How a runner puts his mental health first

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

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

The beginning of his running journey

A year later, Handal moved to Brooklyn and befriended some of the other instructors at Barry’s Bootcamp in New York. “I decided to start running with them because I thought running could be another way for me to find my identity and meet more people,” she says.

Sasha Handal

sashah and thai

Sasha Handal

That’s when her love for running really took off. She joined running group Rage and Release, founded by Thai Richards (pictured above), and began to take her training seriously. She immediately felt more comfortable with the culture than with group fitness classes. “You didn’t have to wear a certain label or fit a certain demographic — you just showed up and ran,” she says.

Then the pandemic hit and Handal found herself fired from her job. “It was really tough mentally,” she says. “I already felt like I didn’t know a lot of people in New York, and now Barry’s was closed, so I didn’t have those people to hang out with.” She began to invest her new free time in running, exploring Brooklyn on foot.

Sashah Handal
“I try to follow Newton’s first law: an object in motion stays in motion,” says Handal.

Sasha Handal

Sashah Handal
“I want a shoe that’s comfortable and I feel confident in — shoes that I can put on my feet, strap them on, and never have to think about them again,” Handal says.

Sasha Handal

Soon after, as the Black Lives Matter movement began to shed light on the many injustices faced by black people and other underrepresented groups around the world, Handal, who is Latina, discovered that many groups runners were running errands in protest. “I realized that these groups were really starting a movement, and as it started in New York, it would spread and change the world, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

She attended her first protest running event in June 2020 and met many other runners, including Jerry François, the founder of the Goldfinger Track Club (GFTC). They quickly became 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 New York City,” she says.

Pick up speed

That winter, for the first time in her life, Handal literally started running. She did two days a day three days a week, as well as long runs on Saturdays. She entered her first race – a half marathon – in December 2020, two weeks before her 32nd birthday. She ran the race in 1:38, finishing first 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,” Handal says.

But when New York businesses started to reopen and she was rehired at Barry, Handal struggled to juggle work, running and social life while going through a breakup. “I realized that 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.

Sashah Handal
“Taking the time to prepare at least one meal at home every day is very important to me,” says Handal.

Sasha Handal

Sashah Handal
“With constant movement, comes an overwhelming need for rest and recovery,” says Handal, who takes her sleep and recovery routines very seriously.

Sasha Handal

Her body was breaking down from overuse, so she started making her runs more intentional and integrating them into an overall program to add more structure and balance to 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 minutes and qualifying in Boston. “I had a little identity crisis that could have broken me, but it actually turned me into this athlete and runner that I never imagined I could be,” Handal says. Next appointment for her: the New York marathon.

Throughout her marathon preparation, she discovered how crucial it was to train more than her body. “A lot of racing is mental,” says Handal. “Mental clarity. Strong minded. Mental games. Mental tests. Mental stagnation. Mental breakthroughs. Running in itself has become a key element in maintaining my sanity. Training for a marathon only amplifies this.

Handal has three main points to remember to prioritize your mental well-being when preparing:

1. Agree to disagree.

“There’s a difference between being lethargic and having low energy,” Handal says. “Some days you’ll realize you just had to get out of your house, and some days you’ll realize you shouldn’t have left your house. But if you’re working out, showing up for your long shopping, that you eat well and that you always go through a day where you don’t do or feel good, don’t worry because that feeling won’t last.

2. Find a running community.

“I spend a lot of time and days cheering, 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 little more motivation, especially those who work from home or spend a lot of time alone, she recommends joining a running group. “You can be so positively affected by being surrounded by a group of people tackling the same daunting task,” she says. “When it comes to race preparation, you think your footwear and nutrition are key, but don’t ignore your community because that can also be a key tool in your training belt.”

3. Surf the highs, but also the lows.

“When you’re training and running races, it gets really tough and really dark at times,” Handal says. “It is a physically exhausting task. There will be ups and downs. Don’t be afraid of the lows, because you need them to appreciate the highs.

Handal ran the New York City Marathon with a time of 3:07:20 and finished 122nd out of 11,349 women.

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