How One Runner Prioritizes Her Mental Health While Marathon Training

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Categories: Run & Training

Less than a month ago, Sashah Handal ran her first marathon. And just three weeks later, she’s running her second. You’d think anyone training for back-to-back marathons must have been running their whole life, but Handal actually didn’t start running until college—and even then, it was just something she did to stay in shape.

Post-college, she started sneaking into a gym where a friend worked, and before long an instructor suggested she try teaching. “I was like, I probably need to officially join the gym first,” Handal jokes. But it kickstarted an unexpected career as a fitness instructor: She got certified in spin and TRX, earned her National Academy of Sports Medicine (NASM) personal training credentials, and eventually landed a job as an instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp.

The start of her running journey
A year later, Handal moved to Brooklyn and became friends with a few of the other female instructors at Barry’s Bootcamp in New York City. “I decided to start running with them, as I thought running could maybe be another way for me to find my identity and meet more people,” she says.

That’s when her love for running really took off. She joined the running group Rage and Release, founded by Thai Richards, and started getting serious about her training. She immediately felt more at home with the culture than she did with group fitness classes. “You didn’t need to be wearing a certain label or fit a certain demographic—you just show up and run,” she says.

Then the pandemic hit and Handal found herself furloughed from her job. “It was really difficult mentally,” she says. “I already felt like I didn’t know many people in New York, and now Barry’s was closed so I didn’t have those people to hang out with.” She started investing her newfound free time in running, exploring Brooklyn by foot.

Shortly after, as the Black Lives Matter movement started to shed light on the many injustices Black people and other underrepresented groups around the world faced, Handal, who is Latina, discovered a lot of running groups were doing runs to protest. “I realized these groups were really starting a movement, and while it was beginning in New York, it would spread and change the world, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

She attended her first running-to-protest event in June 2020 and met plenty of other runners, including Jerry Francois, the founder of Goldfinger Track Club (GFTC). They became quick friends and he invited her to run with his club. “I felt like I was finally finding my space and a place where I belonged in NYC,” she says.

Picking up speed
That winter, for the first time in her life, Handal hit the ground running—literally. She was doing two-a-days three days a week, as well as long runs on Saturdays. She signed up for her first race—a half marathon—in December 2020, two weeks before her 32nd birthday. She ran the race in 1:38—finishing first place overall for women, and third overall. “Coaches and running friends started to realize that I was fast, and for the first time, people believed in me as an athlete,” says Handal.

But when New York businesses started opening again and she was rehired at Barry’s, Handal struggled to balance a job, running, and a social life, all while she was going through a breakup. “I realized I was replacing my relationship with the running community, and I felt like if I didn’t show up, would I lose that?” Handal explains.

Her body was breaking down from overuse, so she started to make her runs more intentional and part of an overall program—aiming to add more structure and balance back into her routine. “It became like a mental pendulum,” she explains. “I needed to learn when to listen to Jerry and Thai, who were now my coaches, and when I needed to trust myself and listen to what I really needed or wanted.”

With a new perspective, Handal signed up for her first marathon in Chicago in October 2021. She finished the marathon in 3:09:10, running an average pace of 7:13 minute miles, and Boston qualifying. “I had a bit of an identity crisis that could have broken me but it actually built me into this athlete and runner I never fathomed I could be,” says Handal. Next up for her: the New York City Marathon on November 7.

Throughout her marathon prep, she is discovering how crucial it is to train more than just your body. “So much of running is mental,” Handal says. “Mental clarity. Mental fortitude. Mental games. Mental tests. Mental stagnation. Mental breakthroughs. Running itself has become a key component to preserving my mental health. Training for a marathon simply magnifies that.

Handal has three main takeaways for prioritizing your mental wellness when you prep:

1. Be OK with not being OK.
“There’s a difference between being lethargic versus actually having low energy,” Handal says. “Some days you’ll realize you just needed to get out the door, and others where you realize you shouldn’t have left your house. But if you’re putting in the training, showing up for your long runs, you’re eating well, and you still have a day where you don’t do or feel great, don’t beat yourself up over it because that feeling won’t last.”

2. Find a running community.
“I spend a lot of my time and days encouraging, connecting, and motivating people because of my job as an instructor, so I relish a long solo run,” Handal says. But for anyone who could use a bit more motivation—especially anyone who is working from home or spends a lot of time alone—she recommends joining a running group. “You can be so positively affected by being around a group of people tackling the same daunting task,” she says. “When it comes to race prep, you think about things like your shoes and your nutrition as being essential, but don’t ignore your community, because it can be a key tool in your training belt as well.”

3. Ride the highs, but also the lows.
“When you’re training and running races, it’s going to get really hard and really dark sometimes,” Handal says. “It’s a physically exhausting task. There will be highs and lows. Don’t be scared of the lows, because you need them to appreciate the highs.”