I Ran a Marathon at 15. Here’s what I Learned.

Rachel Lee
18 min readJun 14, 2022

2 more kilometers. Then I can stop.

My quads hurt. My calves hurt. My shoulders hurt. My neck hurt. My abs hurt.

My brain was screaming at my muscles to stop. My legs were no longer cooperating with what I wanted them to do. My strides had become short and jerky and I could feel blood blisters expanding around the edges of my toes.

Despite the excruciating pain that was shooting through every muscle in my body, I kept going. My heart raced and my mouth twitched into a smile as I saw a large arch in the distance and heard the voice of an announcer over the speakers…the cheering grew louder. I was 50m away from the finish line. Before I knew what was happening I had crossed the finish line and finally allowed myself to stop, just for a wave of pain to shoot through my legs, forcing me to limp over to a water table. I walked 80m further, and felt tears of pain, joy and pride form in the corner of my eyes as I lowered my head and felt a finishing medal being placed around my neck.

I had done it. Months of training had paid off and I had ran my first marathon.

Pic after finishing the marathon. In case you can’t tell, I was beyond happy

Running a marathon is one of the hardest thing I have ever done in my life, both physically and mentally. Months of training have given me countless hours to ponder life and my place in the world. In this article I will share my top lessons from training for and finishing the Ottawa International Marathon in a time of 3:38:52 (8min off from a Boston Qualifying time!) at 15 years old.

1. It’s about the journey not the destination

Training for a marathon takes an enormous amount of time and commitment. You can chose to treat each run as a chore. A task that needs to be checked off the list. Or you can treat it as your alone time, the time you have to enjoy the beautiful world around you, move your body, get fresh air and explore places you’ve never been.

While the goal in a marathon is to cross the finish line, if you only focus on that, you miss the opportunity to enjoy every step of the way. You will miss the cheering crowd, funny signs, beautiful scenery, DJs playing music and the incredible accomplishment that you are partaking in. If you are staring at your feet or watching the clock the entire time you will miss all this.

It is so easy to go through the motions of life, living life like one big to-do list. Get up. Go to work. Cook dinner. Sleep. Repeat. Focusing only on the end goal; getting that raise, buying that car, acing that test, finishing that degree — no longer investing in the people and things that bring you true joy. Living life with blinders on, concentrating on the end destination instead of the journey.

The truth is, the journey is where you will really grow. The end destination is the gold sticker to congratulate you on accomplishing the journey. As the American psychologist Carl Rogers said so perfectly:

“The good life is a process, not a state of being. It is a direction not a destination. “

2. You are capable of more then you could have ever imagined

Kilometer 32 of the marathon was when things started to take a turn for the worse. I really started noticing my blood blisters and each step became more uncomfortable as the blisters swelled under my toenails. My quads felt like they were on fire and hurt more with each step. I honestly didn’t think I could go any further. And then worst of all was my mind, I could only focus on the pain I was enduring and couldn’t think about anything else. I remember considering only for a split second stopping to walk, but I knew that if I did, the chances of starting back up again would be slim.

Me at kilometer 32 — yes, I was kinda dead.

And guess what? I ran another 10km without stopping.

It’s very interesting that at 32km I wanted to stop and felt like I couldn’t go any further, but yet I somehow mustered up the strength and willpower to run 10 more kilometers. I was so sure that I couldn’t go any further, I actually considered dropping out of the race, but still I kept going. This is the perfect example that you are capable of so much more then you could have ever imagined.

If you told me two years ago that I would run a marathon at 15 years old I could have laughed in your face. But I proved myself wrong — I surpassed all goals and expectations that I had for myself and did something I never thought I was capable of doing.

3. Turn down the volume

Just admit it, life is a huge whirlwind of commotion. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness of life — the next paycheck, new house, big raise, fancy car, overflowing emails. It’s easy to feel anxious and overwhelmed when we live in a world of so much noise; phone calls, Snapchat, TikTok, Instagram, texts; there is always something going on and someone who needs us. A friend who just broke up with her boyfriend and wants you to comfort her, a boss who needs you to seal an important deal ASAP, a large exam tomorrow that determines if you pass or fail the class.

But guess what? All these things can wait. The world wont collapse around you if you don’t answer that text right away.

Turn down the volume of life every day and see what it feels like. What does it feel like to listen to your thoughts? What does it feel like to live completely in the present? What does it feel like to hit the pause button on all the work you have to do?

This is what running does for me. Running is the time when I am by myself, alone with my thoughts. I don’t have to worry about emails, texts or work. I get to live solely in the present, with only the sound of my stride to keep me company. It is an exhilarating feeling to walk out that door to go running, leaving the whirlwind of busyness and chaos behind. Running is the time where I can think and process what I’ve done each day. Running is the time when I take a break from all the work I have to do. Running has shown me just how noisy life really is, and I have learnt how to turn down the volume on life and escape from the busyness and chaos.

Pic from a beautiful run on Lake Superior looking at the Sleeping Giant

4. There are bad days, and there are good days

Some days, 30km feels like 3km, and some days 3km feels like 30km. There were some 30km training runs that felt effortless. I felt like I was flying over the pavement, I finished the run feeling like I could run another 10km. But then there were other 3km runs that I could barely get through. I was tired and sore, my mind wandered and my heart just wasn’t in it.

In life you are going to have bad days, and you’re going to have good days. Some days will be easier than others, and some days will be harder than others. Be kind to yourself on the bad days, and challenge yourself on the good days. Be thankful and enjoy the good days, learn from the hard days and be proud of yourself for getting through it, because I promise you, you will get through the bad days.

5. Moving forward is moving forward no matter the pace you’re going

No matter how slow you’re going, as long as you’re moving forward, you are succeeding your goals.

I vividly remember my first 30km run— it was a Saturday morning at 7am, the temperature was sitting at 2°C. I will be running 30km, I’m sure I will get warm. I don’t need a hat or mitts! Boy was I wrong…my hands were turning blue because they were so cold and I was holding my hands over my ears to keep my ears warm. I would stop every few kilometers to get out of the strong wind which I was conveniently running straight into. I was moving at a snails pace and was literally crawling along the sidewalk. But I finished all 30km. It took me 45 minutes longer then it should have, but I still finished.

After this run I realized that speed doesn’t mean anything. The pace in which you’re going doesn’t matter, as long as you are moving forward. Don’t get discouraged. Don’t quit. It doesn’t matter how fast or slow you are moving, you are moving forward and that’s all that matters.

6. You have to keep going even when it gets tough

Whoever tells you that running a marathon is easy is completely wrong.

Running a marathon is hard. Like super hard.

Pic from kilometer 20 of the race — I was still pretty fresh

The dedication that must be put into months of training and the endurance, the strength and pure willpower that must be mustered to run the full 42.2km is really insane. Nothing about it is remotely easy. It is tough. Just like life.

Life gets hard. There are times in your life when you will want to quit because you can’t bear keeping going. There are times in your life when it seems like the whole world is against you. Just like running a marathon, there are joys and sorrows in life; times that are easy and times that are hard. One of the biggest lessons I have got out of running a marathon is that you must keep going through these tough times. It wont be glamourous, or pretty, or enjoyable, but you have to do it. Put your head down and let the sweat drip down your face, but do not stop. Keep going through the tough times.

One of my favorite quotes of all time is by Cheryl Strayed. It is one of my running mantras that reminds me of the suffering and pain that we will all have to endure in life. There is no secret formula on how to make the pain and suffering go away, you just have to endure it:

“Nobody will protect you from your suffering. You can’t cry it away or eat it away or starve it away or walk it away or punch it away or even therapy it away. It’s just there, and you have to survive it. You have to endure it.”

(P.S looking back on running the Ottawa marathon I notice that the moments I am most proud of is during these tough kilometers. I am proud of myself for putting one foot in front of the other. When you look back on your life you will notice the same things— the moments you are most proud of are the moments that took a lot of hard work, sweat, blood and tears to accomplish.)

7. You will have to make sacrifices to succeed your goals.

Six hours of my Saturday disappeared every week for my long, 35km, run. I would wake up at 5am to fuel before leaving the house at 7, running 35km until 10:30–10:45, stretching and cool down until 12pm.

Back home after a particularly grueling 35km long run

I have spent thousands of hours training for running a marathon. There were times when I couldn’t go on fun outdoors adventures with my family because I was too sore from my long run. I have had to skip parties and social outings because they clashed with my training. I have missed meetings because my runs have taken longer then I planned.

You will have to make sacrifices to achieve your goals. Everything wont line up perfectly and you will have to make the tough decisions between working towards your goal and something else that matters to you.

That raise you really want — what if I told you that you could only get that if you worked 3 hours overtime every single day? Would you be willing to sacrifice that time away from your family and give up your evenings?

You want to loose 50 pounds? — what if I told you that this will only happen if you drastically change your lifestyle; start exercising for over one hour a day and fueling your body with the right foods. Are you willing to make this huge change in your life and be consistent and honest with yourself so you don’t get off track?

Every goal you make will require you to make sacrifices, and you have to decide if you are willing to make that sacrifice in order to achieve your goal.

8. Don’t compare yourself

Look at her body, she’s so thin and beautiful. I wish I had a body like that.

He’s so smart, he gets As in every class. And then there’s dumb old me who is barely passing.

I wish my marriage was as perfect as theirs. They are always so happy and fulfilled. Literally the perfect couple.

Sounds familiar, right? We are constantly comparing ourselves to others. No matter what the topic is we can always find someone who is better then us.

Training for a marathon forced me to be happy and proud of who I was. I realized that there will always be people who are faster then be, more athletic then me, people who trained more then me, had more experience then me, had better form then me, and had a better body then me. But after running 70+km every week in training, I started to care less and less about what I was doing compared to others. I became confident and proud of who I was and the capabilities I had. I no longer looked longingly at other runners wondering how they make it look so easy. I no longer watched YouTube videos about elite marathoners and their crazy strict diets. I no longer cared that I wasn’t as skinny as the stereotypical marathoner is.

This moment was an eye opener for me. I felt truly free and happy.

But then race day rolled around and I lined up on the start line. I looked around me at all the professional looking runners. They had the expensive running gear, fancy gels and that determined look in their eyes, and I started to compare myself. I’m not as fit as him. Maybe I’m not ready for this race. Look at how calm she looks! I wish I was that calm. After a few minutes of comparing myself to basically every ever runner in sight, I felt awful. It took me several minutes to compose myself and focus on how far I had come. I had to remind myself that I was running this race for myself and it didn’t matter what anybody else did as long as I did my best.

Getting ready to line up at the Ottawa marathon. (In case you can’t tell I am a basket case of nervousness and excitement.)

The truth is there will always be people who are smatter, more athletic, more beautiful/handsome then you; people who earn more, people who have a [seemingly] more happy life then you. None of this matters though! Focus on your life and your happiness. Stop comparing yourself to those around you and be proud and confident about who you are.

9. It wont always be glamourous

That new promotion you just posted about on LinkedIn looks pretty awesome! That acceptance letter from your dream university, that goal to loose weight, that new relationship — it’s so easy to get caught up in the bliss and excitement of exciting opportunities and large goals that present themselves in front of you.

You might fantasize about what it will be like to conquer these goals and climb these hurdles — the feeling of crossing the finish line, walking across the stage in your cap and gown, stepping on the scale and feeling proud, marrying your sole mate.

But do you ever stop to think about the hard work, blood, sweat and tears that will need to go into achieving that goal?! By forgetting about this you are setting yourself up for failure. When you don’t get the grades you hoped for, you will start to doubt your capability to pass the class. When you start arguing with your partner, you will start to think that maybe they aren’t the person for you after all. When you have a particularly hard workout, you may be tempted to throw in the towel on your weight loss goal because it is too hard.

When I first signed up for the Ottawa marathon I knew it would be hard, and I knew that I would want to quit. I knew that there would be days when I didn’t want to go running, days when I would be so sore and tired I could barely move. By acknowledging this I was accepting the fact that training for a marathon would not be easy. Then when bad days did happen, I was mentally prepared for them and could tackle these days with strength.

Middle of an 8km hill/stair workout

Know that any goal you set for yourself will not be glamourous all the time. The work that goes into a marriage, the massive blood blisters from a marathon, the thousands of hours of studying during University — these times are not glamourous, but they are necessary to achieve your goals.

10. Love yourself

Be kind to yourself. Be kind to your body. Truly love yourself for who you are.

We all fall below our on expectations for ourselves. We set ambitious goals and don’t achieve them. We ‘shoot for the moon’ but barely get off the ground. The one feeling that is worse then disappointing others, is disappointing yourself.

When this happens it is easy to criticize yourself, compare yourself, put yourself down. When you didn’t get that job, when you made a stupid mistake, when you missed your chance on asking that person out — right away you blame yourself and hate yourself for it.

Running has taught me a few things about this. #1 — we are way harder on ourselves then we are on others. Ask yourself what would I say to a friend? and tell yourself that. #2 — learn from your failures and mistakes. Don’t make the same mistake again. Once you have examined your failures, then move on and forgive yourself. #3 — you only have one body so be kind to it. Nourish it with the right foods, move your body in a way you enjoy, treat yourself with kindness and love.

11. You are in control

That stupid teacher gave me a 60% on that essay! My annoying landlord won’t let me pay rent a day late! My boss just fired me because I don’t bend down and kiss the ground she walks on!

Stop making excuses. It is nobody’s fault but yours. You got a 60% on an important essay? It’s because you didn’t put enough time into it — it’s not your teachers fault. You missed your rent for this month? — that’s on you, it’s not your landlord’s fault. You got fired? — it’s because you don’t work hard enough in the office, and you show a lack of respect for your boss and coworkers — it is not your boss’ fault.

It is so easy to pan our problems off to someone else. Blame everything that goes wrong in our lives on someone else. This makes us feel good about ourselves. It’s easier then accepting the fact that maybe, just maybe, we screwed up.

The truth is that you are always in control. You are in control of every single thing you do and how you handle any situation you are placed in. Stop blaming your problems on someone else when YOU are the one who deserves the blame.

Before I started running I remember that I used to blame everything on anybody but me. My bad mood was thanks to my sister who was getting on my nerves. That bad test mark was because my Mom made me help fold laundry so I couldn’t study. I forgot my lunch at home because my Dad was rushing me out the door. Running has changed the way I think about this: it is on me that I have massive blood blisters. The pain I am experiencing is my own doing, nobody else’s. That bad race time is because of me, and I can’t blame it on anybody else.

Start to take responsibility for your actions, and know that you are not a victim. You are in control of your own life.

12. Build mental toughness

The human brain is wired to protect and keep us safe. Protect us from failure, pain and hurt.

Before I started running, I remember thinking of running as a physical sport. You need to have the muscle and strength to keep putting one foot in front of the other. I didn’t realize that running is only 10% physical and 90% mental.

Kilometer 4 of the marathon

Physically, the human body can do anything. Humans have climbed to the highest point on Earth where the oxygen level is two hundred times lower than average. Humans have swam across the Atlantic ocean. Humans have ran for thousands of miles. Humans have dove 702 feet under water without oxygen. The human body can physically do anything. It’s the brain that prevents us from doing these things.

“Your body can do anything, it’s just your brain you have to convince.”

World renowned exercise and sports scientist Tim Noakes is known for his theory of the Central Governor. It is based on the idea that the mind will try and shut your body down before it does damage to itself. We know it as the edge of our comfort zone. It’s usually the time we stop and walk, but in reality, we can push far past that long before we hurt ourselves.

North Americans generally work to make life as cozy as we can. The second we feel discomfort, we change it. A small chill we put on a sweater, a little bit hungry, there is food in our hands. Rarely are we in a situation where we are at our limit. When translated into running, this means that when we get to the point where it starts to hurt we tend to want to slow down or stop to walk immediately. We want to get comfortable again.

Being mentally tough means recognizing this, and deciding you don’t have to listen. This takes practice and a lot of hard work. You have to get to a place in training where you really hurt. When you get there, try thinking about it objectively. It’s just pain, it’s just fatigue, it’s just in your head. Maybe you don’t need to stop yet, you can push past the discomfort.

13. You can ALWAYS do more then you think

How is it, that after dying for the last 7km of the marathon, I could still stand up and walk around after crossing the finish line? If I truly gave the race my all, then I wouldn’t have been able to stand up when I crossed the finish line.

The truth is that I could have done more. I could have gone faster. I could have pushed harder. It wouldn’t have been easy, but I could have done it.

You can always do more then you think. You absolutely can do one more rep of bench presses. You can absolutely study harder and get a better grade. You can absolutely finish that cover letter tonight.

Oh, but I don’t have enough time. I’m so tired I can’t! I’ve already tried my hardest!

Bull shit!! You can do more. You can always do more.

I’m not saying that it will be easy, in fact it will be the exact opposite. But if you are willing to put in the hard work, then you can do much more then you ever dreamed was physically possible.

14. Once you find something you love you become unstoppable

Lining up on the start line of the Ottawa Marathon

I still remember my first run. It was three years ago. I was planning to run to the mailbox at the end of my street and back (1.5km), but as I was running down the street I was enjoying myself so much I didn’t want to turn around — so I did an 8km loop around my house (yes it was fun in the moment, and yes I suffered the consequences the next day).

Ever since that first run I haven’t looked back. I know for a fact that I couldn’t have run a marathon (or at least not as fast) if I didn’t love running. Training would have been absolutely painful if running wasn’t my favorite thing to do.

The moment you find that thing that you love to do, that is the moment you become unstoppable. The most accomplished people in the world — athletes, entrepreneurs, business people — all love what they do. So find your passion. Keep looking relentlessly for the thing that brings you joy and fulfillment, then use this thing to better yourself and better the world.

After three and a half hours of running, I finally reunited with family and friends to celebrate my victory. The realization that I had actually ran a marathon was just starting to sink in. My cheeks hurt from smiling for so long, but I couldn’t help it! I was so happy, it was a day of pure bliss.

Post race celebration photos

We all have goals that we’re hesitant to say out loud. Maybe we don’t believe we can really accomplish them, or maybe we are just scared of failure. I could never have finished my marathon if I hadn’t first dared to believe I could do it; to will it into existence. I challenge you to be brave and state your loftiest goal. Take the first step and see how far you go!

Love from,

❤️Rachel

Hi I’m Rachel! A 15 y/o who’s main goal in life is to end poverty and hunger. I love being outside, spending time with my family, and learning about science and technology. You can email me at: runnerrachel.lee@gmail.com, or message me on LinkedIn. Don’t forget to sign up for my monthly newsletter here. Thanks so much for reading!

--

--

Rachel Lee

Building the skills to one day build solutions to some of the biggest problems in the world | rachellee.net