Palak Patel

A week before Christmas, I got a call from my friend Will Yandell over at Clif Bar asking if I was interested in running the Boston Marathon. My response was laughter. Who was he kidding? I’m a chef who hasn’t run a marathon in over five years. I travel almost non-stop for work. And I was about to turn 40, which meant I was pretty set in my ways.   

But the new year set in, my milestone birthday was coming up, and I couldn’t shake the feeling that maybe it was time to start this new decade with a bang. I finally got past the mental obstacles and decided to dive into the challenge. On January 5th, in the dead of winter and with less than three and a half months to race day, I began to train.

Say yes.

This small step is actually a powerful tool in helping our brain be open and willing to take chances and discover untapped potential. So many of our biggest challenges in life reflect our mindsets. The act of saying yes helped me cultivate the thought patterns needed to start removing mental obstacles. Saying it out loud and hearing it began to shift my thinking and allowed me to accept the possibility that doing a marathon was possible. Ultimately that yes was the first step in committing to the run mentally and verbally.

While on my runs, my brain kept fighting me by saying, “I can’t do this”, “100 days is not enough time”, “I can’t even remember the last time you ran one…”

I worked hard to banish those negative thoughts with each step that landed on the pavement. I embraced positivity instead, encouraging myself to keep going and reminding myself that I’ve done this before.

Rethink food.

Traveling all over the world and working with food isn’t exactly a recipe for health. I realized that if I wanted to push my body to achieve a drastic goal, I needed to make a drastic change. Knowing that many athletes have started following a strictly plant-based diet, I decided to take on that challenge for myself. As a chef, I was interested in learning just how powerful the right nutrition can be, combined with rigorous exercise. This process wasn’t easy because I had to unlearn a lot of myths about protein and nutrition. I started small by making gradual changes like replacing dairy and eggs with vegan options like chia seeds or flaxseed, and diving into research about nutrition-packed leafy greens, grains, beans, legumes, and nuts. And, to keep cravings at bay, I used spices and herbs to boost flavor. I learned how to keep up my protein intake with animal-alternatives like peanuts, broccoli, quinoa, chickpeas, and lentils. My body began to feel stronger and my mind felt clearer. Now that the race is over, I plan on ensuring that at least 90% of my diet is plant-based.

Selfcare and recovery.

Day after day, I laced up, steadily increasing mileage and speed. I went from 0 to 10 (miles, that is) in a mere few weeks. I was rather pleased with my progress.

Then one morning, when I was up to mile 14, I started feeling a sharp pain in my left shin to the point where I couldn’t walk down stairs. I knew immediately something was wrong. A visit to the doctor confirmed an injury. Standing was awkward. Bending my knee was excruciating.

I was terrified to run and gutted at the possibility that I might not be able to complete my training. So, I threw everything at it, including the kitchen sink. Physical therapy, acupuncture, cupping, massage – and the all-important rest.

After ten years of being “on the go” and pushing in every direction, my patience wasn’t as strong as it could be. Being injured forced me to take a break. I channeled my energy into places of peace—cooking and spending time with friends and family. I realized slowing down does not mean being lazy or unmotivated – it’s a form of self-care and recovery that involves taking care of your mind, body, and soul simultaneously.

I was committed to healing my leg. I dove into each physical therapy lesson and acupuncture with an attitude of healing and optimism.

Each day brought little improvements. I was able to go to spin class. I went back to doing a few miles of running at a slower pace. After a few weeks, I got back to longer distances.

I was grateful for the little victories each day I would have previously taken for granted.

Confidence and reframing are key.

Overcoming overwhelm and self-doubt became like training my leg muscles – a daily workout. How did I do this? In three ways: I practiced mental training of visualization before ever walking out of the door – this was just as important as the physical. I treated each day as a new day without judgment or expectation of the previous day. I acknowledged and celebrated the small victories whether it was running on a cold day, running a fast mile, running in sleet or witnessing a beautiful sunset.

As the race got closer and closer, people would ask me if I was excited. I was, but it also came around a lot quicker than I expected.  Don’t get me wrong, I was excited to run one of the oldest and most prestigious races in the world, excited to experience the hype, thrilled that I would get to run alongside world-renowned athletes.  But I was also overcome with nerves that my injury would resurface, and the race would not go well and for one reason or another (marathon running leaves a lot of room for the unknown) I had doubts that I wouldn’t be able to finish.

Reset Expectations

Shortly after the injury, I became deflated and lacked motivation to continue running, and even worse that I might not run at all. Was I angry? Yes. Was I disappointed? Yes. I had to orient around a new goal – just finish the marathon. Let go of any expectations of time.  

It’s natural to feel disappointed, the loop that lurks in the all-too-familiar gap between my expectations and how life actually plays out. Those 100 days of training were perhaps my most challenging and most transformative. Building up from running zero miles to 26.2, switching to a vegan lifestyle, and learning how to reset my expectations of myself and what my body could achieve.

Training, injury, recovery and subsequently running the Boston Marathon was terrifying. It was also life-changing. I experienced a perceivable mind shift: a breakthrough of a kind from overcoming this challenge and discovering my hidden potential. What I learned in those months is a valuable lesson that carries over into so many parts of my life now.