When Dani Surliuga decided to enter the lottery to run the 2016 New York City Half Marathon as an incentive to start running again, she never imagined she would actually win a coveted spot to run in the race.
At age 27, Dani’s exercise routine had been in a rut for awhile, and getting into this race should have — theoretically — sparked her desire to get back on track, but she found herself at a loss for how to train. She Googled training programs to get her on course, but she still didn’t feel much like running at all, much less training for a half marathon.
“I decided to just prepare myself doing whatever cardio I could,” she says. “My longest run up to then had been a mere six miles. On a treadmill. With no incline.”
She’d had five months to train and was, at this point, convinced she’d have to walk for much of the race. “But I was going for the experience, and that was that,” she says.
Surliuga had always been into exercising for fun, since her childhood in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. She went to college in Canada, then settled in the U.S. in 2012. Now based in Austin, Surliuga became a MyFitnessPal “power user” in early 2016 when she began tracking her macros.
“[The app] is an accountability tool but, in the end, I’m accountable to no one but myself, so it’s sort of empowering,” she says. According to Surliuga, the results “came at a slow pace,” but she continued to be consistent and trust the process.
Despite her cardio training and dedication to her nutrition over the five months leading up to race day, Surliuga still felt hugely unprepared.
“When I got to the check-in point, as the pro runner I wasn’t, someone noticed that I had pinned my number on my back — and I quickly learned that this was a rookie mistake,” Surliuga says, recalling the events of race morning. “Numbers have to be pinned to the front of your shirt so you can be tagged in your photos.”
Since Surliuga was running solo, she asked a fellow runner to un-pin the number from her back. That runner’s name was Melanie, a total stranger who would eventually become a lifelong friend. As the two started talking, Surliuga learned that this was also Melanie’s first race, and that she and her fiancé had flown to New York from Australia just for this race. As they chatted excitedly before the race began, they agreed to run together.
“As soon as I agreed to run with Melanie, I realized it was probably the dumbest decision I’ve ever made,” Surliuga admits. “I hadn’t trained at all, I don’t run well with other people and I was terrified I couldn’t complete the 13.1 miles.”
Surliuga quickly made Melanie promise she would leave her behind if Surliuga couldn’t keep up the pace.
“We kicked off the race, running at the exact same pace and, to my surprise, we kept that pace for most of the race,” says Surliuga. During the race, she and Melanie told each other their life stories, mostly as a form of distraction from their nerves, and each kept reinforcing to the other they could take a break at any time.
“Suddenly, we found ourselves at mile 8 with no signs of fatigue, and that’s when we decided we were going to run until the end — no walking,” she says. “Together we could do it.”
But when they encountered a big hill at mile 10, Melanie started flagging. She told Surliuga that she might need to stop, but Surliuga knew they were close to the finish and attempted to motivate Melanie to push to the end. She pulled out her best pep talk, and they both powered through that hill and the next 3 miles, making it to the finish line together, in two hours and 15 minutes.
With two firsts under their belts and a newfound friendship, the women exchanged contact information and eventually went their separate ways. Although they live thousands of miles and a couple of oceans away from each other, they still keep in touch. Surliuga looks back fondly on her first half marathon and remembers the race with Melanie as a life-changing experience that showed the power of two strangers helping each other achieve their goals.
Written by Kim Westerman, a freelance travel, food, coffee and wine writer and a longtime writing teacher with an interest in mindfulness and contemplative studies. She lives with her wife and two young children in Berkeley, California.