Brittany O'Neill felt like a total rockstar when she finished the New York City Marathon in 2014. “I had the time of my life,” O'Neill tells SELF. After a few years of becoming a runner, putting in hundreds of miles, training, getting injured, and a whole lot of soul-searching, O'Neill had finally accomplished the ultimate goal she set for herself. And, much to her surprise, she walked away with a lot more than a finisher’s medal.
The new Amazon Studios movie Brittany Runs a Marathon is based off O'Neill’s journey from a 20-something woman living in New York City and stuck in a rut, personally and professionally, to a marathon finisher with a newfound understanding of what she can accomplish when she sets her mind to something. In the movie, Brittany decides to give running a shot after her doctor tells her to get active—and after she learns how expensive gyms are in New York City. At first, as any new runner can attest, running feels intensely challenging, since you’re using your body in a completely different way than it’s used to and it takes time for it to adapt. We watch Brittany experience this, get discouraged, and then stick with it through the ups and downs. As the title suggests, she ultimately runs a marathon.
That’s the gist of it, but the movie is so much more—it’s essentially one woman’s journey to self acceptance, and we’re rooting for her the whole way.
Of course, O'Neill didn’t just go from running two miles to tackling a marathon in the timespan of one hour 43 minutes. And while there are a lot of similarities between movie-Brittany and IRL-Brittany, there are also some differences. So, we chatted with O'Neill to get some more details on her experience running for the first time, becoming a marathoner, and what it’s like to have a movie made based off her story. Here’s what she had to say.
The following interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.
SELF: Starting to run can be rough—I’ve been there. How did you get yourself to stick with it when it felt really hard?
O'Neill: The very first run that I went on was after Paul [Colaizzo, the film director and O'Neill’s good friend] and I had a lot of conversations about me taking control of my life. I set a goal of two miles; I did it in a gym on a treadmill because I felt too uncomfortable running outside. I completed the two miles, but it felt awful. But because there are a lot of beginner gains, it was so satisfying [to stick with it]. I would go for a run and the very next time I could go for a little longer or a little faster or notice my breath was flowing a little bit easier. So every single time I ran felt like I was doing something more and more, and so that direct, positive feedback is what encouraged me to keep going.
SELF: What made you decide to run a marathon? A lot of runners never make that leap.
O'Neill: My very first race was the Salsa, Blues, and Shamrocks 5K in Washington Heights. I did it with some colleagues of mine. It was sort of like a big party and it finished in a bar. And it opened my eyes to the fact that you can feel joyous and not be focused on getting a specific time. It was just a really fun occasion where people came out with funny signs and cowbells and had dance parties while running, so that got me a little bit addicted to running races. I joined NYRR [New York Road Runners, which organizes many races and running groups in New York City], and at the time I was in graduate school at Columbia University, so I was living on the Upper West side and most races were in Central Park so pretty much every weekend I’d sign up for some kind of race.
I was doing the Central Park loop pretty often. Once I hit my stride, I would just do the loop every day. One day, after one loop, I passed the part where I usually get off and was like, ‘I’m doing the loop again.’ That was not a good, gradual increase, so I don’t recommend it. But after that, I was like, ‘I can do a half-marathon, that’s almost a half marathon.’ So I did a couple half-marathons and it was really difficult and hard to finish, but didn’t feel impossible. And suddenly I started to realize that running a marathon wasn’t a foreign, distant thing anymore, it was something I could do that was within reach. So I just committed to it. I arbitrarily decided I needed to run a marathon and that would be the ultimate indication of success. I just had something to prove to myself.
SELF: What type of training plan did you follow?
O'Neill: In almost everything in life, I’m extremely thorough, so I read a number of books. The first time I trained, in 2012, I stuck to the plan no matter how I felt, and I am fully convinced that’s what led to my injury. When I started again [when training for the 2014 marathon], I was working out about 12 hours a week. I followed a training plan where you can always adjust and if you do, you adjust down and not up. So on any given day, if you’re supposed to run 12 miles and not feeling it, then don’t. Do cross-training or something. And you don’t have to make up for the miles later. It’s just actively listening to your body. It was hard to do that and not obsess over missing a day but I found my own system. I also did a lot of cross-training and resistance training and a lot of injury prevention—it was an active effort to constantly make sure I was doing it in the healthiest way possible.
SELF: Let’s talk injury. You got injured a few weeks before your first marathon attempt. What was it like, finding out after all your training that you couldn’t run?
O'Neill: I had run the Brooklyn Half and felt a tweak in my ankle but didn’t realize it was a full-blown injury that would knock me out of the marathon that year. It wasn’t long after that I realized—it hurt walking down the stairs. I had to get surgery, which was a whole other thing. When you finally learn to define yourself by how far you can run and then you can’t run, what’s that like? It took me awhile to come to terms with not being able to run. In physical therapy I’d be like, ‘OK, so do you think I can?’ And my physical therapist would be like, ‘I don’t know…’ And it got to a point where she was like ‘You’re just not going to be able to.’ This was in 2012 and I deferred, and then Superstorm Sandy hit, so they canceled the marathon. Because Sandy hit, I was able to postpone two years instead of one, which is the only reason I was able to run in 2014. I needed time to recover from surgery.
SELF: Where did you normally run when you trained?
O'Neill: I joined North Brooklyn Runners in Williamsburg and they held Sunday long runs; I was a run leader for a little while. We’d go over the Williamsburg Bridge, up the East River, and back over 59th St Bridge, through Queens, and over the Pulaski. That I just loved, it made you feel like you owned the city. It’s just thrilling. Another run I did often was running from McCarren Park to the carousel in Dumbo, around the corner to Brooklyn Bridge Park, and down the pier to Columbia Street. Sometimes I’d run all the way past to Ikea in Red Hook and come back.
SELF: What has your relationship with running been like since? Is there another marathon in your future?
O'Neill: I haven’t run a marathon since and I probably never will. I wish. The day after, I was ready to sign up for a 30k or 40k coming up, I was like, ‘I’m already trained for it! I do this now, now I run marathons.’ But it was a miracle I was able to do one without getting injured. I don’t think it would be possible again. I have tendonitis in my foot and ankle so I can’t do much anymore, if I do more than four miles at a time I really feel it. I’d rather run short distances for the rest of my life than long distances for a shorter time.
Now, when I travel, it’s my favorite way to get to know a new city or place. Running is a nice way to explore in a nice quiet private way that’s not quite as touristy.
SELF: What advice do you have for beginners training for a race?
O'Neill: Reading books on technique was extremely helpful for me. Also, make sure running isn’t all you do. I found resistance training really important [in my own training]. In general, know that failing at times doesn’t mean you’re doing it wrong or you’re bad at it, it’s just part of trying something new. That tends to be the hardest thing that makes people feel like they don’t belong or are not meant to do this but that’s not true. Be open to the fact that failure happens on the path to success and not instead of success.
SELF: Is there anything you did to feel inspired on tough days when training felt particularly grueling?
O'Neill: Honestly, when I hit those moments, the negative self-talk really kicked in. It took me a long time to get good at getting rid of those thoughts—getting myself out of feeling negative has definitely been a journey. My close friends and relationships have been good anchors and reminders that no one loves you because you just ran a 10k. If you didn’t do it because you are injured and not meant to, that’s fine too. I know it feels like everyone is going to be disappointed, and you might feel like you’re a failure, but no one else really notices. They’re just happy you’re setting goals and going after them. Friends who want the best for you and value you are really crucial.
SELF: What were the most challenging and most rewarding parts of training?
O'Neill: My least favorite parts were finding the right clothes and discovering clothes weren’t right because of chafing. A few times I did 18-20 miles and felt fine when I was doing it...and then you get in the shower and you’re like, “Oh my god.” That is by far my least favorite part. The best part is the feeling. Runner’s high is no joke and being able to just run outside and feel the wind and sometimes running with a buddy and being able to chat for a few hours and even afterward, the rest of the day would have this elevated mist to it.
SELF: Can you describe how it felt to finally finish the marathon?
O'Neill: It was incredible. And I finished in just under four hours, I’m proud to say. I felt like a rockstar for four hours. I had my name written on my tank, and the crowd was six people deep, people screaming my name. Paul asked for a photo of me struggling in the marathon [to promote with the movie], and I went through photos and I am grinning in every single one. I was smiling the whole way, I had the time of my life. Paul and his fiancé and my husband went to three different points along the marathon to cheer me on, so finishing was incredible and I was so proud of my training. I didn’t ever hit the wall. I even had a final extra kick at the end, I was able to increase my speed. I was so excited that I had a good time in addition to finishing. Afterward, it was a super cold windy day, a little drizzly. All I wanted was sweats and to sit down but you have to walk a mile to get out of the finish line, it’s awful. We went to 16 Handles to get too much ice cream. When I got home I was so ready to eat two pizzas and then I was just too tired to eat. I’ve never experienced that before.
SELF: How involved were you in the script writing, casting, and production process for the movie?
O'Neill: Paul and I met in college when we were both working in theater, so I was such a fan of his writing and had read almost every draft of everything he was working on and gave feedback, and it just happened to be that one of the things he was working on was this. I know how often movies can come and go and maybe they get made maybe they don’t, and even if they get made, maybe they never see the light of day. It never hit me that he was writing this and people were going to see it. It was like, ‘Oh, how sweet that my friend did this,’ and we kept inspiring each other throughout the process. I never had official involvement but just as a friend, and I read everything he wrote anyway. We were really close and he wanted to make sure he was protecting me and I was on board and behind it the whole time. And I was thrilled when it turned out to be Jillian [Bell] playing me.
SELF: What was it like to watch Brittany Runs a Marathon for the first time?
O'Neill: Paul made me come over and he watched me watch it. I obviously cried. I was so moved, for so many reasons. He’s my best friend and this was the first feature film he created. And he had been a big part of my transformation, and I have impacted his life. So many events are different [in the movie], but the emotional journey and tension between self-improvement and self-acceptance was dead on and I felt he portrayed it in a way that teaches me more about myself every time I watch it. I’m just so proud and touched.
Brittany Runs a Marathon is now playing in select theaters, everywhere on 9/13.
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