about that things in my life that weren't going according to plan. (Related: How to Train for a Half Marathon for Beginners, Plus, a 12-Week Plan)

There were the humid runs in the late summer that made me feel like a snail and doubt if I was even semi-decent at the sport. But there were also the mornings I'd go out for a run and within five minutes, I'd be walking back to my apartment. Most notably was the 20-miler where the wheels entirely fell off. At mile 18, I sat and sobbed on a stranger's stoop in the Upper West Side, feeling so lonely and like a failure. When I finished and my Garmin read the big 2-0, I sat down on the bench, beside myself. After I was done, I put up some sort of "man, that really sucked," IG story, and then proceeded to hibernate (from social media anyway) for the next 24 hours.

When I came back to my feed, there they were. My awesome support system encouraging me through messages and responses. I quickly realized that this community wanted to see me at both my good and my not-so-great. They didn't care if I was absolutely winning at life every single day. Rather, they appreciated that I was willing to be upfront about the bad stuff, too.

If there's one thing I've learned over the past few years, it's that in every sort of failure—there's a lesson. So, the next week for my final long run, I promised myself that I wouldn't have another awful run. I wanted to set myself up for as much success possible. I laid everything out the night before and went to bed early. Come morning, I did my normal prep—and before walking out the door as the sun was coming up, pleaded with my followers to DM me with a sentence or two about what keeps them going when things feel tough.

That run was as close to perfect as possible. The weather was great. And about every minute or two, I got a message—mostly from people I didn't know—with words of motivation. I felt supported. Embraced. And when my Garmin hit 22, I felt ready for October 13.

The Days Before the Starting Line

As someone who has never celebrated a big adult life milestone like an engagement or a wedding or a baby, running a marathon is about as close as it gets for me. In the days leading up to the race, people reached out to me that I hadn't heard from in forever to wish me good luck. Friends checked in to see how I was doing, knowing how much the day meant to me. (Related: What Signing Up for the Boston Marathon Taught Me About Goal-Setting)

Naturally, I felt a certain level of expectation. I was beyond scared when I shared my time goal of 3:40:00 with the masses on social. This time meant a 9-minute personal record for me. I didn't want to fail publicly. And I think in the past this fear has been something that encouraged me to set reasonable, smaller goals. This time felt different, though. Subconsciously, I knew that I was in a place that I had never been in before. I had done more speed work than previous training cycles. I was running paces that had once felt unattainable with ease. When I'd get questions about my goal time, often the guesstimates were faster than even I was aiming for. Humbling? A little. If anything, my friends and that greater community encouraged me to believe that I was capable of that next level.

I knew come Sunday, it wouldn't just be my friends and family following the journey to that 3:40:00 time goal. It would also be my followers who are mostly other lady warriors. When I boarded the plane to Chicago, I saw that I got 4,205 likes and 223 comments on three photos I posted before I even laced up my sneakers for the starting line.

4,205. Likes.

I went to bed on Saturday night anxious. I woke up on Sunday morning ready.

Reclaiming What Was Mine

It's hard to explain what happened when I walked into my corral that Sunday. Again, like my 22-miler, I threw out a note to my followers to send me their well-wishes for when it was go time. From the moment we started kicking, I was moving at paces that felt comfortable the past few weeks. I felt fast. I kept doing an RPE check (rate of perceived exertion), and felt as though I was cruising at a six out of 10–which felt optimal for running a long-distance race like a marathon.

Come mile 17, I still felt great. Come mile 19-or-so, I realized that I was on track not just to hit my goal, but to potentially run a Boston Marathon qualifying race time. At that moment, I stopped wondering if I was going to hit the infamous "wall", and started telling myself that wasn't an option. With all of my gut, I believed that I had the potential to go for it. Come mile 23 with under 5K left, I kept reminding myself to "go back to calm." (Related: I Crushed My Biggest Running Goal As a 40-Year-Old New Mom)

In those last few miles, I came to a realization: This race was mine. This was what happened when I was willing to put in the work and show up for myself. It didn't matter who was following (or who wasn't). On October 13, I got that Boston Marathon qualifying personal best (3:28:08) because I allowed myself to feel, to be fully present, and to go after what had at one point felt impossible.

Naturally my first thought once I stopped crying after crossing that finish line? "I can't wait to post this on Instagram". But let's be real, the moment I opened the app again, I already had a surplus of 200+ new messages, many of which congratulating me for something I hadn't shared publicly just yet–they had been tracking me on their apps to see how I did.

I had done it. For me, yes. But really, for all of them, too.

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