Marathon Majors: Running Through Adversity

What does running mean to you? Such a simple question on the surface, but far deeper if you sit for 30 seconds and think about it. Go ahead, pause reading and think for 30 seconds about what running means to you. 

2015 Chicago Marathon

It was an overcast day in Pasadena California. I had arranged to meet with Paola to discuss her life and running. We were to meet at 1PM in a coffee shop next to the Wells Fargo building. Paola was flying in from Europe for a work meeting before flying over to New York City, and finally over to London for her last major, the London Marathon. Her travel was delayed. 1PM passed and so did 1:30. Finally I received a text saying she would be right there, “I couldn’t find a cab, I will run!”. In came Paola at 2:07PM. Full of energy, and wearing a smirk that only runners get when they find that groove. At the age of 46, Paola has remarkable energy and a love for life that was obvious upon meeting her.  It’s 2:08PM now, we are sipping coffee, this is the story of Paola Peretti and what running means to her.  

Paola was born and raised on a farm in Northern Italy. Growing up, she learned at a young age to work hard, to be active and to live healthy. Growing up on her families land, she watched as her parents worked for all they had. They utilized the resources of the land for their food and general well-being. After remaining close to home for her entire youth, Paola was ready to explore and see the world. Heading off to college, Paola moved to Milan where she would study and ultimately meet her husband, Aldo. The two became close and shared an interest in travel and culture. After finding the love of their lives, they decided to get married and live a life full of adventure. 

Paola and Aldo after the Boston Marathon

Fast forward to 2012.  Paola and Aldo had moved 10 times in the past 17 years along with having twins who were now age 8. Paola works as a marketing specialist and travels the world to help large corporations advance their market share.  While working a full-time career, being a mom to twins, and traveling the world, Paola also runs. Staying true to her childhood roots, Paola stays active and puts a priority on remaining healthy. “The best time for me to train was before the kids woke up”. Paola would wake up every morning at 5AM to complete her workouts and stay fit. “The best thing I did for training was hire a coach”. “I plan my children’s schedule, I plan my work schedule, I plan my travel, but my coach plans my training”.  For Paola, having a coach was invaluable. Having a set schedule to follow and not spend extra time planning was huge for her success.

From 2012-2016, Paola had trained to compete in marathons. Having a love for adventure and being active, she set out to complete all 6 marathon majors (NYC, Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin, Tokyo). This would be the perfect mix of traveling, exploring cities, and doing so while running!  In 2014, she ran her first marathon in New York City. “This was my favorite. The stories, the countries, the celebration of life”. While Paola loved the culture of the NYC marathon, she thought the course was difficult. “The course is choppy. Hills, bridges, turns, etc”.  While the actual route wasn’t one of her favorites due to the challenging nature of it, she loved talking with other runners and seeing the support from the city. This is where Paola found a love for the running community and it has stuck with her ever since. 

Following NYC in 2014, Paola set her sights on Chicago.  Having lived in the city for multiple years, it felt like a home race.  She longed to run the race on the same streets she trained on. She knew the community and wanted to celebrate with all of her friends. Also by this time, Paola had become a faster runner. She was running at a 7:45-8:00/mile pace for marathons and set a goal to qualify for Boston! Reflecting back on her race at Chicago, Paola notes “ The course is fast and much easier than NYC”. “It feels like home, its where we raised our twins, I know the community, it is logistically easy”. While the course is easier, Paola notes that the community isn’t as engaged as NYC.  “It isn’t as grand of a race, but the community still loves it!” Paola would go on to qualify for Boston at this event and do so with a smile on her face!

2015 Chicago Marathon

Following Chicago, Paola was excited and as motivated as ever. “Lets get ready for Boston” she told her coach.  Just as everything was starting to fall into place, Paola started coming down with headaches and a nauseating feeling. With symptoms becoming prolonged, Paola decided to seek medical attention. Upon performing a cat scan, doctors found a tumor. Paola was diagnosed with a brain tumor in early 2016. 

Having trained for the past 4 years at a high level, Paola was accustomed to waking up early, working out, getting her kids ready for school, going to work, and then spending time with family in the evenings. Her world was turned upside down. With the symptoms of the tumor, she wasn’t able to run, she was suffering from constant dizziness, and she was wondering what was next in her journey through life. Would she be able to run again? Would she be able to maintain the same lifestyle? Would she be able to grow old? These were questions that were weighing on her and her family. 

The day had come for doctors to perform another assessment of the tumor. Doctors performed cat scans and other tests.  Was the tumor growing, or was it benign? Much to the joy of everyone in the room, doctors found the tumor had not grown in size. They also ruled it to be benign and that surgery would not be necessary.  Over joyed with this news, Paola asked the doctors what could be done to help with symptoms. Aside from general medications, doctors recommended that Paola begin running again. Not only had she been told the tumor wasn’t cancerous and growing, but now she had running as a form of medication. Things were looking up!

“I recall running being very difficult in early 2016. I was dizzy and had headaches often.” After taking several months off of running, Paola had to get back to her roots. Run to be healthy, run to live. The only chance she had of getting her life and momentum back on track was through exercise and  finding her routine again. “Aldo and I were walking through Central Park one day after moving to New York City. He looked over at me and told me to run. He knew I could do it, and he wanted to help me in anyway possible”. Following her time off and new diagnoses from doctors, Paola began running easy. “My entire focus around running had changed. I wasn’t focused on speed anymore, but instead being out there and being able”.

With a return to running in early 2016, Paola had put in a request to the Boston Athletics Association to defer her entry to 2017. The association accepted her request and Paola had a comeback race on the calendar! She started small with only a few walk/runs per week, but gradually got back into her training routine by summer of 2016. While she was training for Boston in 2017, she had more purpose to her runs. They were keeping her healthy, they were keeping her happy, they were literally allowing her to be the person she had been for 41+ years. “Getting back to running was beautiful, I try to tell people now that it’s not about how fast you are, it’s about being able to move!”. 

Following her scare with a brain tumor, Paola went on to run Boston in 2017! “Boston is a tough course, you have Heartbreak hill at mile 21 that is difficult. What I loved about Boston though was the patriotic feeling. After the bomb in 2013, you could feel how proud everyone was to be there. It was very powerful”. Paola recommended that everyone who can run Boston should do it once in their lives. “I’m glad I did Boston, but I don’t need to do it again. I would rather leave slots open for other athletes so they get to experience that. It’s very special, but I am okay only running it once”. 

The next few years saw Paola getting back on track. She and her family moved back to Europe, she was running multiple events each year, and she was able to complete the Berlin and Tokyo Marathons in 2018. 

“Berlin was a great course because you get to see all of the city and it’s monuments.” Paola wanted to make it a point to tell readers that the event is extremely organized. “Everything was perfect. Organization and logistics were world class”. The other nice thing about Berlin is how flat the course is. This is a course you can run very fast on. For anyone looking for a course to enjoy the city and also run a good time, they should explore Berlin. 

Berlin Marathon 2018

The second marathon of the year was Tokyo. Having altered her love of running after the brain tumor, this marathon was special for Paola. “Tokyo is about respect, peace, and genuinely supporting the runners. You can feel the culture and how much the community thinks of each athlete”. Having come back from a brain tumor and returning to health, this really hit home with her. She recommends that any runner who has a love for the sport, run Tokyo. “You will feel like a superstar, but also feel a great deal of respect for the culture”. 

Tokyo Marathon 2018

After finishing Tokyo, Paola had run 5 of the 6 marathon majors. The last marathon left was London. With already having a half ironman on the calendar for 2019, Paola had decided to run London in April of 2020. She would have her sister fly in to be there, and they would celebrate together!  Until then, she would be in Italy focusing on her family and work while training for her upcoming events. 

Following a great 2019, Paola had set her sights on finishing the marathon majors. She was nearing peak form when a mysterious illness started spreading around the world. In early 2020, Italy had completely shut down. “Military police were roaming the streets, you couldn’t go outside”. COVID had a grip on Italy and there was no end in sight.  For the next 4 months, Paola was stuck inside her Milan apartment and watching as her country lost citizens at an alarming rate. “I decided to focus on giving my mind and body a rest, I treated it as a sabbatical”. “I learned how to bake bread, I started yoga, I made everything from scratch, I only went to the grocery store for ingredients”. Having used running in 2016 to get her life back on track, Paola was now seeking exercise and new hobbies to help her mind relax. Like most of us during lockdown, she sought new adventures to distract her from the reality of the pandemic. 

Having lived with a brain tumor now for 5 years, and surviving the COVID Lockdown in Italy, Paola started running again in the Summer of 2020.  London had been postponed and announced a new date of October 2021. Having her spot still from the 2020 race, Paola had her new goal. Just like 2016 when she started training again, she took the same mindset into 2020.  Running is a privilege, it’s beautiful, it’s an adventure! 

Following a year of managing expectations, delayed races, and thoughts of another lockdown, Paola went on to run London in October 2021. She completed all of her majors! Throughout all of the turbulence and obstacles in her life, one thing has always remained the same. Paola loves adventure, travel, running, and family.  Without those items, Paola isn’t herself. Whenever things got tough, those were the values she sought to return back to normal. 

London Marathon 2021

The time is 3:15PM now. We finished our coffees as we both have obligations in the next 15 minutes. While only an hour passed, Paola had opened my mind to what running can be.  Running is such a simple concept, but individuals can interpret it so differently. Regardless of how you feel about running right now, it could mean something completely different to you in 6 months.  While the outside world and factors will change our perception of what’s important, for runners we know we can always find our way back to this simple task. So I ask you again, what does running mean to you? 

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