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How I Learned to Embrace My Competitive Edge and Stop Hiding My Running Achievements

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Photo: Courtesy of Mariko Zapf

I once held the belief that running was unnatural. I parroted the notion that marathons were "terrible on the body." My actual running experience was limited to periodically sprinting through my Brooklyn neighborhood pushing a stroller—late to school drop-off—lungs burning, sputtering, "I hate running." (See: Read This If You Don't Run, But Want to)

That is, until Julie, a dear runner friend for whom I had cheered through more than one New York City Marathon, said the magic words: "You can do it too." For some reason, I believed her—and at 42 years old, I started running.

Sure, it was ugly at the beginning. I was unable to run a single mile without stopping. But I was determined. And after many weeks I was finally able to continuously run the 3.3-mile loop at the local park. I was so consumed by the sense of accomplishment that I signed up for my first half marathon. (Related: How Two Friends Overcame Their Self-Doubt to Run Their First Half Marathon)

I gave myself six months to prepare and the only goal was to cross the finish line. Halfway through my formal training plan, however, something shifted. The intervals and long runs got easier and I found myself loving the progression. I secretly wondered if I could break the two-hour mark. I ran without a watch and completed my first half in 2:01:02. I was hooked on the sport and driven by the possibility of getting faster—but I told no one.

So began my life as a closeted competitor.

From a young age, I internalized being competitive as ugly. My father loathed his favorite Eagles players exhibiting any unsportsmanlike conduct—dancing in the end zone elicited a tirade from the worn-in couch. I wouldn't dare share my improving half marathon times, because that could be misconstrued as bragging. My dirty little secret was that I derived tremendous personal satisfaction from getting faster and that, in middle age, I was starting to identify as a runner. The audacity.

Over the next five years and nine half marathons, I shaved more than 10 minutes from my time. I read about running, tried new training plans, pushed myself harder, learned about recovery and nutrition, and got my first sports massage. I flanked the sidelines of any local event I wasn't participating in to encourage friends and strangers alike. Wannabe participants who said they "simply can't run" got an earful. The greatest gift running has given me is a sense of possibility—and I wanted them, anyone, to experience the same. I never hid my love of the sport, just my drive to get faster and that doing so meant a lot to me. 

I also gained a deep appreciation for the commonly held belief that, "Running is a metaphor for life," because having a competitive spirit is not enough to guarantee success. Things pop up, derail our efforts, and either make or break us. Like on the morning of the 2018 Brooklyn Half Marathon, when I walked alone through a light rain to the start, exhausted from a night of pre-race insomnia. Just before the starting gun went off, a headphone cover popped off and rolled around the floor of the well-used porta-potty. Then the skies opened up, thoroughly soaking every runner at the starting line. My goal had been to break 1:50, but at that moment, I pretty much resigned myself to failure.

Surprisingly, through the cold and rain, my pace remained consistent and faster than I thought possible. In fact, I was convinced that my wet watch was on the fritz until I crossed the finish at 1:46:33, overcome with disbelief. In the world of amateur runners, three and a half minutes is tantamount to 15. Save for two close friends, I kept the accomplishment to myself and my social media channels remained quiet.

The following week, I was in line at a local coffee shop when a group of women from the neighborhood, and fellow runners, congratulated me on the race. One of my two confidants—a mutual friend—had spilled the beans, because celebrating the achievement of others is what runners do. I blushed and instinctively demurred that I had just gotten lucky: "It must have been the rain!" At nearly 50 years old, that familiar self-deprecating tone felt like a betrayal, because it was untrue. At that moment, I chose a new approach, and added: "That finish time took a whole lot of work."

I went on to share that changing up my interval workouts was the biggest player in scoring my faster time. I found that squats and fast twitch exercises made my legs stronger. I reiterated that my improved results depended on a genuine desire, commitment, and time—the latter being the most challenging. It had not come easily to me, I told them. I shared my favorite plans and running podcasts and I championed their abilities from the bottom of my heart. I allowed myself to be vulnerable to what had not worked and what had gone well, which made my achievement accessible to these runners. (Related: Why I Crushed My Biggest Running Goal As a 40-Year-Old New Mom)

I consistently give my best to running and, unsurprisingly, I get the very most out of it. Being competitive has brought out a discipline and energy in me that I thought I was too old to cultivate. And that day in the coffee shop, I found the realization—and finally sharing it—so exhilarating, that I found myself channeling Julie telling them, "You can do it too."

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