At the 2016 Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Marathon, Martha Nelson, a 35-year-old biologist at the National Institutes of Health, and Jackie Galgey, a 37-year-old Cosmopolitan editor from New York City, woke up before sunrise and headed to the start. The two strangers had the same goal in mind: Finish feeling strong. Nelson would clock 2 hours, 58 minutes, averaging a pace of 6:50 over the hilly course. Galgey would push through with a time of 6 hours, 13 minutes, gutting out 14:15-minute miles for all 26.2. Neither had any expectations attached to her finishing place—but of the 1,004 women in the race, Nelson and Galgey bookended the field.
In doing so, they experienced rare moments. More than 1,000 marathons take place in the United States annually. Of the half a million Americans who line up to test their mettle each year, few will ever know the feeling of tape breaking against their chests. The other side of the coin: Countless runners will be scared away from ever making it to the start line for fear of coming in dead last. The chance of this is, of course, as uncommon as a victory.
Every race has a story and each runner does too. Even though their times couldn’t have been further apart, Nelson’s and Galgey’s journeys are shockingly similar—and different in ways you’d never expect.
Growing up, Jackie Galgey loved watching her dad, Henry, a longtime runner, compete in races near her hometown of Bowie, Md. But for most of her young life, she preferred to stand on the sidelines. “I wasn’t very sporty,” she explains.
That changed when Galgey was a few years out of college and looking to shed some pounds in a healthier way than the “yo-yo dieting” she’d tried before. She decided to try running because of its simplicity. “You don’t have to be too coordinated—all you have to do is not fall!” The then-26-year-old editor was living in Dublin during a short career break, and she used the activity to explore her new country.
While Galgey had started running for the physical benefits, she was shocked at how it made her feel: “If I was having a bad day, running just cheered me up. I was feeling great all the time. I had that runner’s high always with me.”
Within a few months, Galgey signed up for her first race, a women’s 10K through the city center. “Running together, enjoying the sport and helping each other was just amazing.” This race, and the many that followed—including the Cherry Blossom and Army 10-milers, upon her return to D.C.—cemented her passion for running. “Those were the breakthroughs that made me feel even more connected to the sport,” she explains.
Finding Her Way
Martha Nelson’s first reactions to running couldn’t have been more different. Where Galgey experienced a lovefest of charming roads and coursing endorphins, Nelson, who was encouraged to try high school cross country following a soccer injury, “cried every day of practice for the first week.”
After suffering through 5-mile runs with the senior boys, Nelson would come home each evening and tell her mom she wanted to quit. With some coaxing, the freshman stuck with it and uncovered incredible talent. Her first season of competition, she finished top-five in the 3,200 meters at the Maryland State Championship. The next fall, at age 15, she won her first state championship outright.
While ability came naturally, affinity did not. “I liked winning and I liked being good at something,” explains Nelson, “but I have to admit, it took me a really long time to like running.” She hated the pressure piled on by coaches and teammates, a culture Nelson found overly strict.
One of her most memorable races in high school was a regional meet her sophomore year. As the reigning state cross-country champion, Nelson should have been able to comfortably finish in the top four and thereby qualify to run at the state level. The morning of the race, she stood on the line and realized one second too late that she had a chain around her neck—jewelry is forbidden in high school competition. In a panic, Nelson jumped off the track and wrestled with the necklace. By the time she got it free, the pack was already halfway around the first turn. Nelson pushed and pushed, finally nicking the fourth-place girl on the finishing stretch in the “hardest race” of her life. As she was still gasping for air, the official walked over and told her that her effort had been in vain: She would still be disqualified for wearing the necklace for the first three steps of the race. “I was crying, crying, crying,” Nelson remembers. “A part of me just died on that track.”
Running a race of any distance is a challenge, but anyone who’s finished a marathon knows that 26.2 miles is a different beast. Coming into the sport later than Nelson, Galgey had been racing for almost a decade before the idea of signing up for a marathon crept into her mind. Her inspiration: an Irish man she met at, “of all places,” a bar.
After moving from Dublin back to Washington, D.C., and then to New York at age 31, Galgey fell in love. “I had always thought I was a pretty cool runner, but then I met my husband, who runs marathons a lot.” John has currently completed 36 of them with a goal of finishing 50 before his 50th birthday.
When they first started dating, the pair would run together through Central Park. “He had to slow down to run with me—I thought it was so cute.” Seeing John train for marathons opened Galgey’s mind to the challenge and she signed up for her first in 2013. “I really enjoyed it,” she remembers, but wasn’t sure she would ever run one again.
Unlike Galgey, Nelson’s first marathon wasn’t exactly intentional—but ended up changing everything. Nelson was heavily recruited to run in college, but the sting of her negative experiences in high school prompted her to rebel against the sport. Nelson attended the only school she got into that was not interested in her as a runner: Stanford University. “I thought, I’m going to go to California and be a surfer.”
Nelson soon decided that the West Coast wasn’t the right fit and transferred to Amherst College in Massachusetts. She tried running competitively at her new school but incurred many of the same frustrations that caused her to leave the sport in the first place. “I was All-American and was proud of what I did there, but I quit early on.”
As Nelson was teasing out her love-hate relationship with running, she realized that the team mentality (“very cultish”) and the coaching culture (“very intrusive”) were not her style. She became especially upset when the coaches would try to control her teammates’ eating. “I didn’t get it that bad, because I’ve always been naturally underweight, but I would get very angry.”
After breaking with the team, Nelson started to explore solo running. Her senior year, a friend implored her to sign up for the New York City Marathon. “I had to teach myself to run slowly,” she remembers. It was on long trail runs that Nelson started to understand what others enjoyed about the sport. “I’d be out in the woods for three hours running by myself. It was such a bizarre and wonderful and almost hallucinogenic experience.”
Race day was unseason-ably warm and Nelson didn’t do herself any favors by wearing a heavy cotton T-shirt and trying to choke down a Clif Bar as she ran. She finished in 3:14, but was so dehydrated, she had to go to the hospital for three hours to recover. When she was released, Nelson’s mom, who had accompanied her to the marathon, looked at her daughter and said, “Well, at least we never have to do that again!” Nelson looked at her and said, “What are you talking about? I’m totally doing that again.” The cross-country rebel had finally found her love.
Rock and Rolling
Since that hot morning in Manhattan, Nelson has finished between 20 and 25 marathons and ultras. (She enjoys them so much, she’s lost count.) In 2015, she signed up for the Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Marathon and clinched the win with a “thrilling, come-from-behind victory.” In 2016, Nelson hadn’t planned on returning, but her friend Trevor told her that he really wanted to break three hours in the race.
Having run her last 10 marathons between 2:55 and 2:59, Nelson was confident she could help. “‘I’m a master,’ I said. ‘I’ve got this. Trust me.’” She prepared for the race with someone else’s objective in mind and, on race morning, reached the line focused on supporting her friend.
Don’t Call It a Comeback
Galgey’s goal, on the other hand, couldn’t have been more personal. On March 26, 2015, when Nelson was recovering from her first marathon victory, Galgey and her husband were welcoming the arrival of their baby girl, Gwen.
The new mom had been able to run through most of her pregnancy, but exercise took a backseat after giving birth. Galgey felt she needed to set a goal to ensure she was taking care of not only Gwen but herself too. She chose the Rock ‘n’ Roll D.C. Marathon. The race was almost a full year after Gwen’s delivery, so it would give her enough time to train. Plus, D.C. is a special city where she had watched her dad race all those years ago. It also happened to fall on her 37th birthday. Galgey says, “I thought, What’s a good way to celebrate getting older? To run a marathon, because I’m a badass who just had a baby!” She recruited her husband and best friend, Colette, to sign up as well.
Galgey found time to train by waking up at the crack of dawn and heading out right after nursing, or by asking the babysitter to stay late so she could run post-work. On weekends, she and her husband would tag-team running in the park and watching the baby.
Between feedings, training and a demanding job, Galgey remembers getting by on minimal sleep. But for her, making time for a run is nonnegotiable. “Some people feel like if I have an hour to myself, I’d rather lounge on the couch and watch Netflix, but that’s not who I am,” she explains. “I know that when I come back [from a run], I’ll be more productive than I ever would have been if I had an hour to take a nap.”
On race morning, Nelson lined up, feeling a bit nervous—but not for her own performance. She had promised Trevor she’d help him break 3 hours and she needed to come through. After having switched from regimented training to Zen-like running many years ago, Nelson rarely runs with a watch and never when racing. That day, however, she had her Garmin strapped on her wrist and was glancing down at her splits every mile. “I realized halfway through that I was in second place and I thought, Whatever. My focus was Trevor.”
“I had a goal just to finish,” says Galgey of the same race. With her support crew in tow, Galgey and her husband, best friend, dad and daughter met at the start. They decided to all do their own thing and reconvene at the finish.
The gun went off and Galgey turned her iPod Shuffle volume just high enough to keep Beyoncé’s beat pushing her forward. “I just wanted to enjoy every moment,” she says. “There were spectators trying to give people margaritas. It was the best!”
At mile 7, she spotted her friend with Gwen. She felt a rush of inspiration. “I want to make sure she thinks, Hey, I’m a girl and I can do whatever I want,” says Galgey. “It’s so great to see people you love on the course. It makes it so much more special.”
Despite the positive vibes and community support, around the halfway mark, Galgey’s pace started to slow. All of the half marathoners turned off toward their finish line, and Galgey still had more than 13 miles to go. “I started to slow down more and more and I started to notice fewer and fewer people,” says Galgey. “There was a little bit of fear.”
At the same point in the course, Nelson and Trevor were still on target for a sub-3 finish. But Nelson knew they would lose some time when the course climbed up a big hill later and picked up the pace to ensure they had enough cushion. That’s when she spotted the first woman and knew she had a chance to go for the win. “At that point, I had to focus on the fact that I had been inserted into a real race,” she says. After getting the nod from Trevor, Nelson switched her mindset from support to competition.
In an effort to secure the victory, Nelson threw down a few surges, putting a few minutes between her and second place. “I pushed a little too hard in those last few miles,” she says. With 1 mile to go, the course ducked into an underpass. “I ended up throwing up all over myself,” Nelson remembers.
Still, she hung on, focused on staying relaxed and keeping her body in one piece as she charged toward the finish at RFK Stadium. With 400 meters to go, Nelson saw that she had all but clinched the win and that Trevor was close enough behind her that he was sure to meet his goal.
“I slowed down and I soaked it in,” she remembers. “It was so nice to raise your hand and feel the crowd respond. It feels like you’re in this warm glow for maybe 30 seconds at the end. You know, that’s what it’s all for.”
That Finish Feeling
When Nelson was raising her arms in victory, Galgey was focusing on making it through mile 14. Nervous that the sweeper truck might end her race before she could finish, the new mom started repeating a mantra: “Don’t let them catch you. Don’t let them catch you.” Reminding herself that she was a strong, tough runner, she relied on the crowd support to elevate her spirits.
At mile 21, Galgey’s legs started to ache and the long hill on the course wasn’t helping. But instead of wishing that she was done, Galgey says she thought about how lucky she was to get a full 26.2-mile tour of D.C. With RFK Stadium in her mind’s eye, she told herself: “You are going to finish this for Gwen. You are going to finish this for yourself.”
Finally, Galgey was approaching the finish. By this time, most of the runners had dispersed and the crowds were sparse, but she noticed Colette, who had finished an hour before, still waiting at the line. As Galgey took her final steps, Colette yelled something to the announcers. From the stage, she heard, “Congratulations, Jacquelyn Galgey! Way to go! And happy birthday to you!” The runner says, “It felt like I was coming home. It was pretty amazing.”
One year later, Nelson is still running strong, focusing on completing long runs through the mountains on weekends as she considers signing up for her first 100K race this summer. She now trains with a running group—no coaches needed. The club supports one another and heads out every Tuesday night for an after-dark run through the woods followed by a dinner of pizza and beer.
Galgey is now pregnant with her second child, due this April. She says after giving birth, she’d like to train for a marathon again: “I think I have one more in me.”
Nelson explains, “Marathon training to be competitive [isn’t] all that different from basic marathon training.” And Galgey has this advice: “Don’t have fear. What’s the worst that can happen? You get caught by the sweeper. You still went out, you still did it and you’re a better person for it. I know sometimes people say, ‘I don’t want to be competitive. I just run for fun.’ But [racing] is fun! You find a community with people you’re running with. It’s a feeling of camaraderie that you wouldn’t get otherwise running solo. It’s wonderful. If everyone was ever on the fence about it, just try.”