Marathon Challenge

Video Diary Betsey Powers-Sinclair

A chance to start over

Q: Why did you want to do this—join the NOVA team and put yourself through this marathon ordeal?

Betsey: I had gained 70 pounds over the past three years. And I knew I needed something this drastic to come through that. So I pretty much knew, the minute I heard about it, this was what I had to do.

Three years earlier, in the fall of 2003, Betsey was diagnosed with a life-threatening tumor. She was also in the midst of a divorce and caring for two teenage kids. After 13+ hours of surgery to remove the tumor growing from her spine, she wasn't allowed to exercise for six months.

Betsey: Before my surgery, I was at the gym almost every morning. After, I had to adjust to a whole new identity. I got depressed. Slowly none of my clothes fit. I desperately wanted to get back to my "baseline self," I just didn't know how to get back there.

Q: So the marathon was a way back?

Betsey: Maybe. I had defined my life as "before my surgery" and "after my surgery." And I suddenly saw this as an opportunity to change that; my life could be "before the marathon" and "after the marathon," which would have a much more positive connotation.

Q: You've said that you fought to get into the group. How?

Betsey: Well, a few days before the first fitness tests, I received a call from NOVA saying, "You know, we're really concerned about your weight. Do you really want to put yourself through these tests?" And I said, "Absolutely." I believe, actually, what I said is, "This is my Heartbreak Hill. I just have to get through this."

When the physicians stopped the testing [because of dangerous signals they saw on the heart monitor], I was shocked, because I felt absolutely fine. I thought, "Whatever it takes, I'll fix this." I wore monitors for days, and doctors looked at everything inside and out, and it was determined that [the test result] was an artifact. So I started with the group three weeks late, but I didn't miss a run after that.

Q: Was being part of the group—the group aspect—important to you?

Betsey: The group has changed my life. Our training runs were like group therapy. Don [Coach Don Megerle] was the facilitator, and this group of people with a common goal met every week in the same place, at the same time. And what is the likelihood our paths would have crossed? Slim.

Q: What was meeting Don like?

Betsey: Meeting Don, initially, was a little off-putting. He gave me a look, kind of the look of, "You've got to be kidding." And I said to him, "Don't worry, I'm coachable." That was it. I kind of fell in. And so it began.

E-mail from Betsey to Coach Don Megerle, July 28, 2006
Good Morning!
2.5mi sounds great...this am, I did 3mi in about 25 min. which was mostly slowly jogging with 3 small walk breaks in between. The change in how I am holding my hands is amazing!! Hope your week is going well. Looking forward to the articles you mention.

Physical transformation

Q: In the first months, you seemed to doubt the training was tough enough to get you ready for the marathon. Did you think Don pushed you hard enough?

Betsey: When I started the NOVA training, I joined boot camp as well. [Betsey's exercise boot camp generally met three times a week, at 5:30 a.m.] My boot camp coach is Dutch, and she is what one might imagine, tough as nails. If you can do 25 full-body push-ups, she's going to make you do 50. She pushes you to the limit, whereas Don's approach is the opposite. He pretty much says, "You need to come with your own expectations and your own capability. And you need to drive yourself." That was a little scary.

Q: You didn't lay off, though, pushing yourself.

Betsey: Absolutely not. I really, in many ways, saw this as a challenge—for others as well as for myself. I felt that a lot of people weren't sure I was going to be able to do it. I never thought of myself as someone who had an overweight personality. In fact, when my primary-care physician signed the consent form, I think he put "mildly obese" or "moderately obese," and I was furious. I said, "You needed to put 'situationally overweight.'"

Q: You've lost a lot of weight—almost 50 pounds. How did you do it?

Betsey: Initially, I joined Weight Watchers. But I would sit in on these meetings that were just not for me. I learned that a lot of people who are overweight don't like to exercise, which has never been my problem. And I don't do well weighing food or any of those things, so I did that only a month or two. After that I just increased the exercise, essentially, and thought about what I was eating.

I ate out much less frequently. I also realized that, before the training, I was really sleep-deprived, and when I'm overtired, I crave really unhealthy food. You know, don't leave the double-stuffed Oreos anywhere near me, because you won't see them again. And throughout the training, I got more sleep. Now, if I'm really craving something, I'll say, "Do you really want that, or do you need to go to bed?"

E-mail between Betsey and Coach Don Megerle, October 25, 2006
Hey Betsey
...I was telling Uta this evening that you have made the most significant progress of any of the NOVA runners....keep smiling my dear!! Hello to Emily! [Betsey's daughter]
Sincerely yours,
Don Megerle

Good Morning Don!
I see that you were up bright and early!! I sincerely appreciate your kind does mean more to me than these words can convey. I am so grateful for this opportunity and I am really loving EVERY moment. Thanks for allowing me to bring along some family members, both my mother and Emily loved being along for the ride!!
Love and Best Wishes,

Q: You worked out more than perhaps any other runner on the NOVA team. Is being an exercise fanatic a new thing for you?

Betsey: I never, in my life, was a runner, but I always loved to exercise. I rode horses, played field hockey, swam, and then, more recently, I would be in the gym six days a week. And then for three years [after the surgery] I did nothing. I mean, I walked the dog. Now I exercise six times a week.

Pushing, and pushing, and pushing

Throughout the training, Coach Megerle advised Betsey to rest more and not stress her body.

E-mail between Coach Don Megerle and Betsey, January 8, 2007
Great day...this was the first day...yes, the first day when I did not hear you beat yourself up on things you cannot did not compare yourself to anyone but what you accomplished...and you did a lot today...and your hearty high 5s were right on target!! Keep up the GREAT work ethic Betsey!!!
All the best!
Don Megerle

Good Morning Don,
…I am trying hard to let go of those things I can't control...I am working really hard at not overtraining. Today says REST, I am fighting with myself not to go to the gym... I do appreciate your is lonely at the end, knowing I am alone, one of the last ones on the course, but still moving (forward) just the same!
Till Wed.
Much Love,

Q: What's been the hardest part of this whole marathon quest?

Betsey: It was very hard to watch my teammates get injured. They would miss training. They would be in pain. It was terrifying, because I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop—when was I going to be injured? Was this inevitable?

Q: Did you have any injuries?

Betsey: No. I had a little knot in my calf, which I'm sure was psychological. It was on my third 11-mile run. I was very fortunate.

Q: Other hard parts?

Betsey: I really struggled with the distance. At 11 miles, I was kind of stuck. And finally, during a 14-mile run, I met up with one of the other runners and kind of said, "Will you be the pilot? I'll be the glider." And that was great. From that point on, I was okay.

E-mail from Betsey to NOVA, February 21, 2007
Hello and Happy Presidents Day...
I am so happy to have completed the 14 miles yesterday! I felt the best I have felt yet emotionally when I was finished. …Was also happy that I completed the 14 miles with an overall avg pace just above 10 min/mile…Felt great for the remainder of the day and feel great today as well! (Yippie!!) … I will try to stick to the Nova schedule and run Tues and Wed before leaving on Thursday am for PR with Ray, Mic, Vera et al...can't wait!!

Betsey and several of the NOVA runners vacationed—and ran—together in Puerto Rico.

Q: Could you stay upbeat through the winter and spring?

Betsey: I hit a wall in the early spring, where I was just miserable. I remember going to a boot camp training. It was four below. And I thought, "I just don't want to be here." It was the very first day I couldn't wait to get up and go. I did a run that same week, around a six-mile loop we do all the time, and I was just miserable. My legs weren't in tune with my breathing, and I felt like I was stomping every step of the way.

Luckily, Sama had been out for a few weeks [because of an injury], and she was back. She was running a shorter distance and was actually ahead of me. When I caught up with her, Don snapped a picture and sent it. I looked at the picture, and I was smiling, and it was really a wonderful moment. It really was transformative for me, because I thought "I hated that run. I hated everything about it." And suddenly there was Sama, and everything was fine.

The insight I gained from that was enormous. I realized, it's not physical; it's really the psychological piece that you need to work on. Don, especially in the beginning, would send us articles and quotes to read, inspirational things. And it didn't really make sense at the time. I thought, "Are you kidding? I am huffing and puffing every step of the way. What are you talking about, psychological? This is pure physical." Suddenly I remembered all the readings we had done for months.

Then I actually wrote to Steve and said, "Are we really going to get there? Are we ever going to get there?" The beauty of the group was, if you were struggling, you could just let somebody know, and they were there to support you.

By early April, two weeks before the marathon, Betsey and the other runners were ready to take on their longest run yet—20 miles.

E-mail from Betsey to NOVA following the run, April 2, 2007
Where to begin to describe yesterday's TWENTY mile run? Over the weekend I had been wondering if I was in fact part of the Truman Show...Could I really be preparing psychologically to run for 20 miles?… at 15 miles, I was feeling tired (not bad, just tired)...kept at it and met up with Uta...ran slowly up the hills with Uta, which was just amazing...I really knew with certainty that I was dreaming at that point......felt great...knew at 20, I could have done 26! Back at home, did my usual hot tub, Ray came by to join in the tub therapy...had people for the usual Sunday night supper guests left at 11pm and I FELL into bed...up at 5 today feeling GREAT!…Hoping to continue to hold this sense of confidence… it feels so cool to be out there being filmed with a sense that you all know us now, so we are really in this together.

Finally, I am sad to think that like all things there is a beginning, a middle and an end, and that now, the end is in sight...or will it just be the beginning?? My heart remains full of gratitude for the experience. It has already surpassed my wildest imagination!
Best to all!!

Marathon day

Q: So, you did great in the training. I think you definitely get the prize as the "most improved." And then on marathon day, it didn't seem to go well for you, or at least you didn't seem happy about it just afterwards. What happened?

Betsey: Yeah. Well, for a few weeks before the marathon, I wasn't sleeping. I didn't get eight hours of sleep for weeks, just really anxious about it. And of course, the weather reports the week before were stressful. And that night I was up at 2:30, and so I didn't really sleep well for the rest of the night.

I woke up in the morning not feeling well and thought, "This is a problem." I didn't feel well, and I was very stressed.

Typically, I don't run with my cell phone. I don't like to carry anything. But I had a sense I was going to be in trouble, so I packed Advil, Kleenex, my cell phone. I felt a bit like Winnie the Pooh, because I was pretty bulky. And I thought, "It's just nerves. Just relax. It's going to be fine."

I had told Steve on the bus, "I'm going to be behind you," I said, "for the first 15." And he said "Oh no, you're not going to want to go that slow." I said, "Oh trust me, I'm going to be behind you." So we started out running together, maybe the first three miles or so, and he was going too fast. And I thought, "No, I can't do this." A few weeks before we had done a 20-mile run which was awesome. I knew, on that run, I could have done 26 without a problem. But when I started the marathon I thought, "This is really going to be hard."

By mile nine, I knew I was in trouble. I had a fever. I was sweating profusely. And I called my sister, who was in Wellesley, about seven or eight miles away. I called her, and I said, "I'm okay, but it's going to take me much longer than I thought to get there. I'm walking." And I said, "You need to go to the drug store and buy Urostat. I have a urinary tract infection." She was nervous, I could tell. But she said okay.

And I thought, "It's going to be okay. I'll get this Urostat, and it will be fine." I had to hold onto that thought, because I had a long way to go. And I guess I felt embarrassed. People wanted to run with me, and I wanted to say, "Go ahead and run, and I'll catch up with you at whatever point."

My boot camp instructor was waiting for me a long time at the fire station, and I felt awful, like "I'm sorry, the weather's awful." And she joined me. And my daughter was going to run one of the hills over the section of Heartbreak, and I was worried about her. I thought, "Oh, she's probably wondering what's taking so long." And I kept telling myself, "Life is about re-evaluating and managing your expectations. You just have to manage these expectations, and just let it go, and get through with it." But it was really hard.

The crowds are wonderful; especially when you're not feeling well, they are great. They are supportive and smiling and kind of give you what you need when you don't have anything yourself to keep pushing along. And by mile 25, the Urostat was working, and I finally felt like I could run. I thought, "Can I do it backwards? Can I do it again?"

Crossing the finish line was devastating. Seeing the people on our team who finished after me, I was even a bit envious, because they were so thrilled at the accomplishment of finishing. And I thought, "I want to feel that." But I didn't at the time.

I was grateful to Jonathan, who was there, running with me at the end. And I thought, "So many times in these recent long runs, he's made the endings better." And he made this one bearable. But I thought, "I have to do this marathon again. I'm twice as committed." I felt like the course beat me once. It won't beat me twice.

Q: It sounds like, even though the race didn't go as you would have wanted, you've still come out strong from the whole process.

Betsey: Oh, the journey was a fabulous one, every step of the way! I'm certainly not in the same place, psychologically, that I was a year ago. I'm definitely more committed to helping people become fit. I feel great to think I could help, in any way, to motivate others.

Q: And, physically, you're just about back to your "baseline self?"

Betsey: Just before the marathon, one of the people I work with said, "It's safe to return to your closet." I have almost made it back. Still have one suit that doesn't fit, but almost there.

Interview conducted in May 2007 by Dan McCabe and Hillary Wells, producers of "Marathon Challenge," and edited by Susan K. Lewis, editor of NOVA online

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