Why body acceptance and love caused me to break up with the marathonSierra Willis
I run one mile. You read that right. ONE mile. The reason? It’s a long story, but it has to do with loving myself, my body, and my discovering strength. Let me start at the beginning.
I ran my first and only marathon six years ago. I assumed, like many others, that the marathon was the ultimate challenge I could undertake as a runner.
Marathon training takes a lot of time, and I diligently logged the miles and the weekend long runs. When race day rolled around, I felt fresh and ready to experience the big life-changing event so many runners love. And while I enjoyed the race for the most part (well, up to mile 20 at least), I didn’t finish feeling euphoric—just really, really tired. “Why do people do that to themselves?” were my first words, amidst sobs of relief, across the finish line. I couldn’t walk to our car and had to be wheeled, wrapped in my little tin foil blanket, on my husband’s bike. We drove home and after some food and a shower, I tried to fall asleep—only to be awakened by intermittent waves of nausea and cramps. I couldn’t make it up or down stairs for several days, and I couldn’t run again for a week.
I had run my marathon in 4 hrs and 10 seconds, averaging a 9:10 minute per mile pace. A time that put me in the 56th percentile for my age. Sure, I felt some achievement in covering 26.2 miles—that’s a heck of a long way. I had stayed on my feet, and kept running. Covering the distance—that’s the achievement of the marathon, right? But, call me crazy, I didn’t feel the life change. I didn’t catch the marathon bug. And while I understand and applaud that so many people come away from the marathon with a euphoric, life-changing feeling of accomplishment, that’s not how it felt for me. I ran a marathon because I thought, as a runner, I was supposed to. So why didn’t it feel like the ultimate achievement for me?
Over the years, I’ve thought a lot about that marathon, especially when people ask me if I’m ever going to do another. But I’ve come to realize that just because popular opinion has labeled the marathon as the ultimate runner’s goal, that doesn’t mean it has to be mine.
You see, part of the reason I’ve felt free to breakup with the marathon is because I live in a unique world. I’m married to a professional runner, a 2-time Olympic medalist in the 1500 meters (about one mile). We spend a lot of our time traveling to his races all over the world. Traveling from race to race, we are constantly surrounded by professional track and field athletes—who specialize in distances from the 100 meter sprint to the marathon. I am frequently in awe of the amazing, fast, beautiful bodies of the world’s fastest people. I mostly try not to stare—but let’s be honest here, guys—sometimes it’s hard. At meets and in hotel lobbies, I’m regularly the only non-athlete in the room. I’m regularly the least-toned person in the room.
Now, before you start with the whole “Girl, you’re not fat!” line, hear me out: I don’t think I’m overweight. I’m happy with my body. I love me. But, I’m also going to be honest and real about what it’s like to be a 5’9″, 128lb woman who lives in a world where I occasionally feel…well, big. (And by the way, this is not because women who are professional runners are unhealthy anorexics. You can stop that line of thinking right there. My friendships with women who run professionally have shown me that in order to run consistently well at a professional level, athletes must look after their bodies and live healthy lifestyles. At the professional level, you will find very, very few women with eating disorders.)
Because I’ve spent ten years living in this unique world, I’ve realized a refreshing fact. It’s pretty simple, actually, but for some reason, it hasn’t caught on yet in the recreational running world: Runners specialize in different events. They don’t all measure themselves over the same distance. Because of that, I’ve also observed how different athlete’s bodies are suited to different events. In very general terms, the longer the race, the smaller the body. Now, I know, that’s a huge generalization. Sure, you can find anomalies in every event. But for the most part, sprinters tend to be taller, more muscular, with broader bone structures. Marathoners tend to be smaller, with petite builds, and less muscle mass. This doesn’t mean marathoners aren’t strong because they are small, or that sprinters are overweight because they are bigger, each athlete is finely tuned for their own event. And the middle distance runners like my husband? They’re right in the middle of the spectrum.
It didn’t take me long traveling on the professional running circuit to realize that I don’t look anything like the women who run the marathon. I’m usually a full head taller, my shoulders and hips a lot wider, my everything a whole lot squishier. This is, of course, because I’m not a professional runner. I don’t run 100+ miles a week, but also, because I was born with zero Olympic talent to run. Let’s be honest, my body doesn’t look very much like the women who run middle distances either, but if we’re playing the lump-me-into-the-nearest-category game, my body’s a lot closer to the build of a middle distance runner (or a long jumper or pole vaulter).
We women come in a lot of different shapes and sizes. Strong, small, tall, short, light, heavy, wide, narrow. Why in the world are we all measuring ourselves over the same distance? Olympians sure don’t. So, in the recreational running world, why is the marathon routinely used as the measure of success for all hobby runners? It shouldn’t be. And dare I say it, using the marathon this way is especially disadvantageous to women who weigh heavier on the scales.
I believe that ANY woman who wants to call herself a runner should have more than one option. I’ve looked around, and I’m pretty sure I’m not the only runner that feels pigeon-holed into the marathon. And I’m very sure I’m not alone when I say there are women who find strength—not in the ability to endure all the way to the finish line—but who find strength in speed, in pushing themselves in a different kind of way.
I’ve had 31 years in this body, and though, admittedly, I’ve sometimes struggled with body confidence, I love my body. It’s seen me through some great times—with the pregnancy and birth of my son at the very top of that list. For me, loving and accepting my body has also meant athletically challenging myself to grow in ways that are positive for me—to become a stronger, faster runner— not necessarily a better endurance runner.
I decided to time myself over one mile, just to see what it felt like. My best friend and I mapped out a little loop along the roads. We hoped we’d be able to run about 7 and a half minutes. As we crossed our half mile mark, I glanced down at my watch and saw 3:20 flick across the screen. Crap, we’ve gone out too fast. Can we keep this pace going? It was terribly uncomfortable. My breathing was already so labored. I wasn’t used to feeling pain like that after only 3 minutes of running! Well, what’s another 3 minutes, I thought. We powered through to a 6:40 mile, and collapsed on the grass panting. But two minutes later, we were fully recovered, high-fiving and laughing about the experience. We surprised ourselves and exceeded our expectations that day, the first time that had ever happened to me in running.
After that, I was hooked. I started training like my husband did. Over 10 years of marriage, I had picked up a pretty good understanding of miler training. You build endurance with some long slow running, but you also challenge yourself with some speed—hill sprints, tempo-paced runs and interval workouts. As someone who played a lot of team sports in high school, this sort of running felt right up my alley. I discovered that running like this was a discomfort that I could handle, and it left me energized and buzzing after a workout.
I set my goal as a sub-6 minute mile. The idea that I could run a mile in a time that started with a 5 was intriguing. I wasn’t sure if I could do it, but it just sounded awesome to me. A five-something mile. Yup, I liked the sound of that.
Oddly enough, training like a miler kept me so preoccupied that I regularly logged more mileage than usual. By the time I warmed up and cooled down for a session of hill repeats, I’d inadvertently run 7 miles.
My body starting changing too. My abs starting showing more definition. My legs started developing more muscle. Weight loss wasn’t my goal, but I found it difficult NOT to lose weight, even when eating often. I dropped down to 125 lbs, but with more muscle definition than I’d ever had before.
My husband, Nick, and I worked together to develop a 6-week mile training plan (which became the inspiration for our milermethod.com online boot camp business) which combined his expertise as a specialist in the distance, and my expertise as someone living in a mortal body. Trial and error. Human and superhuman. After the six weeks, I raced a mile in Honolulu. Six minutes and nine seconds. I was shocked to see I was the third fastest woman overall in that race. I knew I could keep improving. I jumped into my first ever track race—a festive local track club race with Santa—I blew past Santa in the 3rd lap and ran a 6:02 in the process. This sub-6 is happening.
And one morning a few weeks later, with the course plotted out online and pre-measured with our car, I lined up for my final attempt. With our 3-year old son in his carseat screaming “Go Mommy!” and my brother-in-law filming from the wide-open trunk of a van, I did it. I ran a mile in 5 minutes and 56 seconds. It was painful and, full disclosure, I entertained ideas of stopping halfway through. Maybe I should fake a pulled hamstring. But I didn’t. I powered on through my doubts and exhaustion. Through the raw, ugly effort of running a mile to utter exhaustion. It’s a pain like no other. But it’s my kind of pain. The kind that’s over in a 6 minutes, or less.
Do you know what a 5:56 mile performance supposedly equates to in a marathon? The online running calculators tell me it’s the equivalent of a 3:13 marathon performance. But I can safely say, with full confidence in my strengths and in my body, that there’s no way I’d ever be able to do that. What’s more—and to my surprise—I’ve realized that even if I could own that incredible marathon time, I’d still choose the feeling of strength, energy, and power I’ve discovered while training for the mile.