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Marathon Training Taught this Writer How to Overcome Burnout

A series of setbacks and injuries led this Boston hopeful to learn how to take it slow—in training and life.

Emilia Benton, 33, caught the long-distance running bug in college. A year after graduating, she ran her first 26.2-mile race, the 2010 New York City Marathon. At the time, she was living in New York, trying to establish a career in journalism.

The race went better than expected. So, like most goal-oriented runners, Benton set her eyes on a Boston Marathon qualifying time. She knew that she wouldn’t necessarily BQ right away, but after moving to Houston, Texas, in 2011, she wanted to begin chipping away at her goal. “That’s where I got ahead of myself,” she says.

After she broke four hours in her third marathon, the 2012 Houston Marathon, Benton began to train herself into the ground. She never gave herself a break. She trained too hard and ran through nagging aches and pains. She dealt with a string of injuries and jumped back into training too quickly after each one. “I was sabotaging myself. Really, I was preparing myself to run the worst race of my life instead of the best race,” she says. Between 2013 and 2015, she didn’t run a personal best in the marathon. Some years, she didn’t run her best time in any race distance. “I was constantly seeking instant gratification when my body was just seeking a break,” she says.

Emilia Benton learned about burnout through running.
Photo: Courtesy Emilia Benton

It took her four years (and a lot of self-reflection) to break the cycle. After she backed off and chilled out, she ran two personal bests in the marathon: 3:49 at the 2016 Houston Marathon and 3:45 at the 2019 Houston Marathon. She also broke 1:40 in the half marathon in October 2019, a goal she previously never would have believed was possible. Benton is still working toward her BQ, but she has a healthier mindset.

She learned that failing is OK, which gave her the confidence to pursue a career full-time as a freelance writer. Ironically, it was a story about her running “failures” that ultimately led her to her writing break. It gave her the nudge she needed to pursue opportunities with other big-name publications. The lessons she learned have helped her manage the ups and downs of freelancing, too.

“I’ve gone through bouts where I’ve bitten off more than I can chew and taken on too many assignments at once, to the point where I was putting in 12-hour days, working on the weekends, and being generally overwhelmed,” she says. She didn’t want to burn bridges with editors by turning down work. Plus, working as an independent contractor is stressful. With no consistent income stream, at times it can feel like a feast or famine. Benton wanted some peace of mind and financial security in case work dried up down the road.

But she knows that pushing too hard can lead to burnout like it did in running. So she has slowed down and become more deliberate in her work, from pitching stories to the assignments she takes on. “Figuring out a good balance to be able to give my all to everything I’m working on has definitely benefited both my financial and mental health,” she says. “Three years in, I’ve built a decent emergency fund so that I don’t have to worry if I ever have a down week.”

And the lessons have gone both ways. Benton thought she closed the door to journalism when she left New York after college, but she’s proven that she can make a career out of it. In the same vein, she thought that her opportunity to BQ had passed. During the four-year cycle when she didn’t see much improvement in her running times, she thought to herself, “Did I really peak at 24 or 25? Is that it?” But she’s not ready to close the door just yet. “This experience has led me to ask myself ‘Why not me?’ when I might be doubting myself on something career-related or even something running-related, like my longtime goal to BQ,” she says.