Why This Philly Marathoner Only Ran the Half Marathon—And Is Proud of It

Writer Ellen Olstein after the Philadelphia Half Marathon

Writer Ellen Olstein after the Philadelphia Half Marathon

Mile 12—that’s when I felt it. The familiar pinch in my right hip that is eventually followed by the stinging pain of joint inflammation from overuse. It was a way to poke me—to get my attention—to tell me, “Move to the right, Ellen. You’re not ready for the left lane.”

So I did; I moved to the right, out of the left lane packed with a parade of full marathoners. While making this decision that felt like a combination of remarkable success and exhausting defeat, I jogged into the right lane with the others who registered for the half marathon while glancing to the left, watching my fellow runners, the ones who voluntarily trained and elected to run a distance of 26.2 miles, make their way down Kelly Drive, arms pumping and legs carrying them an additional 13.1 miles toward the finish line. Meanwhile, my unexpected and unplanned finish line sat only another 1.1 miles away.

On Friday, November 21st, two days prior to the event, I spontaneously decided to participate in the Philadelphia Marathon. I’d registered for it earlier in the year during the late winter months but hadn’t trained, so I really wasn’t planning on going through with it. At the time of registration, I planned to run my now-annual 10-mile Broad Street Run and continue to train throughout the summer for the 26.2-miler in November. Following Broad Street, however, I lost my normally passionate interest in distance training, instead choosing to enjoy a summer filled with socializing, partying and dating. An employee of a local, independently owned gym, I continued to put my energy into teaching my Spin classes, while strength-training replaced running.

Four years before this, I’d set out on a life-altering mission to lose 110 pounds. What began as a goal to drop below the 200-pound mark evolved into a quest for transformation—one that I did completely on my own. A natural extrovert, I had never permitted myself to grow accustomed to solitude. But what my weight-loss process taught me, among a multitude of invaluable life lessons, is that at the end of the day we are all alone, every one of us, and we are each solely responsible for our actions and well-being, as well as our satisfaction with life.

Fast-forward to April 2013, when I became even more alone by deciding to end my 13-year relationship with my now ex-husband. Throughout the process that preceded this devastating decision, running was one of the few things that provided me solace and clarity. In the early-morning hours, each worry about finances, how I was going to live my life as a single woman in her mid-30’s, and what people were going to think about me blended with the music that played through my earbuds as my breathing relaxed to an almost meditative practice; the hypnotic flow of running eventually mollified each of those concerns.

I began running long distances by accident, and with no training plan. I simply ran until my head stopped spinning. Before I knew it, I’d unwittingly earned myself a place in the elite group of high-functioning crazy people known as distance runners, and ran my first Broad Street Run and then another a year later.

Once I came down from the post-race Broad Street high last May, I was thrust into an overwhelming sea of work, responsibility, people and the overthinking that results. Rather than coping with more training, I dated, thinking that the answer to my unrest would be discovered in another person. When that didn’t work, I over-socialized, surrounding myself with people, for better or worse, and eventually picked up my old smoking habit. It was clear I’d lost focus.

By the time I found it again, I decided to go cold turkey and quit smoking. I would also drink less and surround myself with people who’d acted as positive, constant sources of support over the years. I began waking up earlier, lifting heavier, strength- and endurance-training longer—but still, I was not running. I wasn’t yet ready to confront that level of solitude—that intense loneliness—until finally, at the random mention of the Philadelphia Marathon in a morning meeting at work, I decided that I was going to pick up my bib at the Expo and see what both my mind and body could accomplish.

I simply set out to start, just as I did with my weight loss. Finishing was not the goal, and neither was speed. I just wanted to TRY, so I tried, and before I knew it I’d hit mile 3, then 6, then my Broad Street 10, each determined stride hitting the pavement. I promised myself that I wouldn’t stop running until my body told me to tap out. At mile 12, 1.1 miles away from completing my first official half marathon, the pinch in my hip nagged at me to call it a day at the half-marathon finish line. I’d already done much more than what I assumed I was capable of—and that’s all that mattered to me.

You see, there is a staggering contrast between what we ASSUME we are capable of and what we KNOW we are capable of. When I began my weight loss, I held the assumption that as long as I dropped below the 200-pound mark, I would be satisfied; however, I knew that I could go further than that—and not through unhealthy means. Within a matter of three years and after significant lifestyle changes, my 5’7” frame stood at a healthy weight of 135 pounds, down from 247. Some who are pleasantly shocked and inspired by my weight loss have commented that I “lost a person,” and that is true: I lost a person who no longer served me.

For me, spontaneously deciding to run the Philadelphia Marathon was an act of running away from that person I’d lost, the one who’s always chasing me. This time, I beat her to the finish.


Ellen Olstein works as a Sunrise Cycling Instructor/Marketing & Business Coordinator at 12th Street Gym. A 10-year resident of Philadelphia, she lives, loves, eats, cooks, cycles, runs, reads, socializes, volunteers, writes (and does so much more!) in the City of Brotherly Love.

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