How Small Goals Led to a Big Marathon Achievement

Dr. Sonia Tolani, a sports cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia, never thought of herself as an athlete until she chose to jump-start her fitness by taking small steps that ultimately led her to the finish line of the New York City Marathon.

For Dr. Sonia Tolani, a sports cardiologist at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center, the New York City Marathon has always been one of the most inspirational days of the year. “I always cry when I watch the marathon,” she says. “It’s overwhelming to me emotionally, and I really wanted to be a part of that.”

Not too long ago, even running a half a mile felt daunting to her, but she decided to just get moving, setting small goals. She started building on simple fitness routines, adding a set of abs to stretches, going out for slow but steady runs. The result: on Sunday, November 5, Dr. Tolani joined the pack she had long cheered for, navigating 26.2 miles through New York City’s boroughs, and crossing the finish line of her very first marathon. “I looked at the marathon as an opportunity to push myself to try something new, and also to force myself to get my fitness in check and be accountable for doing that,” she says.

Dr. Tolani’s fitness inspiration came in part from her patients, after observing how exercise improved their health and longevity as they got older. “A light went off for me that I need to practice what I preach,” she says.

As a mother of two young children and a physician, it wasn’t always easy to find the time or motivation to prioritize fitness. In the past, she struggled to maintain a consistent routine when she signed up for gyms and exercises classes. The commitment felt hard to fulfill despite knowing the health benefits of exercise. So she picked up running because it was accessible and something she could easily fit into a busy schedule. Soon, the miles began building up. “Making exercise a regular part of your day is such an important part of your longevity, long-term fitness, and heart health,” she says. “It’s also important for your bones and for muscle strength as you get older and for keeping your brain healthy.”

She learned that taking a single step, no matter how small, can be the key to finding fitness.

Dr. Sonia Tolani

“Don’t wait to be perfect,” she says. “There’s never going to be a time where life miraculously slows down and you’re going to be able to join the gym and do all the classes the way you want. Just start doing it.”

Her advice: “Something is better than nothing. Do just ten minutes of jumping jacks, or dance around to music for three songs. Get yourself sweaty and a little breathless. Your heart is seeing that.”

This year, Dr. Tolani has carved out some additional time in her schedule to marathon-train by cutting back on TV-watching at night to go to bed early and get up before work to squeeze miles in. She sometimes runs home to Brooklyn from her office in the city. Instead of dinners with friends, she often suggests going for a run together. “The main reason a lot of us like to go out with our friends is to chat and catch up. If that can be done with exercise, then you go home feeling great because you caught up, but you also did your exercise,” she says. She and her friends are even on a text chain where they encourage each other to do squats and other “exercise snacks.”

“As I kept progressing through the training plan, I started believing in myself a little bit more. I think I have surprised myself about how motivated I could be,” she says.  Throughout her training and some injuries that she experienced along the way, she kept coming back to the reasons this goal was so important to her – what she calls her ‘why.’ “I kept finding new ‘why’s as I was training. My ‘why’ is showing my kids that I can still do something amazing. My ‘why’ is becoming stronger and fitter – I’m more in shape than I’ve ever been in my life.”

Dr. Tolani is grateful for her support system of her family, friends, and physical therapist, who helped make her marathon dream come true on Sunday.

With her family and friends cheering her along the route on the sunny, unseasonably warm race day, Dr. Tolani journeyed through the city’s boroughs with roughly 50,000 other runners. When her legs hurt in the final miles, she saw a sign that buoyed her: “When your legs hurt, run with your heart.”

“I do feel proud,” Dr. Tolani says a few minutes after crossing the finish line. “I never thought in a million years I would ever run a marathon. Just running it alone is a pretty big accomplishment for me.”

“I am overjoyed to get to be a part of it,” she says.

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