My First Marathon: Rachel Chang Goes the Distance in NYC

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November 8, 2016

“Toward the end of the run, I spotted a gigantic light across the park — a full moon! Even in the city, nature sent its guiding light! (6.09 miles, 1:07:16)” — Rachel Chang on her pathto262 Instagram blog

On her twitter profile, US Weekly senior editor Rachel Chang, pictured, claims she’s “not a runner by nature” and yet, she recently completed the 2016 TCS NYC marathon.
Rachel hails from San Jose, CA, and now lives not far from me in Hoboken, NJ, which is how I found her via her beautiful, quirky, and inspiring Instagram photo blog pathto262. In it she shares her triumphs and challenges via stunning pictures of her feet — showing where training for her first marathon has taken her. You see the flowers of summer, the fallen leaves of fall, and even the storm drains in the different cities she’s run in — all with commentary about what she experienced along the way and her distances.
A first marathon is no easy feat, especially for someone who doesn’t consider themselves the type. After the marathon on Sunday, I watched her social media like a hawk. Would she complete it? I hoped so, in a somewhat selfish way, because she represented hope for me. I’m a solid 5k runner who sometimes rolls the idea of running a marathon around in my head. For me, it seems impossible. But then there was Rachel, solidly racking up the miles and even continuing after injury.
The good news is — she did it. And she was kind enough to answer a few questions soon after. Read on for the ups, the downs, and the low down on if she’ll ever edit that “not a runner” business from her profile.

Withings: When did you become a runner?

Rachel Chang: It’s still hard for me to think of myself as a runner. I’ve never been the adventure, outdoorsy or active type — but that’s what this whole journey has taught me… that we all are runners. It’s just a matter of how often or how long we do it. As long as you put in the time and determination into a training plan, you can do any distance you set your mind to. I really was always more into yoga classes and other non-intense fitness classes. But in May 2010, thanks to my friend Sarah (who is now one of the best triathletes in the world!), I did my first race — the 5-mile HoHa race in Hoboken. I only really started training for it about five weeks before, so I guess I officially “became” a runner in about April 2010.

Your twitter profile says “you are not a runner by nature” — what does that mean, and why did you decide to tackle a marathon?

I’m convinced I wasn’t built to be a runner. In my head, a runner is a super-toned woman warrior going out and pounding the pavement every day — with hardly a bead of sweat. As I have started diving into the community, I was surprised and impressed with the diversity of people — from all walks of life and all body types. Something as simple as putting one foot in front of the other and moving forward is truly a universal human bond.
It’s still hard for me to say I “enjoy” the actual act of running. But I definitely love the lifestyle and inspiration that comes with it. When I do fall into a pace, I enjoy the feeling of having that rhythmic motion over distances. But every morning when I woke up for a training run, my instinct definitely was to roll over and fall back asleep. I didn’t grow up very athletic — and when my parents did finally push me into sports, the only school team I managed to make it onto was the badminton team… and even that was out of the coach’s sympathy.
Back in 2011, I had watched the New York City Marathon from the sidelines and was just so inspired by the diversity of humanity on the route. There were people passing by that made me think, “That could be me someday!” But that point, the longest race I had done was a 10K — and boy did I struggle through the end. So I had kind of accepted that it wasn’t in my life plan. But next February, I turn 40. And at some point early this year, it had popped into my head that I was going to prove to myself that I could still be strong at 40 by doing my first marathon. I figured I would decide later in the year whether to go the charity or 9+1 route. But when it came time for this year’s, I went ahead and put myself in the lottery just for kicks. I had tried it once before and didn’t get in, so I didn’t think much of it.
Just about a week after I turned 39, an alert popped up on my phone for a charge I didn’t recognize. I investigated and soon realized it was the exact amount of the New York City Marathon entry fee. Sure enough, hours later, I had the official e-mail. I had won a spot in the lottery. I had already overcommitted to so many projects and was scrambling with time management, but I’ve never been one to turn down an opportunity. Well, if fate was going to feed me this challenge, I better take it this year and make it a “bucket list before 40” item instead. So that’s when I started to train.

How did you become a delegate for the marathon? What did that entail?

While poking around the TCS New York City Marathon page, I had come across the application form to be in the Opening Ceremony. To be honest, I don’t exactly remember filling out the end of the application form. I remember thinking that so many people are running this race for such moving, motivational, for-the-greater good reasons, and I didn’t really have that. I figured I’d come back to it later — but I don’t think I ever did. Boy was I shocked when I got the email that I had been selected!
Basically, they asked us to dress up in traditional attire or our country’s colors and just show up at Central Park. Once we got there, they gave us official participant pins and a flag to wave.
As a global traveler, I’m obsessed with anything that brings the world together in a common way and showcases our sameness rather than our differences — so the fact I could be part of something like this was absolutely surreal to me! Klutzy teenage Rachel, Miss Bottom of the Barrel of the freakin’ badminton team, would be in hysterics knowing that I was walking in the Parade of Nations at the opening ceremony at a sporting event.
It truly was a highlight of my life. Being able to walk under the lights waving the red, white, and blue as we passed by the flags of all the other nations seemed to happen both in slow-motion and fast-forward simultaneously. I wanted it to last forever and I wanted to slow it down so I could remember every tiny detail. I have never experienced that kind of showcase of human spirit. And we were all connected through running!

What was the biggest challenge while training?

When I got my slot in the marathon, I had literally run a total of 4.15 miles in the entire month of February over four runs. So of course I started running again immediately — doing four runs that maxed at 1.56 miles — and then did a 6 mile loop while traveling in Washington, D.C. As soon as I was winding down that run, I could feel something was wrong. My left knee was in such pain I could barely move it without it hurting. And sometimes, I’d get a sharp throbbing pain. I tried another few short runs after that, but it was bad.
By chance, I had dinner with a friend of mine, Cara, who recommended her physical therapist at Finish Line Physical Therapy, which specializes in runners. I was a bit apprehensive, but I figured if I were going to do the marathon once in my life, I was going to do it right. So I made an appointment and started going in April.
At the worst, I couldn’t even take a step down a sidewalk curb without being in excruciating pain. I started avoiding the New York City subway because of the stairs, splurging on Uber and Via rides. In the beginning, I went twice a week — Alicia was so gentle and encouraging, which I needed. I really was convinced for a while I’d never walk pain-free again.
My right knee and my left calf became my nagging problems — and somehow we landed on the fact that I hold my breath and don’t exhale. We started doing breathing exercises, which made me aware of how much I was holding my breath — just in life! After a few weeks of really honing in on this… both pains faded away. I just couldn’t believe I went from not being able to walk around my office normally to finishing 26.2 miles and still be able to bounce around New York City with 13,347 steps the next day.

Shot from one of Rachel's training runs in Rio during the Olympics
Shot from one of Rachel’s training runs in Rio during the Olympics

What was the best part of training?

The quiet think time. People tended to be surprised when I told them I ran without headphones. I mean, at my speed, an 18-mile training run was taking well over four hours, so that’s a nice solid chunk of the day to be unavailable by smartphone — which I loved. The feeling of disconnecting and really letting your thoughts guide you was so powerful. I just let my brain go where it wanted — contemplating silly things like what I was going to wear later that day and what I wanted to eat for lunch to bigger life questions, like how did I get here and what am I doing with my life.
With the constant stream of information being thrown at us in this tech age, it was so peaceful and grounding to have that excuse to disconnect and just be me.

How did the marathon go? Best part of it? Worst part?

Absolutely incredible experience. As silly as it sounds, I didn’t really think about my running. I had followed Hal Higdon’s Novice 1 18-week training plan and I knew that my training would get me to the finish. And even though I timed every single one of my training runs, I did not time the marathon on my own. The first few miles, I tried to keep track, but I soon realized it wasn’t about the time and the speed, it was about the experience.

Rachel's family cheers her on
Rachel’s family cheers her on

The first 7 miles, I really truly ran for me. The beginning few miles over the bridge were quiet and I had to remind myself to keep pace. The first mile went by in a flash — I remember thinking, “Only 25.2 miles left?! This is going too fast!”
At Mile 7, everything changed. I saw my first friend who had been waiting for me — and it couldn’t have been a more perfect greeting. Marla was jumping with me in excitement as we hugged and took photos. In that moment, I realized I wasn’t going to pay attention to the timing anymore. This may be my race, but it was about the people in my life — and I wanted to experience it with them too. Not long down the road, my family — who all traveled so far…. My Mom and Dad from California and my sister and 4-year-old niece Olivia from Washington D.C. — just to see silly ol’ me run down the streets of New York. My niece’s huge sign was the most inspiring: She drew a bunch of ice creams around me because she figured I’d be hot, and then she insisted her mom write, “I want you to win!”
Right around the corner from them, I had another two friends, Karen and Dexter, waiting — here we were on a block I’d never been with them on and we were having this incredible shared experience! It really showed that things don’t make your life, people do.
Other highlights: My friend Meghan coming equipped with every sort of snack I might need, Julie jumping and running about 5 blocks with me just when I was about to stop because it was literally uphill (the famous Mile 23!), Karen being so inspired by giving me a banana that she and her partner ended up buying 80 more after and handing them out to strangers, and a huge group from my choir, Cantigas Women’s Choir, led by Emily, who had started the #LastDamnBridge sensation at last year’s marathon.
The best parts are plentiful: The fact that this is pretty much the best darn tour of New York City since each borough literally explodes into life when you run through, the fact that I had a few minor nagging pains but nothing so debilitating I had to stop, the fact I didn’t get a single blister or chafing wound, and the fact that I had my fastest time in the final 0.2 miles — a 9:34/mile pace.
The worst part was probably seeing runners who had to stop. One woman had to be driven off while I was crossing the 59th Street Bridge. In the Bronx, another keeled over and threw up. It was so hard to leave other runners behind. We may not know each other, but we were all heading toward a common goal and we implicitly wanted to see all 50,000 of us cross that line!
On a personal level, I think it was hard to process all the sensory overload! There were times I just wanted to stop and soak in the scene, but I was like — I have a race to finish!

Do you think you’ll ever do a marathon again?

My mentality was always “one and done” — that was even my mantra during some of my training runs! But of course now that I’m on this runners’ high, who knows! Dare I admit, I was a bit sad to turn the corner at Central Park and realize it was almost over? I did think I’d never run another day after this, but now that I’m officially a New York City Marathon Finisher, I know I really am a runner and I can’t pull the brakes on that! After the race, I sent my niece a picture of my medal. Her reaction? “I wanted Rachel to win — and she did!”