When we sit down to talk two weeks out from race day, I apologize to Ayumi Nagano that it’s so early — it’s 8.30 AM in North Carolina, and 1.30 PM for me, in London. It doesn’t matter; she laughs — she’s already been up since 4 AM. As a mom with two young kids, this is the only time she can fit in her speed training and long runs.
Ayumi holds her hands bruised hands up to the camera in response to my ‘how’s training been going’ opener — in the last three weeks she’s suffered a knee injury, had a nasty bought of strep throat, and fallen over and bruised a rib, but she’s still excited. This is something I gleaned about Ayumi in our brief conversation — she’s not a quitter. When the streets felt scary running alone at 5 AM, she started a running group for local moms (the Highland Creek run club, which meets every Tuesday).
As a child, Ayumi missed out on sports, as she had to attend Japanese school every Saturday morning. She got into running when a friend asked her to join the cross country team (“I didn’t even know what cross country was,” she laughs). And when dark times threatened to beat her, she used running as a solace.
The New York Marathon starts 8 AM ET on Nov. 6.
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Ayumi is a survivor. She was captain of her high school track team when a coach made a comment about her weight. As a result, Ayumi struggled with an eating disorder and depression, “it became this obsession of like, okay, if I want to become faster or be faster, I have to lose weight.” She also grappled with drug addiction, but has been sober for the past 10 years, and now she’s taking on the New York City Marathon for the first time. Ready to feel inspired? Read on.
Ayumi, tell me about these 4 AM starts.
“I'm a mom with two babies. I have a three-and-a-half-year-old and a one-and-a-half-year-old. My husband works west coast hours, [and] doesn’t finish work until 7 PM most days, so evening runs are non-existent.
I started a local running group because I was trying to find other people to run with early in the morning; just as a woman, it would just be safer. We’re called the Highland Creek run crew, and we started in May. We meet every Tuesday morning at 5 AM. All of us are parents, so we wake up at five in the morning and do a workout. But since my marathon training speed workouts are about two hours long, I wake up at four in the morning on Tuesdays and do a two-mile warm-up, then the speed work with the group, then a two-mile cooldown. Then I'm home by six, I shower as fast as I can, and then have to clock into work by 6:45 AM. I don't see it as this is how many weeks I have until it's race day, I’m counting down how many Tuesdays I have to wake up at 4 AM!”
How did you first get into running?
“Throughout my childhood, every Saturday in New York I went to a Japanese language school. This meant I couldn't play sports, because most sports meet on Saturdays, and also that I had double the homework during the week. When I was in seventh grade, I dropped Japanese school and I was sitting on the school bus when a girl asked me, ‘do you want to try out for the cross country team?’ I had no idea what that was but I said yes. On the first day, I remember we were told to just run two miles. And I did it. It was painful, and I remember having difficulty going up and down the stairs the next day, but I kind of just fell in love with it.
“After that, I ran up through middle school. I loved my winter track coach in high school, but my cross country and spring track coach was just obsessed with winning. He almost treated his runners like a commodity. He wasn't the nicest person. If you didn't win for him, it was as if he didn't see the point in you being on the team, and that really kind of left a really bitter taste in my mouth.
I remember my junior year of high school was very high stress. I was on the school dance team, I was doing sports, I was paying out of my own pocket for my LSAT English and math tutor, I was working as a cashier, and I was trying to keep on top of my school workload. At a spring track practice, [my coach] had mentioned that I needed to lose weight, and I remember taking that to heart and thinking, ‘oh, I'm not going to make championships if I don't lose weight.’ And it became this obsession of like, okay, if I want to become faster or be faster, I have to lose weight. And that ended up sticking with me for almost about 10 years.”
You’re now a teacher, and you credit your decision to coach the Cross Country team as the reason you fell back in love with running.
“Yes, absolutely. It is so hard running or doing any sport in New York City. Some of my kids are commuting an hour on the subway just to get to school. So that means they're getting up at like five or six in the morning, then trying to study throughout the day, staying after school trying to get homework done, and then they go to training for about two hours, before taking the subway for an hour home, then doing it all again the next day.
The level of dedication it requires for them to stay on the team, and to want to stay on the team is just mind blowing. The fact these kids loved running so much that they're willing to do that is was just so inspiring to me. Watching them work so hard every single day for months and months and months, I just thought, ‘this is so beautiful. This is why you love running.’ And it kind of allowed me to fall in love with running again.
“I didn't tell anybody, but I signed up for my first race in about 13 years. It was the Cocoa Classic five miler in Central Park where you get a cup of cocoa at the finish line. I went by myself, I didn't tell anybody, I just went and ran it. It was below freezing temperatures, but I remember just having so much fun and feeling so exhilarated.”
What does it mean to you to be on the start line of the New York City Marathon?
“It means a lot. It wasn't until the past few years that I really saw myself as athletic, even though I ran for a very long time. I think that had to do with me being Asian and not really seeing a lot of Asians in the running world. It wasn't until the past few years that I've thought, yes, I am a runner. Yes, I am strong. I ran a half marathon in April — it was my first one postpartum and post-pandemic, and I remember running and seeing a sprinkle, maybe four or five young Asian girls like in the crowd cheering. I remember intentionally looking at them and smiling and waving every time, just to be like, yes, you could be running this too.
It was a nice feeling of like we do exist, and we are out here to just show that you are capable. I think that it's the same with the New York City Marathon — yes, there's definitely more Asians than any other running race, but we're not nearly in any way any kind of majority, and I think that it’s just important for other people to see Asian faces also out there. I think that that is really important. Because I didn't realize how much representation matters until I realized how much it affected me and my perception of myself.”
How has your relationship with running changed over the years?
“After having kids I have become more confident with my running than ever before. I don't know if it's the hormones — I do feel different hormonally, my body is different, my hips are wider, and my ribcage is wider, but I honestly think it’s something else. The first time running postpartum after my son in Brooklyn a man ran past me really fast, and I remember looking at him and thinking, ‘oh, whatever, my body made a baby.’ I think that's helped me build a lot of confidence, and also, a lot of respect for my body.
“I'm so glad that my marathon got postponed — I got pregnant when I was first meant to run it, then the pandemic happened, and then I got pregnant again. Physically, I'm more mature in my training, I can push myself harder than I did before. But then also on my easy runs, I'm much kinder with myself — I don't care what anybody thinks! I'm like, ‘oh, I'm gonna run 20 minute mile pace, who cares? It's 105 degrees!’
“I'm at my most confident, comfortable and happy with my running. I have more trust in the process. The past few years have really challenged my body physically, in a lot of ways, and really kind of shown me that it's capable of some really amazing things.”
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