Photo: Wendy Meyer
As my friend Paula and I waited to board our return flight back to Orange County, California, we began reflecting on the past three days in New York City and the whirlwind of adventures we had. Sure, we saw the sights and bright lights, but that's not what brought us to Manhattan: We came to run the Shape Women's Half Marathon, for what would be our 83rd race together.
Paula and I had already completed four marathons and 79 half marathons, but the journey it took us both to get there still surprises us. I'd like to say that distance running was a bucket list goal we both had for years, but the truth is, until 12 years ago, neither of us even knew how long a half-marathon distance was, let alone thought we could actually run one in Central Park.
Getting Our Health In Order
Paula and I are far from natural-born athletes, and we still struggle to think of ourselves that way. We'd never even run a 5K before someone talked us into signing up for a half marathon in 2008, but it was that year when our lives took a 180-degree turn.
Rewind to 2001, I was coming out of a divorce and working as a production supervisor at night and going to college during the day to finish a science degree I was determined to complete. I was home studying one day while watching The Oprah Winfrey Show and her guest was Dr. Oz. During the segment, he was holding a model representing the lung of a smoker and demonstrated how it looks when a smoker inhales a cigarette. Having smoked for many years at that time, I normally avoided listening to these kinds of demonstrations (hi, denial), but that day, I watched with new eyes. To say I was shocked would be an understatement. (Related: How Running Helped Me Quit Smoking for Good)
I couldn't wait to get to work and share what I saw with Paula, who was also my co-worker. I told her, bluntly, "we should stop smoking. It looked horrible, and I want to stop doing it." We both agreed, and within three months, we both had successfully reached our goal—we had stopped smoking. Looking back, this was the first of many milestones for us. (P.S. I know that not everyone who tries to stop smoking succeeds or succeeds as quickly as we did. Luckily, this is just what happened for us, and I think having a friend and partner to go through the experience with helped immensely.)
As the years passed, Paula and I became become even closer as we partnered together in our new healthy lifestyle. We supported each other through more than just quitting smoking; we shared failed relationships and failed diets and become each other's health advocates.
It was 2007, and I was watching The Dr. Oz Show when I heard him say, "you should walk 30 minutes a day, even in a hurricane." Again, I shared what I learned the next day with Paula, and we committed to walking the first 30 minutes of our one-hour lunch break. Conveniently, there was a 1-mile track around the building where we worked. In the beginning, it took us 28 minutes to make the 1-mile walk, and we were exhausted and out of breath by the end of it. Our initial goal was simply to do it without losing our breath. We soon surpassed that, and within three months we were speed-walking two loops around the track in the same half-hour timespan. (Related: Why Having a Fitness Buddy Is the Best Thing Ever)
Plus, we talked nonstop because we no longer needed every bit of our breath to complete the distance. We continued our walks, and slowly we gained more confidence not just in our physical abilities but in our jobs too. We applied the same determination we had in speed walking to our careers, and soon we were both given more responsibilities at work. The recognition gave us both strength and confidence.
One afternoon, a co-worker named Holger (who had noticed our lunchtime sessions) suggested we enter a half marathon. "Wow, are you kidding me, how far is that?" we asked. As you might infer by now, we don't back down from a challenge, so once the idea was planted, we began training immediately. We were currently walking two miles, so we upped it to six. Increasing the distance that quickly was quite tough on our bodies, but we powered through. (Related: How Two Trainers Overcame Their Self-Doubt to Run Their First Half Marathon)
Holger didn't know it at the time, but his passing thought would change our lives. I'll never forget Mile 11 of that first race when I realized we were actually going to finish. With his encouragement, at 49 years old, I crossed the finish line of the half marathon and had a medal placed around my neck.
From that moment on, Paula and I were hooked.
Setting Our Sights On New Goals
In October 2018, Paula and I began making plans to treat ourselves to a "girl's weekend" in NYC. We had been there before but spent most of the trip exploring the city by bike.
We felt there was so much we missed while whizzing by via bike, and we wanted to see it all. In researching our plans, I came across an ad for the 2019 Shape Women's Half Marathon, which has a course that runs through Central Park. It took us all of two seconds to decide to sign up.
This race was just the excuse we needed to achieve what we hadn't the first time around—seeing the New York sites on foot. By then, we'd already run so many races, but knew we'd need to be specific about how we'd train for this race. (Related: How to Taper for Any Race—and Why You Should)
We began our training runs on the flat Huntington Beach boardwalk in California, but then remembered biking up the hills in Central Park during our previous trip. We'd struggled with those hills even on our bikes, so we changed courses and moved our training to the hills surrounding Lake Mission Viejo.
Before the race, we were watching the NYC weather forecast closely, and it was projected to be cold and rainy—conditions we weren't used to running in. The closest we could get to that in California was the chilly early mornings, so we got up at 5:30 A.M. on the weekends, layered up, and started running.
The morning of the Shape Women's Half Marathon we had butterflies in our stomachs. This was it. We made it to New York to the starting line. We had trained for the last six months for this race, and all our strategy and research hinged on this one perfect morning in Central Park. We looked on in amazement at all the women arriving and we were fueled by their energy as the race kicked off.
Ironically, the weather we trained for was not the weather we got. It was seasonably warm in Central Park, so we slowed our pace and stayed hydrated. We maintained a pace that allowed us to enjoy every step of the race. We crossed the finish line and gave each other a high five. Having a medal placed around our necks after committing to a months-long training schedule and staying on pace for the full 13.1 miles was a true testament to our friendship and love of running. We've both set numerous goals over the years together, but this experience was one of a kind.
I'm now 60 and Paula is 57, and we're still setting goals and making plans to keep our bodies moving. We run and talk and run and cry and run some more. We get together for early morning runs and hold each other accountable if the other wants to bail. We still participate in six or seven half marathons a year. (Related: These BFFs Prove Just How Powerful a Workout Buddy Can Be)
I've even trained a small group of people for their first half marathon. I paced another group for the LA Marathon and speak to new runners about all of the things Paula and I had to learn the hard way.
These days, we alternate between running and walking, but we still talk nonstop—even during our races. The comradery we've built is just as important to us (if not more!) than the running itself.