When I started this blog, I wanted to share my story in the hope that my running journey would inspire others to run. But I quickly realised there were so many other runners out there with remarkable stories, and that I could also use this platform to share those stories to inspire even more people. In today’s blog, I’m so excited to share one such story. Sonja and I met during a 5K race – she said she read my blog, to which I exclaimed happily, and we had a short conversation before parting ways. But our paths kept crossing and we soon discovered our kids were the same age and at the same school! Sonja’s 5K and 10K races eventually became Half Marathons and in November 2022, she courageously lined up for the New York City Marathon.
Back in 2020, I said I’d interview you after you ran New York and here we are! When and how did you start running? I’ve never really been a long-distance runner; however, my husband’s family has always been very sporty and at some point, they convinced me to do the Diacore 10km. That was probably around 2017. With no training at all, I walked the whole way, and I was absolutely shattered for the rest of the day, but I think that planted the seed to work harder and do better. The next year was easier and then I set my sights on doing “just one half-marathon”. I ran the Diacore Half in 2019, and was on Cloud 9 for days, but soon post-race depression set in, and I had to find a new goal… The dream of running the New York City Marathon before I turn 40 was born and that goal pretty much dominated my running for four years!
What were your greatest challenges as a new runner? Thinking back, there were probably three major challenges: 1) Finding a running programme I felt I could attempt without it being too overwhelming and then creating a routine which allowed the necessary time to run; 2) Most runs were on the treadmill as I can’t really run alone in the immediate area where we live. To this day, I still hate driving to a spot to start my run; and 3) I was super unfit and incapable of running from one lamppost to the next. This left me feeling embarrassed and inadequate. I had to work hard to not just build fitness but to overcome the mental challenges that came with it.
Your last point resonates with me. How many Half Marathons had you done before running the New York City Marathon? I had completed five official Half Marathons. My first was the one I mentioned earlier, Diacore in May 2019, and the second was Soweto in November 2019.
The third was the Virtual Wally Hayward Half Marathon in 2021 since the in-person event was unfortunately cancelled during Covid. I also completed the BDF Half Marathon and the Gabs Half Marathon, both in the latter half of 2022, as part of my marathon training. I also covered the distance during training which was just as rewarding as an actual event!
You said earlier that following Diacore, the dream of running New York was born. Why New York? High on my half marathon achievement, I was googling marathon majors one day and for some reason I fixated on the New York City Marathon. Initially, it was a short-lived idea because at the time I thought it was something completely beyond my reach. Sometime later I was chatting to a friend who had done the New York Marathon before. She gave me some more insight on how one can enter without the need to do a time qualifier and that was it, we chose 2020 as our goal to run it and the training (and saving!) started.
What were some of your biggest challenges training for New York? Training for a marathon is a never-ending cycle of highs and lows. One day you are on top of the world and can conquer anything, the next day even 5km feels unachievable and you constantly doubt whether you will ever be able to complete 42.2km! I’m a very slow runner so time is a constant issue for me. My husband is also a keen sportsman who was training to run the New York marathon, amongst other big events. We had to learn how to juggle time and opportunity to train with all our other responsibilities since a Saturday long run could easily take me up to three hours.
2020 came, our entry to the marathon was confirmed early in the year and my excitement was off the charts. But it didn’t last with Covid hitting us less than two months later. Before we realized the far-reaching effects it would have, there was always this hope that it would be over by November. But we soon realized that was not to be. The uncertainty of training for such a big event when you don’t even know if or when you will be able to run it was sometimes unbearable. Our entries were deferred to 2021 which again, was not to be, due to international travel restrictions. 2022 was third time lucky and I was almost too scared to get my hopes up! We were already on the plane heading to New York, and I was still terrified that something might go wrong to prevent me from toeing the start line!
It was such an uncertain time! How did you motivate yourself to run on those difficult days? The only way to stay motivated was to keep the end goal in sight but try and break up training into one week at a time – do the best you can and brush off the bad days. It was hard but I kept imagining what it would feel like when I eventually crossed that famous finish line.
After four years of dreaming, all the deferrals, all the training, you finally get to New York, and you had the great honour of being the flag bearer for Botswana in the Parade of Nations opening ceremony. What was that experience like? The Parade of Nations opening ceremony took place on the Friday evening of race weekend and it’s known as a spectacle not to be missed. I was thrilled that my application to be Botswana’s flag bearer was successful! Even though my husband Brad and I were exhausted from having travelled for more than 24 hours we couldn’t be more excited to dress up in Botswana colours from head to toe and walk proudly down the finish line straight along with all the other countries that were being represented. The parade was so colourful and joyful with the music, people dancing, and the evening ended with the most spectacular fireworks display. It was an experience that will stay with us for a lifetime.
Wow! What an incredible experience. What was it like at the Start Line? We had an early start to the day as we had to be on the bus leaving from our hotel no later than 6am to get to the start village at Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island before all the road closures. Luckily our bus got there with plenty of time to spare but we were in the last wave which meant an 11:30am start! Dunkin Donuts were there to save the day offering free bagels, coffee, tea and even hot chocolate to all runners; along with a special Dunkin Donuts fleece beanie branded with the New York Marathon logo. The start village was huge and very well organized with designated areas for runners in each wave and corral, they had plenty of port-a-loos (any runner will know what a mission this can be before a race!) and they even had an area with emotional support dogs if you felt like you needed a furry cuddle to settle the nerves.
There was a massive TV screen showing the elite runners who had already started and each subsequent wave start so you felt like you were constantly part of the action. Time actually went by quickly in the end and before we knew it we were being herded into our corral. The American National Anthem was played followed by Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York”, a canon went off (yes, an actual canon!) signaling the start of the race and in a flash we were on the Verrazano-Narrows bridge running the biggest and most difficult elevation of the course. The view of Manhattan as you run on the bridge was an emotional moment!
I’m getting emotional just thinking about the image you’ve painted for us! Take us through the race. From Fort Wadsworth on Staten Island, you cross the Verrazano-Narrows bridge into Brooklyn where a wall of sound hits you from the first spectators. Brooklyn was by far my favourite section, it was packed with mostly younger people partying, playing music and cheering for you as far as you go. High fives were the order of the day! People warn you not to go out too hard in the first half of the marathon and I could totally understand why that could be a problem. You get so carried away with adrenaline and the crowds that you run much faster than you actually should, and you forget to pace yourself.
From Brooklyn you cross the Pulaski Bridge into Queens and the halfway mark is somewhere in the middle of the bridge. Crowd support continues with so many people cheering, ringing cowbells and playing music along the way until you get to the Queensboro bridge. This section is notoriously difficult as by now you are rather tired and since no spectators are allowed on the bridges (and Queensboro is rather long) you only have your own thoughts and the sound of running shoes on tar creating a rhythm, to get you through. But on the other hand, it is also a welcome relief, giving you a chance to regroup and gather your thoughts before being bombarded by the crowds yet again as soon as you enter Manhattan.
From there you run all the way up first avenue for about 3 miles (just short of 5km) and it felt like it was taking forever. Just as you think you can’t carry on, someone will shout your name (we had our names printed on our shirts, best thing ever!) and it gives you renewed energy to smile and keep going. The last 10km or so you cross Willis Avenue Bridge for a super quick detour into the Bronx and onto the Madison Avenue Bridge heading back into Manhattan for the final leg. By now it was dark (sun sets at around 4:30pm) so the final section down 5th Avenue, into and around Central Park and back in again to cross the finish line was really tough.
Even though you know more or less the distance you have left it’s too dark to orientate yourself in an already unfamiliar city, plus by then your body and mind switches to autopilot and all you want is to have that medal around your neck! In a cruel twist, the last few hundred metres to the finish line are uphill, but the relief when you reach the top of that and see the finish line lit up in all its glory is just indescribable! As I approached, I recall the commentator call out my name, but the rest of what she said didn’t sink in at all. I was too focused on getting across that line.
“The relief was immense but even more so, the wonderful sense of accomplishment, and the fact that even though it was the longest and toughest run I’d ever done I was still standing and more importantly I had a huge smile on my face despite the tears in my eyes!”
Wow Sonja! What a journey of strength and determination on the streets of New York City. I am so proud of you! Now…I’m very curious about Marathon Monday… Marathon Monday is held at the finish line in Central Park, the day after the marathon. It’s a wonderful opportunity to have your medal engraved, buy official finisher gear and perhaps even get a copy of the New York Times with your name printed in it! Unfortunately, due to the large size of the field and cut off times for the newspaper to go to print the day before you have to run pretty fast for your name to be featured! It’s still a great memento though as they have a special marathon insert. It’s rather amusing watching people walk around as everyone is stiff and sore; however, with the amount of walking you do when in New York that doesn’t last long, and recovery was actually a breeze. I felt better after running a marathon than I have after shorter races!
Haha! Now you know I want to hear more about that side of the trip! What were your favourite sights, sounds and meals as you walked the streets of New York City?! Oh my goodness, where do I start!? We probably walked between 10 and 20 km every day exploring the city. I absolutely loved the architecture. There are so many historic buildings which are simply gorgeous, many of them sandwiched right between two ultra-modern skyscrapers.
We went up just about every famous building both during the day and at night to enjoy the views; the height of the buildings is just mind blowing. The museums are on another level. I thoroughly enjoyed the American Museum of Natural History and the New York Public Library. We also had the phenomenal experience of going all the way up into the crown of the Statue of Liberty, that was definitely a highlight for me.
The food was great and one of the best things we had was a Pastrami Sandwich at Katz Delicatessen in Brooklyn, which is the oldest Deli in New York. They have been operating since 1888 and their food is delicious!
Even though all of this was incredible, I think Central Park tops the list as one of my favourite places in the world! It’s in the middle of this bustling, noisy city, yet when I was there, I felt a sense of peace unlike anywhere else. You can actually smell the earth and the leaves around you and to experience something like that in the middle of New York… for me, was just wonderful.
What a reward for completing a marathon! Looking back, what would you say training for a marathon taught you about yourself? I had so many days during training where I doubted my ability to achieve this massive goal that I’d set for myself, especially since the New York marathon would also be my first ever marathon! Even at the start, I was still doubting whether I had it in me to finish 42.2km. But I suppose the old saying is true – if you really want something badly enough, you’ll find a way to make it happen. Even though I didn’t achieve my initial time goal, I am so proud of myself for completing it and within the official race time too.
“We are capable of so much more than what we give ourselves credit for!”
Is it something you’d want to do again? If you’d asked me that same day if I would do it again my answer would have been a firm no! But the very next day, Brad and I were already contemplating whether we should try to run all the majors. The idea intrigues me and it’s definitely on the table provided time and finances allow. Now that I’ve done it once and know what to expect, I believe I can work hard enough to do it again.
Final question – if you could talk to the Sonja at the start of her running journey, what would you tell her? You’ve got this, you can do this, just keep going!
Thank you, Sonja, for sharing your journey to New York – all the training, the challenges and the triumphs, and finally the actual run through this world-famous city. I’m so proud of what you have achieved, and I know your story will inspire so many runners that they too can do this. I’ll have you back on when you run those other world majors!