My Word of the Year: Marathon

Erin Leigh Patterson

“Marathon” and “easy” don’t often show up in the same sentence, but on that snowy night in December 2012, the words rolled off my tongue as if they were made to be together. And in a way, they were: Friends and I were lingering over the last glasses of wine at a birthday dinner, and someone suggested we each pick a “Word of the Year” for 2013. 

“Oh, that’s easy,” I said, without skipping a beat. “Marathon.” My friend Rachel scrawled it down, and the conversation continued around the table. But my word, etched now for all of history (or at least until the notecard ended up in recycling) was about to work its magic in ways I’d never dreamed of — affecting my life in ways both bigger and more meaningful than I could ever imagine. 

On the surface that night, “marathon” meant running. I had recently signed up for the Georgia Marathon in March 2013, and I knew in just a few short days I’d be in official training mode — 20-mile long runs and 40+ mile weeks. (In the freezing snow, of course.) 

Below the surface, it meant a lot more. Running a marathon was a big, crazy goal — especially for a non-runner like me. But now that I’d been out of college for more years than I’d been in college, I felt ready for big change, and a big challenge was just the thing to make change happen. I’d developed this theory that life is more analogous to a marathon than a sprint: It’s the non-flashy things we do every day that add up to those big-bang moments. We just need to keep moving forward. I might be taking little steps, but forward motion would get me somewhere.

I know it sounds a little silly. But I thought if I could train and run a marathon — if I could keep moving forward day after day — it’d be a reminder across my whole life. For example, at work: I might not be making career-changing moves every day, but I could keep heading in the right direction, step by step. 

Late in the fall of 2012, I picked a marathon — March 17th, Atlanta — and signed up. I convinced a friend to do it with me. I started thinking about how I could make the experience about more than just myself and hit upon the idea of sponsoring girls to attend school for a year (my roommate runs a nonprofit I deeply believe in called She’s the First). We wanted something big, aggressive and measurable, so it became: 26 miles, 26 girls. 

And so I set “marathon” as my word of the year — even though, in my mind, it was really a first quarter thing. I’d be done and move on to other things, having learned some big lessons in discipline and fortitude. Ha! Here’s what really happened. 

I began to tell the stories surrounding my marathon: about the training, but also the stories of the girls I hoped to sponsor in Nepal. By the time the marathon rolled around, my friend Brooke and I had used the power of our networks, of social media and of pure fun (happy hours, etc) to raise over $9,000 — enough to send 26 girls to school for a year, and then some.

It was only the end of March, but my marathon year was supposed to be done. I’d conquered! Except that it wasn’t. In Q2, inspired by our marathon, She’s the First launched a Run the World campaign. Soon lots of people were picking races and raising money to send girls to school (now it’s an annual movement, and it’s going on right now). I felt like I was a full-time storyteller, sharing what the experience of the marathon and supporting girls’ education had meant in my life, and encouraging others to do the same.

And then, in the end of June, my “putting one foot in front of the other” strategy landed me a great new job. That great job included the opportunity to run the New York City Marathon. Did I want to? The NYC Marathon is notoriously difficult to get in to (about 1 percent of applicants get in through a lottery system). I hadn’t been expecting to do another marathon (at all!) but when handed the opportunity, I knew I had to take it. In Q3, I was marathon training again.

And if I was running, I had to make it matter. So I decided to (again) raise money to send girls to school. Twenty-six miles meant 26 girls — getting a second year of life-changing education. 

On November 3rd (Q4!), I crossed the finish line of my second marathon in just a few short months. As I was raising money, I felt like I was taking people along on my journey, but it turned out that I needed them on my journey. It was their support — all of the people who’d sent in $10 or went to a fundraising yoga class or tweeted a message of encouragement or showed up for a happy hour — that carried me through. And most of all, it was the girls I was raising money for. Try telling Sabina, a first grader in Nepal, that you skipped out of training because you’re best friends with your snooze alarm. Not happening. Instead, I carried the girls’ stories with me each step of the way.

Like in a marathon itself, the day to day of training — of life! — can sometimes feel challenging, anti-climatic. But it’s only that day to day, person by person, one foot in front of the other, that gets us through the marathon. The marathon races, the marathon goals, the marathons that make life amazing.

And about that marathon goal? In the end, we raised over $17,000 with my marathon year — enough to send 26 girls in Nepal to school for two years. And that means I get a year off from marathons to rest and focus on my 2014 Word of the Year: hope. 

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