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Running At Every Age: Your First Marathon

20s? 40s? Almost 60? In between? Any time is a good time to do your first marathon.

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Emma Sidoriak, 25

When this track and cross-country runner got injured in her senior year at the University of Delaware, she knew she wasn’t going to be satisfied with the end of her college running season. “So I was looking ahead and wanted to chase a new PR,” says Emma Sidoriak. “My mom and I are part of a running group in our neighborhood in Pennsylvania, and she and two other people mentioned doing the Steamtown Marathon [in Scranton, Pa.], and I thought, ‘Yes! I want to do it!’”

After her cross-country experience, endurance training just made sense to her, and the timing was right. The October marathon would give her all summer to train. Being a new graduate at a new internship in a new city (New York City) might have made some people back off. But Sidoriak says the setup was perfect: Since she didn’t know a lot of people in the city, it felt lonely. “Running and having my marathon as a goal really helped me,” she says. “Training was a way for me to explore the city. I did most of my training on my own, but there are so many runners around you in New York that you don’t feel like you’re by yourself.”

She’d been running since at least fifth grade—when she’d go to the track at the Y with her mom—and ran all the way through college. But now, for the first time, “I was my own coach and my own teammate. I had to figure out how to push myself without going over the edge.”

In between the “wow, I don’t know if I can run 7 miles, much less a marathon” days and the “this feels great” days, the moment to sign up for the appropriate Steamtown corral came up. At first, she thought she’d be happy just to finish. But then she did the math. She checked the Internet. At that point in her training program, she hadn’t yet run more than 14 miles, but thought maybe, just maybe, if she stayed focused, she could qualify for Boston.

Race day came. “I was a nervous wreck,” she says. But her sights were set on qualifying. “At mile 22, I was really hurting, and I met another girl who was also trying to qualify. We beasted through the toughest miles of the marathon together. I broke off with about a quarter mile to go and gave it my best sprint. I finished, and I qualified for Boston, too!”

Emma’s Tips for First-Time Training

  • Do the tough thing.“I picked the workouts that were my least favorite because I knew they kicked my butt the most.”
  • Know how much to push.“In the past, I’d push, push, push until I overtrained. Now I know where my line is, and I listen to my body.”
  • Challenge yourself. “The attempt to qualify for Boston has helped me in life; it reminds me what you can achieve if you really focus and make something your everyday goal.”
Photo of Theneshia Glaze.

Theneshia Glaze, 41

When Theneshia Glaze makes up her mind to do something, there’s pretty much no way it’s not going to happen. So when she saw her retirement from the U.S. Army coming up in November 2017, she made a commitment to start training in July of that year “to give myself a retirement gift of completing a marathon to culminate my 21 years of service to this great nation.”

Never mind that Glaze is the single mother of two girls, ages 3 and 15. Never mind that 2017 involved aiming for the Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon Series’ “hall of fame,” which entails completing 15 of their half-marathon distance or longer races in a single year. Never mind that she has back pain from injuries sustained in the military.  Never mind that she got a real estate license at the same time.

How did she make it happen? “Plan, plan, plan. As a single parent, there are things we want to accomplish for ourselves, but at the same time, we have to be 100 percent present for our children. You have to plan out everything,” she says. Do what you can to de-conflict schedules. “I’d often get up at zero-dark-thirty to do my training run so I could be back in time to do what needed to be done for my daughter to catch the 6:25 a.m. bus. I had to do a lot of planning because I don’t just have myself to be concerned about.”

You also have to have a support system, Glaze says. She was stationed in Illinois, her closest family eight hours away in Alabama. “The only way I was able to fulfill my goal of becoming a Rock ‘n’ Roll hall of famer was by establishing new friends and trusting God that he would place the right person in my life to help me.” And the running community, as it has a way of doing, provided. “A woman I know through Black Girls Run! St. Louis stays with the girls when I travel out of state to do these races. I laid out my youngest’s clothes and had all the meals prepped so she wouldn’t have to do any cooking.”

And then there’s social media support. “I decided upfront I wanted to share my journey with people on social media, and knew at the same time it would help me keep myself accountable.” She hashtagged her effort on Facebook, Instagram and Runkeeper as “#JourneyTo1Percent,” referencing the percentage of Americans who finish a marathon. She used the posts as a way to encourage other runners to join her, eventually having “Journey to 1%” shirts made.

The planning, the energy, the outreach to other runners—it all paid off on race day. In a video she made after her pre-race shakeout run, Glaze says, “I said I will not hit a wall! If anything, that wall better be prepared for me.” No wall ever came, but her legs started feeling heavy around mile 24. “A woman came up behind me and said, ‘You can’t slow down because I’ve been following you the whole time and I’ve been on pace because of you.’ I said, ‘Okay, let’s finish this.’ Then, a little less than a quarter mile from the finish, my 10-year-old godson jumped in to finish with me. It was amazing.”

Theneshia On Making It Happen—No Matter What

  • A little smart parenting goes a long way. Theneshia was diligent about cooking in batches on Sundays. “People tease me and say, ‘How do you get your kids to eat the same thing all week?’ I say, ‘They don’t have a choice!’”
  • Plan for more than meals and childcare. “Planning covers every area of your life. If you’re traveling, you need reliable care. Make sure you can finance your goals without sacrificing family needs.”
  • Keep it simple. Easy meals work wonders A pot of spaghetti is a weeknight winner.
Photo of Carolee Belkin Walker.

Carolee Belkin Walker, 60

“It was in February of 2014, when I was 56, that I realized I had to do something about how I was feeling day after day. I was overweight and exhausted and irritable all the time,” says Carolee Belkin Walker of Washington, D.C. “My husband and I were empty nesters, and I just ran out of excuses.” She joined a gym initially to take yoga classes, and after a vacation in London, where, she says, “I couldn’t walk very far, I was tired, I was grumpy, and my clothes didn’t fit very well,” she answered one of the gym’s many emails about coming in for a fitness evaluation and a free meeting with a trainer.

“There was something about that trainer that set me at ease. I trusted him,” she says. She signed up for training sessions, which involved walking and stabilization and strength work. “I was getting impatient and was in a hurry to get my two miles in,” she says. “So I started making the treadmill go faster. I don’t think I really made the connection between making the machine go faster and me going faster.” Running was the next logical step.

A Thanksgiving 2014 10K with her daughter was “the hardest thing I’d ever done in my life.” But it was also one of the most exciting, and she decided to set her sights next on the 2015 D.C. Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. After Belkin Walker crossed that finish line, she was satisfied to avoid the marathon distance until she spotted a signup sheet for the Reggae Marathon while on a work assignment in Kingston, Jamaica. Enter her first 26.2, where everything that could go wrong did—including a hamstring tear within a month of the race. The desire to do a marathon “right” led her to run the Marine Corps Marathon in 2017.

“Now in life, when things don’t go as I want them to, I can pick myself up. I can bounce back.”

Carolee’s tips for running at 59+

  • Paying attention to your fitness is a good investment of time and money.“Although I’ve always had a career, my focus has always been on family and children. I don’t think I spent two minutes thinking about my own fitness. Now, I realize that being physically fit makes me better at helping others.” Though exercising doesn’t have to be expensive, whatever money you do spend will be worth it.
  • Keep trying.Walker joined a gym she didn’t connect with at all. Then she joined another gym, which is where she found the trainer she liked who encouraged her to tackle the marathon.
  • It’s okay to be uncomfortable.“Just because it’s never easy doesn’t mean it isn’t something I can’t enjoy. It’s worth finding a challenging exercise that becomes meaningful as you age.”