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Denise Sauriol calls herself the Marathon Whisperer. An audacious title, for sure, but one that seems fitting for this 51-year-old Chicago native. After all, Sauriol has completed an impressive 106 marathons, a tally that includes 28 Boston Marathon qualifications (and 12 finishes). Not only that, she has a thriving coaching business guiding hundreds on their running journeys, and she often races alongside her charges, snapping pics, dispensing advice and cheering them on to the finish line.
But life wasn’t always so rosy and carefree for Sauriol. Just six years ago, she says she was at rock bottom. She’d gone through an especially tough breakup and was self-medicating with alcohol. On the surface, she seemed like the same ol’ Denise: the one always up for a good time, who thought nothing of flying around the world to run races. She even traveled to Tokyo in 2014 after that breakup, seeking a coveted star for completing one of the six World Marathon Major events. While Sauriol finished the race, she remembers little about the trip, other than feeling empty. “I feel so bad for the friends I was traveling with because I was just so sad,” she says. “Mentally, I was broken.”
It was a feeling Sauriol knew all too well. In 2009, she was slammed by a car in Central Park early on an August morning while making her way to the start line of the New York City Half Marathon. Her body cracked the windshield of the car upon impact, instantly snapping five vertebrae. At the time, Sauriol was at the top of her running game, logging up to 70 miles per week with a laser-sharp focus on getting faster than ever. While the crash curtailed those dreams and ultimately led her to gain a new perspective on the sport, the physical and emotional healing took months.
“After being so sad and depressed, the one thing that kept coming back to me was my very first race, when it was just about getting to the finish line” Sauriol says of her difficult times. “Back then, running always gave me so much confidence, and I wanted to revisit that feeling—and share it with others.”
So, after that trip to Tokyo, Sauriol got sober. She found an amazing therapist. And she dove head-first into coaching, leaving her longtime job as an accountant in June 2016. Sauriol’s transparency about her struggles—and her ability to overcome them—is perhaps part of what endears her to so many people, especially the runners who flock to her for advice and guidance on their own journeys. In fact, through her business, Run For Change, Sauriol coaches anywhere between 25 and 200 individuals each year. She’s also written a book, Me, You & 26.2, a training manual sprinkled with tips and first-person accounts from Denise and some of the runners she’s coached—“cliends” as she calls them, a cheeky mashup of clients and friends—chronicling the myriad experiences of marathon running.
While Sauriol defines herself as a runner, she says the sport is no longer a mark of her own fitness (“I don’t chase the clock,” she says). Rather, she views it as a vehicle for change—and a tool to ignite empowerment in others.
“Running any distance—even if it’s your first 5K—can be scary, but the possibilities also make us excited. I call that being ‘scited,’” Sauriol says. “We all need to do things that make us scited. If we don’t, we’ll never know what we’re missing out on.”
Editor’s note: A previous version of this story incorrectly stated how many times Sauriol ran the Boston Marathon. She has qualified 28 times and finished it 12 times.