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Why I Decided to Run The NYC Marathon

After recovering from a rare neurological disorder, I wanted to see how far my body could take me.

An older man in glasses with a scruffy beard stands exhausted holding a medal a gold medal in his right hand. He is wearing a running outfit with a marathon number attached to his shirt.
Photo credit: Courtesy of Sven Gierlinger
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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I’ll never forget what was going through my mind as I neared the end of my first marathon last year. Running those last exhilarating miles of the New York City Marathon through Central Park while being cheered on by throngs of spectators, my mind flashed back to 17 years ago, when I couldn’t even take one step.

I was 29 and married with two young children when I developed Guillain-Barre syndrome, a rare neurological disorder in which the body’s immune system attacks the nerves. It started one day as some minor numbness in my fingers and toes and weakness in my legs. A week later, I couldn’t walk anymore. Very soon I was lying in the ICU, paralyzed from head to toe.

It happened fast, as Guillain-Barre does, and there was no time to prepare for what was to come. But I’m an optimist, so I naturally assumed my experience would be a best-case scenario. After all, my wife and I had two young children—one was still nursing and the other was in the throes of potty training. And we had just closed on our new house and begun preparations for the move. But my expectations turned out to be unrealistic as I grew weaker, eventually needing a feeding tube and respirator to help me breathe. One night at the hospital, my lungs began to fill up with fluid. I tried to touch my chin to the hypersensitive call button to alert a nurse, but I somehow loosened the tape that secured the button to my shoulder and it fell to the floor. I thought that night I would die—drowned from fluid in my lungs in my hospital bed. Thankfully, a maintenance worker passed by my room and called for help. That was my darkest moment. But being optimistic, I knew it could only get better from there.

A man with a black cap smiles at the camera as he sits in a wheelchair. He is holding a smiling baby on his lap.
This is me with my youngest daughter, Zoe. She was 9 months old when I was released from the hospital, still in a wheelchair. My hands were folded over her body because I still couldn’t move them. | Photo credit: Courtesy of Sven Gierlinger

I was in the hospital for three months. Once I could breathe on my own, I had to go through intensive physical therapy to regain my strength. It was a surreal experience because I would look at my body and will it to move, but it wouldn’t. At the beginning, my therapy consisted of the therapists simply sitting me up. But even sitting without total support, I’d fall over like a sack of potatoes. Eventually, with lots of hard work and the support of the wonderful staff, I was slowly able to sit, then stand, and eventually walk all on my own. It took about a year for me to regain full motor function.

So that day running the marathon, I couldn’t help but remember how helpless and scared I felt lying in that hospital bed, unable to move and dreaming of being able to take a few steps. Seventeen years later, I was looking down at those same legs as they carried me across the finish line. It was an incredibly emotional experience—just one of the many I’ve had since I began running.

How I started running

The journey to my first marathon began about two years ago, at the age of 45, after a trip home to visit my dad in Germany. He wound up in the hospital during our visit due to a complication from type 2 diabetes. It occurred to me right then and there that the man did not have good eating habits and had never exercised a day in his life. That’s when I realized: I don’t want to end up in the hospital at 80. I want to live to a healthy 100. I immediately committed to a healthier lifestyle. I was already watching carefully what I ate, so I decided to take up running.

At first, I couldn’t even do a mile. Those first few days, I would walk half a mile, run half a mile, and then walk half a mile again. I found that I really liked it, so I increased my distance. A few weeks later on a Saturday morning, I ran three miles. I came home and said to my wife, “I just ran a 5k!”

I was hooked. Every week, I’d increase my distance a little bit until I was doing 8 miles at a stretch. At that point, I decided to step up my game and signed up for my first half marathon, which was an exciting experience. Once I started running longer distances regularly, I realized that the act of running was almost more important for my brain than for my body. I understood what was meant by the "runner’s high.” 

Running the marathon was the most exhilarating communal and motivating experience I’ve ever had. I recommend it to anyone who has toyed with the idea. I’m now training for this year’s race. As I prepare, I think about the things I learned along the way and I have a few tips to share:

Fix what ails you

Like a lot of runners, I developed injuries during my marathon training—first knee pain and later, tendonitis in my ankle—and physical therapy was really the game changer for me. If it hadn’t been for Lisa and Judy, my skillful and patient physical therapists, I might have given up. Remember, there’s no prize for being a martyr. Don’t wait until you’re in agony. Let the experts help you so you can keep doing your thing.

Find a running buddy

Lots of people like to run with a friend. Mine is Josie, our black Lab. She will run up to 13 miles with me—that’s a half marathon!--and as soon as we get home, she’s still up for playing ball. Josie motivates me because she gets so excited as soon as I put my sneakers on. And if it’s raining and I’m tempted to skip my run, she’ll start running circles around me to get me to go.

“It was a surreal experience because I would look at my body and will it to move, but it wouldn’t. ”
Sven Gierlinger, Guillain-Barre survivor & marathon runner
 A man kneels on the front porch of his home in jogging gear as his black dog poses for the photo next to him as well.
Me and my running buddy | Photo credit: Courtesy of Sven Gierlinger

Try a running app

I use an app on my phone that sets up a running schedule for me. I enter the day of the marathon and the app calculates how much I should run each day to prepare. I love the Map My Run app. It has a record of every run I’ve done since I started. It creates a plan for me and stores my music, tells me the weather, helps me with intervals and even gives me shoe mileage.

Run for a cause

When you run a marathon as part of a fundraiser, it gives your run even more purpose and meaning. Plus, your friends and family are donating to your cause, so you don’t want to let them down! When I signed up for Team Northwell during my first marathon, I raised $4,500 for neurological research. If you’re going to run, you may as well benefit other people while you do it.

Don’t be shy

The New York City Marathon is the largest in the world, with more than 50,000 runners—the crowds of spectators in all of the different neighborhoods you run through are so energizing.

For my first marathon, a friend had recommended that I put my name on my shirt so people could cheer for me.

An elderly man in blue cap, glasses, white running shirt, and neon green running shorts is jogging down a street while listening to music as a crowd watches from the sidewalk behind fences.
Running my first marathon at age 46 | Photo credit: Courtesy of Sven Gierlinger

So when I needed a little boost, I would just run closer to the sides. People would high-five me and yell out my name. Folks were giving me paper towels to wipe my glasses, and bananas and water. And I knew where friends and family were going to be watching, so I was able to pull over for some quick hugs.

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Published October 30th, 2018
A young woman with dark curly hair is using mobile phone. Female is smiling while holding smart phone. She is lying on sofa at home.

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