My Doctors Told Me I'd Never Run Again. Then I Finished the Boston Marathon.

One of my fiercest rivals growing up was running. I was the antithesis of athletic and nothing distressed me more than mandatory miles at school.

But just over a decade ago, a friend convinced me to sign up for a race, and I caught the running bug. Soon I found myself casually running 5Ks and the occasional 10K. In 2016, I threw my name into the TCS New York City Marathon lottery, half-hoping I wouldn't score a spot. But I did, and before I knew it, I was a three-time NYC marathoner, having not only crossed the finish line in 2016, but also in 2017 and 2020 (although the finish line that year was symbolic, since the pandemic meant the race was held virtually).

Even so, my relationship to running was complex, both emotionally and physically. I never exactly liked the actual act of running. And it was never easy for me, since knee, foot, and leg issues of every kind plagued me throughout every training. Yet there was something about the thrill of racing — or maybe it was crossing finish lines — that kept me going.

While training for the United NYC Half in 2021, however, a different level of pain set in: a nagging ache on my inner left ankle, heated and sharp at times. With COVID-19 still very much present in our lives, the race was virtual that year. By the time I'd crossed the 13.1-mile marker on my self-created race route, I could barely walk.

I went to my physician, then physical therapists, podiatrists, and orthopedic surgeons (yes, multiples of each!). After a series of X-rays and an MRI, they all concurred: pounding the pavement with my extreme flatfootedness had caused posterior tibial tendonitis, a breakdown of the tendon stretching from below the foot and up the inner ankle — and I was lucky that the condition had just stopped short of my tendon snapping.

They said that it was a matter of time before an intensive surgery was required, so the only solution was to slow the progression. One podiatrist told me to throw away all the shoes in my closet; I needed aggressive arch support and would be confined to sneakers wide enough to fit custom orthotics from then on. She added that l had basically had a set number of steps left in my feet and to plan my bucket list trips right away, even with the pain, since after surgery I wouldn't be the same. Not an easy prognosis to hear for a travel journalist.

And the one thing every single doctor emphasized the loudest: no more running.

Defeated, I accepted my fate, adjusting to life in sneakers and arch-boosting orthotics. I dabbled in fitness alternatives, like spinning and swimming. Now and then, I'd cheat and run a short race. But for the greater part of 2.5 years, every step I took hurt. I learned to live with the pain, which remained a daily reminder of the doctors' warnings.

Yet somewhere in the back of my mind, I hadn't quite given up on running.

Then, at the beginning of this year, I received an invite through Westin Hotels & Resorts to run the 2024 Boston Marathon.

I chuckled. Boston is famously the ultimate runner's marathon, the world's oldest annual marathon and the most well-known of the six Abbott World Marathon Majors. In real life, even without this injury, I'd never qualify. Even if I somehow got in, surely I couldn't run alongside those high-level marathoners on the notoriously hilly course.

But here I was, with the opportunity thousands of runners would clamor for in my hands. And suddenly, I knew I'd sign up. While my perspective wasn't necessarily the healthiest, I reasoned to myself that I'd need foot surgery at some point in my life anyway. So worst case, after attempting to run Boston, I'd need it sooner — but at least I'd know I'd tried. Still, I kept my entry quiet, in case I had to drop out.

Westin set me up with a run coach, the brand's Global Run Concierge Chris Heuisler. With a bit of apprehension, I told him about my prognosis. But instead of seeing it as a roadblock, he told me to think about the marathon journey like I would a travel adventure. He reminded me that you just don't know what you'll face until you get to each point, so the only thing to do is to take it moment by moment. Throughout the weeks, I articulated every concern, from frustration with gear to lackluster runs, and of course, every bout of pain. But he had this magically emphatic way of shifting my mindset every time.

Heuisler also introduced me to the Jeff Galloway run-walk method. I'd always been a run-walker, but I'd always gone off feel rather than stick to a formal plan. Under the Galloway method, I ran for one minute, then walked for 30 seconds. This gave my foot the relief it needed from the sustained concrete pounding, but provided a steady pace.

During the early weeks of training, I put off finding a physical therapist, for fear of hearing — yet again — that I shouldn't run. But after hitting double-digit mileage, the dull pains were starting to get sharper at times, and I knew my self-curated massage sessions weren't working as proper recovery anymore.

I specifically looked for a physical therapist that was sports-focused and landed upon Pursue Physical Therapy & Performance Training in my hometown of Hoboken. I shared my entire medical history with Michael De La Cruz, PT, DPT, CNMT, COMT, CSCS, slightly embarrassed I was even considering a marathon in my condition and worried about what his reaction would be. But from the first visit, there was never any doubt in his mind that I was going to finish that race. With every progressing biweekly visit, I started to believe I could too.

By asking me to tune more deeply into how my body felt, he and his team helped uncover something that completely changed my training journey. During one visit, I made an off-the-cuff comment that sometimes my big toe feels like dead weight. From that one little clue, he began to suspect that my foot had grown accustomed to my orthotics and the muscles in the toe and my foot arch had atrophied, causing them to become limp.

After a few weeks of physical therapy aimed at restrengthening these muscles, my previously constant tendon pain was barely there. Unbelievably, as race day approached, the tendonitis was hardly a thought. Now, I had one goal: cross the finish line, even if it was dark and everyone had gone home. Realistically, based on my training times, I wouldn't make it within the six-hour time limit — if I made it at all. But I wanted to finish for myself.

On race morning, I soaked in every moment of the adventure. Marathoners often say the accomplishment is making it through training to the start line, so I tried to embody that spirit.

I was toward the back of the final wave. As I inched toward the start, things started to go awry. My Strava tracking app I relied on wouldn't start, so I stepped aside before the start line to try to fix it. When I looked up again, it looked like every other person had started the marathon.

In a panic, I sprinted across the start line. My running tights started to slip off since I had loaded the back pocket with extra energy gel packets last minute. With one hand holding my pants up and the other fussing with my phone, I was one of the last people to cross the start line of the 2024 Boston Marathon. (Ironically, start times had quite an impact on others, as the six-hour time limit begins when the last runner starts, a point of controversy this year.)

Flustered beyond belief, I troubleshooted on the go, tying up the elastic band on my pants and ditching the tracking and run-walk cues, and just ran.

I quickly learned that there's a special brand of spectator fervor along the 26.2 miles of the marathon route from Hopkinton, Massachusetts, back to Boston. Despite being in the last group, there wasn't a single patch throughout all the small towns that was silent.

Sticking to my run-walking as much as I could, the miles flew by. Then out of nowhere, muscles I hadn't thought about — above the insides of my knees — locked up. Every movement hurt. I made my way to the next medical tent. There was a wait, so I kept going, in agony with each step.

By the time I ran into Heuisler and the Westin crew waiting for me past Mile 21, I had chipmunk cheeks filled with ice I had taken from strangers to try to numb everything. I found myself screaming that the pain was "debilitating."

While there's nothing wrong with dropping out of a race for any reason, and people should prioritize their health over a need to finish at any cost, Coach Chris had guided me through 18 weeks of training; he knew me and my abilities, and in this situation, he knew exactly what to say.

He reminded me that everyone was in pain on these intense hills on this hotter-than-expected day. And most importantly, he reassured me, "You are going to finish."

With those words, something clicked. I realized how much of a group project this was. Marathoning might feel like a solo endeavor, since it was my number on the bib. But so many people had poured so much of their heart into supporting me, knowing I could get this done. Powering through wasn't just for me, it was for all of my friends and support team, and all of our impossible dreams too. Plus it didn't hurt that I had snagged an impossible reservation at my favorite Boston restaurant, the rooftop Contessa in The Newbury — just a few hours from now I could be enjoying my beloved squash carpaccio.

So I forged ahead. My head was in a different place, knowing that if I just held steady, I would become a Boston Marathon finisher.

Barely holding on, I made the famous last turns — right on Hereford and left on Boylston — saw the finish line, and burst into a sprint. Chills ran through my spine as I took that finish step across the finish, a defiant act of rebellion, especially against that throw-your-shoes-away podiatrist. I had completed the Boston Marathon fair and square, and with nearly a half hour to spare, in 5 hours, 30 minutes and 27 seconds — and never once did that left foot bother me.

Now, several months later, I'm still relatively pain-free. I'm continuing PT and gaining a better understanding of my body and how pain manifests, and I grow stronger with every appointment.

Instead of accelerating my progression toward surgery, running a full marathon led me on a journey to find both a physical therapist and run coach who I credit with curing me of what had been a lifetime sentence of pain.

Of course, I know I took a huge risk. I went into my training understanding that I was potentially prioritizing my desire to have a once-in-a-lifetime experience over my long-term well-being. I absolutely believe that everyone should listen to medical expertise and advice.

But at the same time, if something feels off, we're the only ones who can keep advocating for ourselves until we find the right team of people who will work with us and find a solution-oriented treatment, one that takes into account quality of life.

The funny thing is, I still don't exactly "like" to run. But now that a marathon helped me live life pain-free again, sometimes I find myself dreaming of more marathon medals in my future.

Rachel Chang is a travel and pop culture journalist and a magazine editor (Us Weekly senior editor, J-14 editor in chief, CosmoGIRL! entertainment editor) turned freelance writer. She's a regular contributor to Condé Nast Traveler and Travel + Leisure, and has written for PS, New York Times for Kids, Wall Street Journal, Lonely Planet, and United's Hemispheres, among others.