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Why I run: How divorce led me to the New York City marathon

During a recent conversation about my plan to run the upcoming New York City Marathon, my own mother offered a blunt assessment of the athletic pursuit.“If I had to choose a child most likely to run a marathon, I probably wouldn’t have chosen you,” she said.She was joking, but she's right — no one would ever have pegged me as a runner.In elementary school, there was nothing I despised more
Amy Eley running
Steven Alan Pendergrass

During a recent conversation about my plan to run the upcoming New York City Marathon, my own mother offered a blunt assessment of the athletic pursuit.

“If I had to choose a child most likely to run a marathon, I probably wouldn’t have chosen you,” she said.

She was joking, but she's right — no one would ever have pegged me as a runner.

Today

In elementary school, there was nothing I despised more than the day every year that my class would have to run the mile. We would shuffle outside to the baseball field during gym class where our teacher, Mr. Dee, would be waiting. 

"Run six laps to complete your mile,” he would shout, and with the blow of his whistle, we'd start to make our way around the field.

And every year, I would make the same mistake of sprinting the first lap only to struggle through the second. Classmates eventually lapped me as I painfully dragged my feet along the field’s spray-painted boundaries.

By the time I came to the end of my final lap, my entire class would be waiting as Mr. Dee stared at his watch, preparing to shout my time.

“Please be less than 10 minutes,” I begged under my breath. 

I never made it in less than 10 minutes.  

My attempt at cross country practice included embarrassingly long shorts, difficulty breathing and lots of walking. Today

As a high school freshman, my mother signed me up for cross country. She could not understand my hatred for running. I had seen her complete the Boston Marathon and watched in awe as she effortlessly did what I thought was impossible. My mother had a passion for running, and she wanted to make sure I had one too.  

“Running is how you learn you can do hard things,” she would tell me.

I was surely the worst runner my high school had ever seen. 

During one race, the boys, who started their run 30 minutes after the girls, passed me. With a pixie haircut, I prayed those watching would take me for a boy and not realize I was clocking a 15-minute mile.

After managing to finish the season, I accepted my fate. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to run long distances — yes, three miles felt long — it was that I physically couldn’t do it. And after watching me struggle, my mom finally accepted it too.

But years later, I faced something more difficult than running a 10-minute mile. I sat at the table of a Mexican restaurant as my husband explained he was leaving me. My mind struggled to comprehend that I was about to have to do something that felt impossible: live without him.

Over the following months, I boxed up our apartment, signed a stack of divorce papers and hired a therapist to guide me through uncharted territories. 

As time wore on, life began to feel okay again. If I survived my divorce, I could survive anything. I began to wonder, what other impossible things could I do? What was the most unconquerable thing I could imagine?

It had to be running.

A half marathon seemed like a daunting but achievable goal to reach for, so I did a quick Google search of upcoming races and found one in Utah, which fell between my Denver home and a close friend in Las Vegas. Because misery loves company, I roped her into running the race with me.

Today

I found a training program online that started with three miles. That was roughly two and a half miles more than my endurance would allow. With my iPod loaded, I ran, walked and cursed while pounding out the miles on the treadmill.

As training progressed, dragging myself to the gym only to run in front of a programmed flat screen became my personal hell. I traded the gym in for the Rocky Mountains and began running outside. I could hardly believe it when my GPS watch read four completed miles.  

I was running.

Three months later, race day rolled around. Approaching the starting line with thousands of runners felt like being in a herd of cattle as we were led to the slaughterhouse, but then the race announcer counted down, and suddenly, we were off.

Mile one, mile two, three and four completed. Mile nine’s soreness turned into mile 11's aches. I was hurting, but I was doing it.

Two hours and 20 minutes later, I crossed the finish line. Tears of accomplishment came as I stretched my legs. For the second time that year, I had finished something that seemed impossible. I had survived my divorce. And I was a runner.

My friend, Margo Roberge, and I proudly wearing our race medals.Today

Three years, one cross-country move and two half marathons later, I’m lacing up my shoes to run the New York City Marathon this Sunday. My life looks completely different than when I first started to run — I earned a graduate degree I never thought I could achieve, I have a job I never thought I'd have in a city I never thought I could actually live in, and I remarried, which I never thought I'd do again.

And now I can say, truly, that I love running. My running shoes and I have stepped on every path in Central Park, up and down Manhattan, over the Brooklyn Bridge and more. And every time I run, I learn how tough I can be.

Today

So, sure, as I head into my first marathon, the pre-race jitters are all there: How many salted caramel energy gels can I shove in my running pack? Should I go with tie-dyed or striped arm warmers? Will my toenails hold up?

But I can’t wait to show myself again that I can do hard things.

Amy Eley is an associate editor at TODAY.com. Follow her on Twitter here.