We get better by focusing on strengths, not weaknesses

Plus 10 Switzerland half marathons for 2019

“I’ve always gotten a lot of satisfaction by being the big girl everyone thought they were going to beat.” — Allie Kieffer

Have you ever heard of Allie Kieffer? Probably not, but there’s a good chance you will after this weekend.

The 31-year-old former collegiate runner, who surprised many by finishing fifth at last year’s New York City Marathon — beating her previous best by 26 minutes! — is expected to hold her own with the best runners in the world at this year’s race, which runs this Sunday morning.

So what’s so special about that? Nothing, really — except for the way Kieffer has held strong in the face of heavy criticism for the way she’s approached her career.

Even though she looks like someone with a “normal” body to you and me — like in this New York Times profile — Kieffer doesn’t have the kind of rail-thin physique most elite runners possess.

Over the years, she’s been urged to adopt strict diets to bring down her weight so she’d look more like other elite runners, the thinking being that she wasn’t achieving her potential because she wasn’t doing things like everyone else did.

After listening the critics for years on end, finally she gave in, as she describes in this profile in Self back in January. Around 2012, she began a hardcore fitness program designed to bring her weight down, during which she tracked all the calories and fat she ate, and cut out “entire food groups with unhealthy determination.”

And where did it get her? Injured.

The cost of all the focus on her weight led to a stress fracture in one of her tibias, which prevented her from competing in the trials for the 2012 Summer Olympics.

That, she says, was a wake-up call that showed her how unhealthy it is to focus on a specific number on the scale — that it “will always be an unhealthy shortcut to an end-goal, laden with tremendous physical and emotional consequences.”

Since then, Kieffer has focused on running the way she wants to run. She moved from where she’d trained in Boulder, Colo., back home to New York City, where she found a job as a nanny that allowed her to run with a less competitive approach.

That led to running regularly in Central Park, meeting friends and joining CrossFit. She started running more miles, and started getting faster — a lot faster, without following the weight-loss regimen that had been recommended to her by coach after coach.

It obviously worked. She won the Miami Marathon in 2016 (after switching from the half the night before!) and this year’s Doha Half Marathon, which was run in the Persian Gulf city back in January.

Lindsay Crouse, who wrote this profile of Kieffer this past weekend, perhaps put what she’s accomplished in the years since her body broke down best:

“... Kieffer has given us a powerful example of what can happen when we stop trying to force ourselves to meet preconceived notions of how to achieve success — especially unhealthy, untrue ideas — and go after our goals on our own terms. When we focus less on fixing what we consider to be inadequacies and more on reinforcing our strengths, we can realize potential we didn’t even know we had.”

To me, that’s the most powerful lesson that Kieffer has to teach us. I don’t know about you, but I definitely don’t possess the body of an elite runner. And even though at age 47, you’d think that might not be something I’d obsess about, I’m definitely conscious of the fact that I don’t look like the archetypal runner you see on the cover of Runner’s World.

(I’ve even been teased when I approached the check-in table at a race I went to a few years ago, when I was asked if I was running in the half marathon. “You sure don’t look like a runner,” the woman giving out race packets said to me. Welp.)

I’ve kicked myself for not being able to do things others do, or to do things in the way they do them. But I think Kieffer tells us powerfully: that’s nonsense. None of us is exactly like everyone else, and each of us has our own talents, gifts and strengths.

It’s a fool’s errand to spend our limited time and energy trying to be a version of someone else; we’ll go so much farther — and enjoy the journey so much more — when we just focus on being ourselves, getting better at our strengths, and letting the rest go by.

That’s what I’m going to (try to) do. It won’t always be easy and there will be days I’ll backslide. But I think this is the way to go.

What do you think?

Your friend,

— Terrell

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Let’s Go Run There

Sahara Half Marathon

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Frozen Continent Half Marathon

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Big Sur International Marathon

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Save on the Santa Hustle Race Series

Use the discount code “HM5” to save $5 off the entrance fee for each of these: