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My Goal Was to Run a 5K. One Year Later, I Completed the NYC Marathon.

Conquering 26.2 miles—and reinventing myself in the process—was more about the journey than the destination.

Men’s Health

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The author during and after the marathon

(MarathonFoto; Spencer Dukoff)

I was 200 meters away from the finish line in Central Park when it finally sunk in that I was going to complete a marathon.

For much of the 26 miles I’d logged from Staten Island to Brooklyn to Queens to Manhattan to the Bronx and back down into Manhattan, I’d muted the music playing in my headphones, preferring to use the cheers and chants from total strangers as motivation to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I did my best to remain in the present, focusing on my pace, my breathing, and my form to prevent my mind from wandering elsewhere. I tried to log away memories of what I saw along the route—sanitation trucks and fire engines laying on their horns, little kids holding out their hands for high-fives, the flags representing so many countries—that I could fully enjoy at a later date. I wanted the experience of my first marathon to be more about the journey than the destination.

But after seeing my squad of family and friends absolutely losing it by the Mile 26 marker, I allowed myself to recognize the inevitable: “You’re going to finish this thing.” So for that final stretch, I cranked up the volume in my headphones and hit shuffle, searching for a cosmic message in the form of one last song to carry me over the finish line.

"SILK!!! Chiffon…"

It was "Silk Chiffon'' by MUNA featuring Phoebe Bridgers, a song I’d chosen countless times during training to act as my kickoff for long runs, using that infectious chorus as an injection of positive energy to propel me forward. But instead of jumpstarting this run, the song was ferrying me to my first marathon's conclusion. As the song faded out and my legs mercifully came to a stop, I managed to use whatever breath that was left in my lungs to let out a laugh.

My marathon journey began with the promise of free swag. In October 2020, my buddy Brett was trying to form a Men’s Health team for a virtual race sponsored by ASICS. If I ran a 5K leg, I’d get some sort of free gear from the brand. This was enough to pique my interest.

The only thing: I’d never run a 5K in my life. Despite working at a magazine like Men’s Health, I’ve never considered “athletic” as an adjective that accurately describes me.

Yes, I was a varsity athlete in high school. Yes, that varsity letter was for the Summit High School bowling team. No, there were no required weight room sessions for the Summit High School bowling team. Yes, you were allowed to order cheese fries from the snack bar at Madison Plaza Lanes during bowling practice.


Me in high school being not good at sports. (Spencer Dukoff)

Throughout high school and college, I rarely weighed myself partially to avoid confirming that I was overweight. And while outwardly I tried to project an air of confidence, I felt uncomfortable in my body. Those insecurities trickled out into other self-defeating behaviors like drinking too much to ease my social anxiety and feeling adrift amidst bouts of depression.

Over the past few years, I’d begun making a few healthier choices to confront some of those issues head-on. I topped out at around 215 pounds, and lost some weight after taking on Whole30 with my wife Erin and another couple. I also found that I really enjoyed challenging spin classes, which played into my competitive nature and love of loud music. A better diet and a little more fitness helped me drop to around 190 pounds at the start of 2020.

As the pandemic ramped up, I began to see a therapist, which became perhaps my most impactful lifestyle change. Without a commute or a reason to go anywhere, my therapist encouraged me to start going on long walks either before or after work to give myself time to reconnect with the outside world and process any lingering thoughts.

I would see so many runners on these walks and I began to think maybe I could give running a shot. Brett’s invitation to the ASICS Ekiden team was my excuse to finally tackle that goal. So I began to wake up, walk my dog Murphy, and then go on a short jog, trying to not be so hard on myself about my pace or feeling winded.

To get started, I used guided Peloton outdoor run classes. I found that the voice of a coach in my ear could distract me from any bad vibes I’d experience during a run. While those classes featured some run-of-the-mill fitspo motivation, I was impressed by the specificity of advice the different Peloton coaches would give, which they mixed with personal stories about their journeys as athletes and runners. Trainers like Selena Samuela and Matty Maggiacomo made me feel like becoming a runner was an attainable pursuit, even as I huffed and puffed my way toward finishing a 30-minute interval run.

In November, I completed my first 5K in 25 minutes and 32 seconds. The following weekend, I ran another virtual 5K—the Women’s Health/Men’s Health Turkey Trot—in 25 minutes and 16 seconds. From there, I was hooked. Even though we were entering freezing-cold winter, I was excited to lace up my sneakers, get outside, and log a few miles.

Fast-forward to June 2021, when my boss, Mike, sent me a Slack message that would change my life: “Quick Q, if we could secure you a bib for the NYC marathon, would you have any interest in doing it?”

At that point, I was maybe considering signing up for a half-marathon at some point in the fall. Even that idea scared me. But running 26.2 miles...without stopping...in a few months? I was terrified.

And yet…

I realized that if I turned this opportunity down, I’d always regret it. This was the 50th anniversary of the New York City Marathon. Not only that, but it was first NYC Marathon after Covid scuttled the 2020 race. How could I say no? So, despite my better judgment, I told Mike I was in.

My training revolved around Peloton's Road to 26.2 training program, which chunked up 18 weeks of marathon prep into three 6-week parts. Each week featured six days of workouts and one rest day (when I'd usually complete an easy yoga class to stretch out my body). The typical training schedule would be a tempo run, then a strength for runners class, then a marathon pace run, then another strength for runners class, then a 20-minute shakeout run, and finally a long run, which gradually progressed in distance. Runs were led by Peloton trainers Becs Gentry, Matt Wilpers, and Robin Arzón, while Andy Speer and Rebecca Kennedy taught the strength classes.

Beyond helping me become a better runner, the Peloton program gave me structure and routine in a time that was often overwhelming. Through pandemic ups and downs, the plan offered me a place to work through all my stress and anxieties. Some days, I woke up excited to run. Other days, running was at the bottom of the list of things I wanted to do. I ran when I was sore and tired. I ran when I was hungover. I ran in pouring rain and I ran in 90-degree heat. I ran the day after I got my second vaccine shot and was feeling like a bag of shit. No matter how I was feeling, I refused to miss a workout, and I took pride in that total dedication.


Running the marathon was the culmination of a year-long process of reinvention. (MarathonFoto)

Slowly but surely, I began to crush longer distances and set out on runs for hours at a time. It was never about losing weight, but I continued to slim down and get stronger, seeing 173 pounds on the scale the day before the marathon. I started to embrace that running wasn't just an activity, but a deeper part of who I was becoming as a person. A year into my running journey, I felt comfortable calling myself a runner. But I wouldn't be able to call myself a marathoner until I completed a marathon.

When I look back at my splits for the marathon, I can get a little critical. I set out that morning with the hopes that I could finish the marathon in less than four hours, which would require me to maintain a pace under nine minutes per mile. I was disciplined for the beginning of the race, avoiding a repeat of the rookie mistake I made in the Jersey Shore Half Marathon in October when I got swept up in emotion and started too fast. I felt steady and sure-footed, hitting my stride in Brooklyn and using that momentum to power past the elevation climb of the Queensboro Bridge into the raucous introduction to Manhattan at First Avenue. As I entered the borough, my family and friends were waiting for me with Bruce Springsteen and Phoebe Bridgers-themed signs in hand. Reaching over the metal barrier, I gave my Erin a quick kiss on the cheek before returning to race mode.

Marathoners will talk about “the wall” that comes around Mile 20, which I certainly hit. I struggled through the Bronx, but smiled through the pain thanks in part to joyful spectators cheering everyone to not give up. I was anticipating a hill at Fifth Avenue in the lead-up to Central Park, but I wasn’t anticipating that hill, and it no doubt caused me to ease up on the gas.

But the numbers only tell one side of my marathon story. The other side of that story was one of gratitude: for my body, for the people I love and who love me, for random New Yorkers, for the weather, for all the opportunities I’d been afforded in my life. Finishing the marathon was one of the most challenging things I’ve ever done in my life, but that magnitude of difficulty only made the accomplishment that much more fulfilling.


NYC may be my first marathon, but it won’t be my last. (MarathonFoto)

The first person I thought about after crossing the finish line was my unborn child. I thought about how, one day, I’ll tell them that they were in Mom’s belly as she cheered me on at the New York City Marathon. During training when I’d feel gassed or lacking in motivation, I would latch on to the idea that running would make me a healthier, better father. They wouldn't want me to give up. When I finished the marathon, Erin was 31 weeks pregnant. My marathon journey has dovetailed with this other journey that will lead to something more transformative than 26.2 miles ever could be.

After crossing the finish line, I took off my headphones and gave myself a moment to take in the scene. I saw other finishers collapsing into tears of joy and others finding loved ones who also ran the marathon. I looked up at the blue sky and at the ancient trees of Central Park, skyscrapers sticking out in every direction. I saw the edge of the Upper West Side neighborhood where Erin and I first moved in together years ago. And then I looked down at my feet and my legs, which had just carried me toward a milestone that had not so long ago seemed impossible.

I could now officially call myself a marathoner. And while one important chapter of my life was coming to an end, I understood another exciting chapter was only just beginning.

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This post originally appeared on Men’s Health and was published November 16, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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