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Letting Go of the Uncontrollable to Master a Once-in-a-Lifetime Marathon

One month, two marathons, and two very different outcomes for Jennifer Byers.

a woman smiling after completely the NYC marathon and training on tonal for running

Here’s the thing about marathons: You can train for months, nail your pacing, hit that weekly volume, and log 20-mile long runs, but a 26.2-mile race is just too long to predict the outcome—especially when you take into account uncontrollable race-day variables: weather, sleep quality the night before, and nutrition.

When Jennifer Byers, 43, from Montverde, FL, ran the Baltimore Marathon on October 9, everything went wrong: It was too hot; the race started late; water stops were four miles apart; there were no electrolytes available after mile 11. Byers ended up in a medical tent at mile 20 before walking to the finish. “It was a mess, but due to things I couldn’t necessarily control,” she says.

But Baltimore’s mishaps served a purpose while prepping for her goal race: the New York City Marathon. “The point in doing this race was so I could learn before NYC, since I hadn’t run a marathon in four years,” she says. “So I feel like I achieved my goal of learning what I needed to learn to feel ready for New York. I just wanted to finish without feeling like crap.”

Part of that prep work was better researching the course and fuel options. For someone who had run 56 half marathons and five full marathons, the bigger part was remembering why she was out there in the first place. Byers works in the cancer field and registered through the American Cancer Society to support a cause that meant a great deal to her. “New York was going to be a one-and-done for me,” she says, “and I wanted to be able to take it all in.”

To help with her anxiety about getting to the finish line after her Baltimore experience, Byers used an age-old trick employed by the pros: visualization. “The day before the marathon, I ran the 5K at the finish line,” she says. “That night, I kept thinking about the section with all the different country flags leading into the finish. I kept picturing myself there, and I was able to run really well at the end, without feeling too tired.”

a woman running alongside her quote: “The funny thing was, everyone was complaining about that uphill mile before mile 23. I didn’t even notice it. This was the best-trained I’ve been in my life.”

Visualization can be a key strategy for success in a race, but you can’t get to the finish line without the physical strength to back up your mental toughness. Byers attributes that win to cross-training. “I live in an area that’s predominantly flat, so I didn’t have the same experience as a lot of people with incline,” she says. The NYC Marathon has over 1,000 feet of elevation gain. 

In August, Byers specifically started using Tonal for core workouts that would supplement her training. “I’ve noticed in the past that as the distance increases, I’ve had some discomfort in my lower back, because my core wasn’t where it should be strength-wise.” Based on how she felt during the race— “the core focus helped me tremendously, in that I didn’t feel wrecked at all at the end,” she says. Byers plans to incorporate even more core training heading into her next set of races in January. 

Even during what people consider the toughest parts of the race— the trek over Queensboro Bridge, the quieter streets of the Bronx around mile 20, and when the course spits you back out of Central Park for the final 1,000 or so meters—“I never felt like I hated it, like I never should have signed up for this, or like I needed to go to a medical tent,” she says. “The funny thing was, everyone was complaining about that uphill mile before mile 23. I didn’t even notice it. This was the best-trained I’ve been in my life.”

At her lowest points, she kept coming back to her “why:” the example she wants to set for her son. “My son has autism, and the reason I started running was to show him that it doesn’t matter if you’re the best athlete, if you put the work in, you can do it,” she says. “He loves Nintendo and Super Mario, and every time I would start to feel down during the race, there would be some spectator with a cheer sign that was relevant to that, and it would just bring me right back to why I was there.”