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HomeCultureThe Convo

Claire and Huyen

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In conversation with Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen and Claire Gelbart for the 2019 New York City Marathon.

Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen is a Vietnamese athlete born in Germany who splits her time between New York City and Berlin. She considers herself a student of life, writer, runner, yoga practitioner and friend. Claire Gelbart is a health and wellness writer based in NYC and fellow distance runner. The two athletes connected via social media and eventually bonded over their shared love for the sport and its global community.


The duo finally met in person during the 2019 New York City Marathon weekend and we were lucky enough to sit in on their post-marathon conversation. They talk about how they found running, what their marathon training looked like and what it means to be a woman in long-distance running.

HUYEN:
How are you post New York City Marathon?

CLAIRE:
I’m good! Tired, of course, but mostly just really happy. The NYCM is basically a 26 mile party through New York. I ended up finding a friend at mile three and we ran together to mile 16. We kept each other calm, chatted and got to take in the crowds together. My watch stopped working about a mile into the race, so I just ignored it and ran for fun. 

HUYEN:
Did you have any negative thoughts during the race? How did you manage that part?

CLAIRE:
The negative thoughts didn’t actually creep in until mile 25, at which point you know you’ve come too far not to finish. 

HUYEN:
I’m so proud of you and you did so well. It was your first marathon! And it’s New York. It’s a crazy course!

CLAIRE:
Thank you! I think that my biggest fear was that I would finish the marathon and never want to run again, but that hasn’t been true at all. Even now I still wake up excited.

HUYEN:
That can take you a long way. Keep that energy in the coming weeks and months.

CLAIRE:
Was that your experience when you ran New York? 

HUYEN:
Well, for my first marathon I put myself under so much unnecessary pressure. But I was in an environment where we would always compare ourselves to one another, so I didn’t really know any better. I mean I crossed the finish line and felt like a super woman, but there was also this kind of internal disappointment.

CLAIRE:
I can understand that. I think as runners we’re all sort of cut from the same cloth. We’re very different, but we do have this one unifying thing — because it takes something to want to push yourself to run a marathon. I think all of us have that drive to really put pressure on and to push ourselves to the limits.

my biggest fear was that I would finish the marathon and never want to run again, but that hasn’t been true at all.

YES, OF COURSE I WANT TO COMPETE, BUT ALSO HOW CAN I BRING 10 MORE WOMEN UP WITH ME?

HUYEN:
It’s hard, in all kinds of sports, I feel like there is this narrative where you have to make a decision: either run with the community or race and focus on your personal goals. But I just don’t see it that way. Yes, of course I want to compete, but also how can I bring 10 more women up with me, you know? How did you become interested in the marathon?

CLAIRE:
I’ve wanted to run a marathon since college. Back then I believed there were people who were cut out for long distance running, and then people like me, who would try but never be able to, because we just don’t have the bodies for it. Somehow I was convinced that I wasn’t a real runner.

HUYEN:
Where did you see people running marathons? In magazines? On TV? 

CLAIRE:
I saw it on social media, on TV, just kind of everywhere. I always really admired female distance runners, but I never thought I would see myself among them. So I told myself, “if I can run a marathon, I can do anything.” My training really picked up when I moved to New York last year and started running with other people — the miles would just go by without me noticing. When you start seeing your friends running marathons, all of a sudden that abstracted figure of the long distance runner starts becoming more and more like a real person, and I thought “maybe I can do it after all.” When did you decide you wanted to run a marathon? 

HUYEN:
I came to New York as an exchange student in 2014 and came to watch the marathon. I was at mile 21, the famous “running crews” cheer zone. You come so close to the runners and I was just in awe: they all looked so strong. Like yes, it’s fucking hard, but you see it in their eyes. Everyone had this determination and perseverance, like they’ve overcome something to be there. Afterwards, I was like: I want to do this. So I signed up for the lottery for the NYC half and the full marathon and in the same year I got into both.

CLAIRE:
Did you train by yourself?

HUYEN:
I started running with a team. When I did my half marathon, the experience was so amazing, but when I trained for the full marathon, I tried to take on too much too soon. I ended up fracturing my shin bone. So by the time I made it to the race in 2016, I was just really happy to be at the starting line healthy. It makes you appreciate your body so much.

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CLAIRE:
I feel like I’ve talked to so many women who have shared similar experiences. I think I had to learn to treat my body like a friend and not a machine before I could run a marathon. I had to learn to eat well and sleep well and know when to push and when to back off.

HUYEN:
We’ve talked about struggling with similar food-related issues. Could you tell me a bit about that? 

CLAIRE:
Yeah, I think it’s really common amongst female athletes. It’s almost impossible not to notice that the women at the top of this sport seem like they’re built differently — they have very long legs and practically no body fat. I would look at them and think, “if I want to run like that, I have to look like that.” Of course I also saw very few Asian women at the top of the sport, so I thought I had to change my body drastically to get better at running. I basically stopped eating anything I deemed a “bad” food, like carbs, under the guise of being “healthy.” And of course my running actually suffered. You can’t run very fast or for very long when your body doesn’t have anything to burn.

HUYEN:
How long was that period?

CLAIRE:
I think it lasted about a year, and then I started seeing an incredible therapist. She helped me see all the compromises I was making and helped me work towards bigger goals. Was that similar to your experience with food and running?

HUYEN:
It was very similar. When I was 17 during my first year abroad, I saw all these women in the fitness magazines and decided I wanted to become more fit and change my eating. I was always calculating how many calories I was burning and consuming. I thought I was just being healthy. Back then, the only eating disorders people talked about were bulimia or anorexia. Now we recognize orthorexia. That lasted about eight months, until I moved back. 

CLAIRE:
Do you remember how you felt in that moment? Were you tired?

HUYEN:
I actually felt like my best physically, and I felt really energized, but I was stressed constantly comparing myself to what I saw around me. As a media scientist, I know it’s all photoshopped, but somehow it still worked on me. Things really improved when I came back to Germany. My undergraduate workload was so intense that I couldn’t really focus on anything else. 

CLAIRE:
Have you noticed a difference in your running since you’ve started eating more holistically? 

HUYEN:
It’s so interesting, now having run the Berlin Marathon again after two years, I feel so much stronger physically. In fact, I am at my heaviest right now, but I didn’t feel any fatigue until mile 25 and I’ve never had that before.


I had to learn to treat my body like a friend and not a machine before I could run a marathon.


NOW I OFTEN THINK ABOUT ALL THE THINGS MY BODY DOES FOR ME.

CLAIRE:
That’s how I felt in New York. I don’t want to say the marathon was easy, because it definitely wasn’t, but I was surprised by how strong I felt throughout. I attribute that in large part to training, but also to the fact that I learned to eat. You expend so much energy when you’re training for and running a marathon. 

HUYEN:
Only last week, my doctor who takes care of the national track and field team reminded me of the female athlete triad, that we as women with low bone density shouldn’t go on fasted runs since our bodies take that energy from our bones, and that we need to take better care of ourselves when we want to perform at a higher level.

CLAIRE:
When I did my yoga teacher training, one woman in the group had just had her first kid and said: “I spent my entire life wishing I looked different, and it wasn’t until I had my son that I realized how grateful I am for this body. I created this wonderful person.” I think the whole room empathized with some part of that story. Now I often think about all the things my body does for me. I ran 26 miles on Sunday. I ran through every single borough in New York. You’ve run marathons in several countries now and you’re building a community to help other women to do the same. How can we hate something that helps us do all that? Now I can’t imagine feeling anything but grateful. 

Written and photographed by Claire Gelbart and Thi Minh Huyen Nguyen

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