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Having a desk job makes staying fit a challenge; on most days your physical activity consists of walks to the bathroom. When Marisa Hussa, a 23-year-old actuarial associate in New York City, found herself becoming sluggish from spending workdays at her desk, she decided to get back in shape and cross an item off her life's to-do list: she would run 26.2 miles to finish the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, DC.
"It was something I knew I always wanted to do," Hussa said. "I wanted to test myself to see how far I could go, physically and mentally. It was the ultimate goal."
After about 16 weeks of training, Hussa crossed her first marathon finish line. Here's how she did it -- and how you can, too.
How does someone go from 0 to 26.2? Hussa, who before couldn't run a mile, joined Team In Training, a group training program that raises money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society. She joined team members whose fitness level matched her own for regular runs in Central Park, first aiming to do 2-3 miles or 30 minutes straight at their own pace.
Along with other Team In Training members, she completed 40-minute runs every Tuesday night and longer runs on Saturday mornings: about 2 hours, building up to an 18-mile run before the race.
Her training plan also called for another short run during the week, but Hussa admitted she couldn't always find time to stick to her schedule and sometimes even missed the long runs on Saturday because of oversleeping or work. "Honestly, I was behind in the training," she said. "Before the marathon, everyone had already run at least 18 miles; my longest run was only 15."
Hussa's Team In Training running buddies helped push her through the demanding training program. Working out with others aiming for the same goal proved to be a better motivator than running with an iPod for company: "The team was a great source of support and most of the people I trained with were running the marathon for the first time, too," she said.
For Hussa, the mental aspect of running was more challenging than the physical strain. "It's hard to run for hours," she said. "I would always ask why I was putting myself through all this training, especially since I didn't have any friends who were avid runners."
What kept her going?
"I read The Non-Runner's Marathon Trainer, a 16-week program for non-runners," she said.
The book emphasizes the psychological aspect of running and has tips to help runners focus. One helpful tip: "Keep positive thoughts in your head, like visualizing your family waiting for you by the finish line. Play this video in your head when you feel like giving up."She Made Her Goal Public
"There were times I [would] wish I got injured while training so that it would've been an excuse to stop. I really wanted to give up, but it would've been too disappointing for me and for everyone else who I told my goal to." Making herself accountable to others encouraged her to stick with her program.She Trained Her Brain
Besides running three times a week, Hussa made an effort to go to yoga classes two or three times a month. "Yoga is great for the stretches, but it's also a great way to help train your mind to be in a peaceful state."
You'd think someone who completed a marathon would rave about the joy of running, but this runner admitted she still isn't a big fan. What she did like about training for the race was that it made her pay attention to herself.
"I was able to give myself some 'me time.' Training gave me the chance to take care of myself: I was never sick and felt healthier than ever."
Running several miles a week also forced her to improve her diet. "I ate healthier," she said. "I watched my diet to make sure I drank enough water and ate the right carbohydrates, like whole grains and bananas." She cut out all junk food -- everything from fast food to soda.
Another benefit of marathon training: getting more sleep. "Every time I worked out I slept like a baby!" Hussa said. "I actually missed practice runs on Saturday mornings because I didn't want to get out of bed."
"The night before the race, I had everything laid out already -- I even went to bed in my running clothes." Just one problem: she was so nervous she couldn't sleep!
"I couldn't stop thinking about the race: the weather, how many other runners were going to be there and if I could even finish the race. I think I only had about 20 minutes of sleep, but I was excited." She had a breakfast of a bagel, a peanut butter PowerBar, and Gatorade before heading to the starting line with her team members.
When it was time to start running at 7:50 a.m., the first-time marathoner describes the experience as exhilarating. "All the hard work was finally put to the test, and every minute of training paid off! I know I would've done better if I had trained better. You get out of it what you put into it." (Hussa finished in 6 hours and 7 minutes, at about a 13-minute/mile pace.)
Because parts of the marathon are opened to traffic after 1 p.m., she had to keep track of her time to "beat the bridge." In the Marine Corps Marathon, runners who don't reach the 14th Street Bridge at mile 19 before 1 p.m. are picked up by a bus and not allowed to continue the race. After passing the bridge, Hussa ran/walked for the rest of the marathon.
With about half a mile to go, her running coach jumped in and ran along with her. "He told me there was a hill before the finish line, but that it was nothing compared to the hills we trained on before," she said. With these motivating words Hussa found herself running faster and feeling more positive and energetic than before she started the race.
"When I saw my family on the stands by the finish line, I didn't feel the pain in my legs anymore."Crossing the Finish Line
How did it feel to finish a marathon? "It felt great! Proud, accomplished, and like I could finally rest!" She rewarded herself by eating a burger with fries and a soda and getting much-needed sleep.
Though her legs were in so much pain after running that she couldn't move them in her sleep that night, Marisa Hussa is looking forward to running more marathons. "I didn't really think about doing another," she said. "But I was able to do so much: I took care of myself better, met great friends, raised money for a charity, and trained myself to be more disciplined and committed."
"I might run another marathon next year, but then again why not run one every year? I definitely caught the marathon bug." That's a strong statement from someone who couldn't run a mile four months ago.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, November 2009.