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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Strong

26.2 at 52. The Marathon That Gave Me, Me.

I was 30 years old in 1999, the first time I ran the NYC Marathon. My time was 4.40. I was single and living on 17th Street, at the time, in a rent stabilized 4th floor walk up studio so small I could pretty much stretch both hands out and reach its opposite walls. It was cozy though! I had just left a career as a lawyer and was following some wacky dream to work in restaurants.

That was 22 years ago. Yesterday, at 52, now a mother of two children, living in a seriously overpriced though larger three bedroom apartment in Carroll Gardens, and starting yet another career, this time running a nonprofit, I ran it again. I finished in just under 6 hours, starting out under a shiny bright blue sky in Staten Island, and finishing as daylight was swept away over Central Park and the sky turned colors—blushing at the runners making their way into the park, turning orange, pink, violet, then darkening to an inky blue.

I’ve been thinking a lot about then and now, about all that’s changed and also all that’s really still the same. The same: running 26.2 miles on the hinges of life’s changes; then from lawyer and restaurant manager, now from journalist to advocate. Different: a post-pandemic mother of two kids trying to navigate the harrowing emotional landscape of my children’s adolescence and my own divorce. If you’re gonna try to navigate those twin minefields, I think 26.2 miles pounded out across 5 boroughs is a pretty solid way to try. At least it was for me. I paid $250 to run this marathon. And at 6 hours, that’s a pretty good therapy rate right there.

And that was what the marathon was for me, and maybe for you too? Therapy. It’s a metaphor for so much in life. For me those miles were a place to work it out, to think, to feel humbled by pain and doubt and fear, and to muster up some sort of untapped will to keep going, to work it out, to believe that you will get through. And come out the other side somewhat okay. Sore, tired, chaffed, but still, okay. More than okay. Strong.

But the marathon was more than therapy. I am not sure if this is what most people say about marathons, but to me it was relaxing. YES! 26 miles! Relaxing!! You read right. It was (almost) like a vacation. You may yearn for a week in the hot springs of Reykjavik. Maybe your thing is hiking Yosemite, or wandering the cobblestones in Croatia. Not me. I’ll take the five boroughs on foot, thank you very much. Why? Because it was 6 hours that were all about me. The questions running through my head were: What do I need? How am I feeling? As a parent, when do you ever really ask yourself those questions? Certainly in the last year, I’d say I speak for every parent out there, the answer has been, well, never.

So much has happened this year, for all of us, so much loss and grief. I didn’t suffer on any level that so many did. But if I am thinking granularly, more about what happened in the four walls of my home and in the confines of my own heart and head, well, things fell apart in many areas of my life, as I mentioned, my marriage for one. One of my kids began struggling with identity and is going through a fairly serious mental health crisis. I am trying to run and grow a startup nonprofit and rebuild our restaurant industry. It’s a bit bananas. And yet, through it all, my constant, my north star: my training runs. My schedule. My miles! All for me! (And for Talya and Anne who came along for the ride.) These runs, all along the water, in all sorts of weather, were mine to savor and to suffer. The chaffing, the light headedness, the tightening of the glutes (who knew there were muscles in my butt!), the cramping of the calves. The surge of glee everytime I was able to run even a little longer—when 3 miles turned to 5, turned to 7, then 10, 12, 14, 16, 18 then 20. The joy of discovering the Manhattan Bridge! The West Side Greenway. Prospect Park all over again, Red Hook, Brooklyn Bridge Park. This city!!!

And then it was here. My one day. Everything in my head—life, work, family, kids—that was put on hold. My only job was to run. And that’s what I did. Running through streets, the sweet November sun on my face, being cheered and high-fived by children, toddlers, black, brown, white, young and old, in hoodies and in hijabs. There were live bands, drumming circles, dancers, and gospel singers. Drunk millennials, babys, and dogs. All of this city, on its feet, cheering the runners. What a privilege to be a part of it. What a luxury to press pause on everything else and just feel the love of this city swell up to meet you. To stand facing the Verrazano and feel the fear recede, to see all your doubts turn into fucking determination, there is nothing better in the world.

Every stranger that yelled my name made me feel known, supported, lifted up. And then there were people who knew me out there — so many friends and family who took time to be there with pompoms and cold sodas — friends from every stage of my life, out on the course with signs and cheers and encouragement. Block after block, through Brooklyn, into Queens, into Manhattan and through the Bronx, Harlem and back into the Park to the finish at nightfall, I could not stop smiling. I felt high. Drugged by the day. It was one of the best of my life.

Marathons do something for you. Yes they take a lot—hours of training, significant amounts of sweat, and perhaps the lifespan of your knees. But marathons can give you so much. This one gave me everything. It gave me, me.

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