It has been 28 years in the making but I can finally say that I am a marathoner with pride and joy. On Sunday, November 5th, a lifetime of hard work came together as I ran my first of many marathons and did so in the greatest city in the universe. There’s nothing more satisfying in my life right now than to have completed a hometown marathon and crossed that finish line having hit all the goals I set out to accomplish.

Welcome to the biggest marathon in the world!

When I logged my first race back in June 2016 and started this whole thing, all I wanted to do was finish the marathon. I could barely race those four miles in 40 minutes so I told myself that I’d be happy to complete the marathon, even if I have to crawl across the finish line. At the time, I was terribly out of shape but full of enthusiasm to finally actualize my lifelong goal of running the New York City Marathon. I wanted keep it realistic so I figured that with more training, I could finish in under six hours (just maybe).

Little did I know what I am truly capable of.

During this process, I learned that I’m much more capable than I give myself credit for. When I started cross country in college in the fall of 2007 at Soka University of America as an undergraduate, I was running 30-minute 5K races. I was a snail but that was the best I could do at the time. On one particular occasion, Coach Karla had us do an incredibly challenging workout, along with a time trial that physically ruined me. Later that day, she sent the team an email with our results saying:

Big difference when you are in better shape and you run fast! Good job everyone, let’s continue to run hard and improve. One more thing: Now that I know your true potential, I am going to push you even more.

Was I afraid? I was terrified. But I was also curious about how much better I could get. Over the course of those four years, I had a million excuses to quit. Yet, I managed to continue and keep up the momentum because I had the most amazing support group who believed in what I could accomplish. By the time senior year rolled around, I closed out my collegiate cross country career with a spectacular 5K PR of 24:24, one that I’m still trying to beat today. That’s an improvement of more than five minutes on a 5K!

That major accomplishment took a lot of strength and sacrifices to achieve. It’s hard to believe how I pulled that off but I’m proud that I did. To think about applying that same mentality and focus to marathon training was still unbelievably frightening. I didn’t want to set big goals because I was ashamed of who I’d be and how devastated I’d feel if I didn’t accomplish them. The marathon distance was foreign territory to me so making “safe” goals already felt like a risk.

Since early this year, I had a lot of setbacks that convinced me that I need to keep my expectations realistic. I often questioned myself with, “What’s wrong with me?” more than encouraging myself with, “I can do this!” But with every mile I log and every race I complete, I continued to surprise myself. I survived my first half marathon in awful weather conditions. And suddenly, out of nowhere, I started running half marathons faster than my 5K pace.

Maybe I should be a bit more daring.

Realizing that I could do more than I thought was empowering. In the last year and a half, I’ve broken a lot of mental barriers and was reminded of all the reasons why I decided to run the marathon. And if I’m working hard to make the best marathon debut I could for myself, why not push the boundaries, be a bit more daring and set even bigger goals?

These are what I came up with:

1. Finish. Unlike other races, the marathon distance is a challenge no matter what pace I decide to run it. Completing it should absolutely be celebrated.

2. Get a time of under 4:30:00. My half marathon PR is 1:55:24 so aiming for a sub-4:30:00 felt like a doable challenge.

3. Perform negative splits. To get negative splits for shorter distance races is already hard enough. I was adamant about doing so for the marathon because why not?

4. Race the last 10K. Mile 20 can either be the best part of the race or the worst. Rather than to hit the wall, I was going to stay strong and start racing the remaining 10K (6.2 miles).

4. Sprint to the finish. I wasn’t just going to finish. I was going to make it an epic one. I wanted to leave everything I had so when I crossed the finish, I had nothing else left.

A few days before, I had the privilege of meeting America’s greatest marathoner, the legendary Meb Keflezighi. His talk (and retirement party) was nothing short of inspiring. I was profoundly moved by his incredible lifetime accomplishments, complemented by his humility and sense of gratitude. Meb is a champion on so many levels and it was such a special experience to be in his presence. It’s an honor to share the field and his last marathon as I make my own debut in the streets of New York City.

On race day, I dragged myself out of bed at 4:00 AM and made my way to Bryant Park to start my commute to Staten Island. I was starting to feel the pressure of racing a great debut marathon (it is a race, after all) but I trust myself and the training that I’ve put in. I wanted to celebrate having a strong runner’s body and do something I’ve wanted to for a really long time. I owe it to myself to race well and give it everything I got.

The marathon start at the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge moved me in ways I still can’t comprehend. As I impatiently waited in the cold with a massive crowd of Wave 2, they played Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York.” Hearing it at the start of my very first New York City Marathon gave new meaning to the lyrics, “If I can make it there, I’ll make it anywhere.” I’ve made it to the start. Over 50,000 athletes made it to the start. It was time for all of us to put our work to the test.

The energy of the City was euphoric and the crowds were insane! My name was on my Whippets singlet so strangers at every block were screaming, chanting, cheering, rapping, singing and belting variations of “Riri!” The race felt like New York City just by the fact that no one mispronounced my name but instead, it was spoken out in a multitude of accents. What a profound experience to be cheered on through every borough in one day! The music throughout the course was really lively and I loved embracing everything that makes this City what it is.

1st Avenue – Image c/o NYRR.

Once I hit the halfway mark, I started strategizing for the remainder of my race. I do think I kept it a bit too conservative for the first half when I realized I clocked in at 2:12:56. But the upside to that was feeling like I still had a full tank of gas, something I constantly practiced during my weekend long runs. At that point, there was no way I could ever hit the wall so I got down to business and picked up the pace. I was going to get those negative splits done.

At Mile 18, my Garmin showed a text from James, “MOVE YOUR ASS, TAKE SHIT FROM NO ONE!” and that’s when I knew that I wasn’t going to let anyone pass me. As Steve Prefontaine famously said, “Somebody may beat me, but they are going to have to bleed to do it.” The amazingly loud Whippets cheering station at Mile 21 was the final boost of adrenaline needed to close out the marathon. I was passing people left and right like nobody’s business!

At around Mile 22, I saw Kathrine Switzer, along with her athletes of team 261 Fearless and couldn’t help but wildly cheer for them. Kathrine is the first woman to run and finish the Boston Marathon in 1967, when people barely believed that women could do anything, let alone complete a marathon. Despite the fact that she wanted to give up on numerous occasions and was threatened to be pulled off the course, she courageously finished. Fifty years later, she celebrated with us in New York City and sharing the course with Kathrine was incredible.

The final miles were undoubtedly the hardest. Drinking so much fluid and energy gels throughout the course were weighing down on me. My hamstrings and quads were starting to feel strained. The drizzle made the road slippery and I was using more energy to not slip than to propel forward. I was mentally drained from encouraging myself to stay focused, while trying not to destroy my form. But I was going to finish it out strong. I didn’t come here to slack off when it mattered the most.

When I sprinted through the finish line, I was overflowing with emotion. It wasn’t just from the joy of finishing but having done so in a way that made it fulfilling. I completed my first marathon in 4:20:58, more than 9 minutes faster than my goal. I got those negative splits down, even getting my SUA coach’s attention. When people congratulate me on my marathon finish, I tell them to congratulate me on my negative splits too. That was my biggest battle – to remain strong from the beginning and turn up the dial when it got even harder.

So here’s a breakdown of how I accomplished every single thing that I dared myself to do:

– Joined the NYRR Group Training Program. I wanted to incorporate structured speed workouts. I enjoy them but interval work is extremely hard to do alone. I needed this program to keep me accountable. Having done short intervals of fast paced running made marathon pace feel like a breeze, but also gave me the legs to sprint through the finish.

– Joined the Dashing Whippets Running Team. For the longest time, I was content running alone. I still enjoy it. But the support I get from this team is incredible. Speed and ability doesn’t matter on this team – the camaraderie is unconditional. I was proud to wear the Whippets singlet on race day and be surrounded by people who push me.

– Trained smart. There’s a significant difference between training hard and training smart. Smart is understanding the science behind each workout and why they’re valuable. During the past 16 weeks, I did my tempo runs, speed work and long runs, arguably three of the most crucial workouts.

– Practiced everything. I practiced negative splits. I practiced going over the Queensborough Bridge so I don’t fear it. I did a lot of hill repeats. I repeatedly ran parts of the marathon course. I tested what I was going to wear and bring with me. They say nothing new on race day and I nailed it completely.

– Continued to race. I raced through a hurricane. I raced while sick. I raced short and long distances. There were days I could flawlessly crush a long run and there were days I could barely do three miles. But continuing to race through challenging circumstances kept my grit and determination alive with vigor.

Runstreet Shakeout Art Run – Image c/o Filles+Garcons.

Finally, as I soak in my impressive marathon debut, I can’t leave without reflecting on how I will continue to improve so that I can be an even better marathoner. Naturally, as a UX designer (and problem solver), I look back to my marathon training and how I might iterate on the process to hit my next PR. Chris, one of the Whippets coaches, provides a great framework of performance grading for evaluating how it all went and factors to consider for further progress.

Here’s what I will do differently next time:

– Increase my mileage. Since this is my first marathon, I didn’t want to push the mileage too far and I don’t regret it. I have a few injuries but keeping the mileage relatively low kept them tame. The highest week was 55 miles so I anticipate hitting 70 or more for peak week the next time I train and slowly building up to handle that.

– Cross train with intention. I did a lot of cross training and strength work merely because they were fun and knew they benefited my running. But I do think that they sometimes interfered with my running days. I would do strenuous non-running activity when I was supposed to take easy, recovery days. I will not let that happen again.

– Rest, for real. I wasn’t really aware of the signs that my body was giving me so I pushed beyond what I thought I could do. In June, I raced every single weekend (including the one weekend of back-to-back racing) and severely hurt myself. There were moments that I held onto my ego and trained through the pain when I knew it made more sense to skip certain workouts to avoid further aggravation of my pain.

– Be more diligent about my diet. This time around, I kind of ate whatever I wanted – that’s what happens when I love food a little too much. I wasn’t a terrible eater but I did indulge a bit much, if I may say so. Perhaps this approach helped me stay sane but now that I know what I am capable of, I’d like to see how I could gradually change the way I eat so that I perform better.

– Believe in myself. Although I put in the work needed to succeed for this marathon, I had more moments of self-doubt and fear rather than confidence and grit. I gave myself a hard time when my pace slowed down without realizing that I have been doing a different kind of training where that is obvious. I need to be more forgiving when things don’t always go as planned.

My big dream of qualifying for the Boston Marathon doesn’t feel like such a moonshot now, especially since I’m 46 minutes away from the cutoff times. If I was 60 to 64 years old, my current time would have actually qualified me! I told myself that I’d do it in the next five years but friends are telling me I could in two, if I focus. As long as I have people who believe in my immense potential, I’m not stopping.

Let’s get to work and close the gap.

The New York City Marathon is amazing. Running is amazing. It was such an unreal experience to conquer all five boroughs in one day on foot and to share the field with many, many legends. Thank you, New York City for a phenomenal block party and being part of my 26.2-mile victory lap. Here’s to a great first marathon and a lifetime more!

Cheers,

Riri