The Trauma That Nearly Kept Me From Qualifying For The Boston Marathon

Qualifying for the Boston Marathon took more than just running.

Woman training for Boston marathon, running from trauma Pixfly, aga7ta | Canva

I started running because it kept me from crying. I was 11 years old and my oldest sister, who was also my best friend, had been diagnosed with leukemia. I was scared she was going to die, and I had nowhere to go with my fears. One summer day a few months after her diagnosis, I started walking toward the dirt road that ran past our house and my legs kept moving, faster and faster, until I was running down the road away from our farm.


I ran two miles that day — the most liberating two miles of my life. I found a salve for my wounds that no one could take away. The power of movement and physical exertion with the wind at my back and the sun on my face was an exhilarating freedom. Running became my sacred space and where I went to make sense of the world. It was both therapy and an escape — the antidote to my pain and where I could go to feel whole and powerful. 

My sister survived, and I kept running, eventually tackling my first marathon as part of the Leukemia Society’s Team in Training program. It felt like a fitting tribute to my sister and her survival. 


At that race, I learned about the prestige of running in the Boston Marathon and what it took to qualify. I began studying qualifying times and secretly wishing I could join the ranks of Boston runners. The year was 1998, and I was 24 years old.

I didn’t run another marathon for a few years but shaved 15 minutes off my time. It was still far from the Boston requirement. I trained for a few more races, but could never quite make the cut-off time, or I’d get injured before even making it to the start line. I came close in 2013 and ran the same course in 2018 thinking familiarity with the course would help. I ran even slower. Boston felt like the holy grail I’d never find. I chalked up my failures to some physical capacity that I lacked. I just wasn’t fast enough. Period.

In 2022, at 48 years old, I couldn’t push the dream away and impulsively signed up to run the same course again. The third time is the charm, right? As I researched training plans, my stomach tightened, and I wished I could delete the registration form. I was scared. Terrified. I nearly had a panic attack imagining myself running 26.2 miles at a pace I’d never been able to sustain. I pictured pain and suffering. I felt like I was drowning or choking. I couldn’t breathe. It seemed like an irrational response and made no sense to me.


What I now know is that reaction was a flashback to a traumatic night in high school when I froze and held my breath as searing pain shot through my body. The trauma of the attack sent my body into survival mode, and my fight was not enough to make him stop so I froze. 

After that experience, my body learned to shut down when it experienced pain. I had spent years in therapy working through the psychological effects of that night and believed I was healed of its wounds. I didn’t realize the scab was still open at a physical level.

Pushing myself to run faster than I thought I could was an intentional leap into the pain — the physical pain that triggered my body to shut down, hold my breath, and freeze. I wasn’t sure what would happen if I ran into the pain, and the thought terrified me. In all my athletic pursuits, I had pushed to the threshold just before the trigger. I could run hard, but I would hit an invisible wall, and I stopped or slowed down. I had no control it seemed. My body did what it had been doing for years. Avoiding. Stopping just in time. Freezing.

What would happen if I dared wake the pain gods and deliberately walked into that fire? What would happen if I told my body I was going to make it hurt? It felt like the ultimate betrayal. I’d been protecting myself for years believing I was the only one who could keep me safe. 


And I was telling my 17-year-old self that I would break that rule. I was going to intentionally make her hurt. After realizing the source of my fear, I comforted my frightened, frozen teenage self that I would keep her safe. But the question remained. Could I inflict pain and not freeze? Could I push and not give up? Could I get beyond my mind games and pattern of settling for second best or close enough? Could I do it?

RELATED: Running For 12 Hours Straight Taught Me Real Confidence

Qualifying took more than just running. Running 26.2 miles was not the only skill I needed if I was going to qualify for the Boston Marathon. I needed to figure out how to push through the panic of not being able to breathe when I found myself out of my comfort zone. I needed to stop the automatic shutdown that the pain triggered.

Learning to breathe


A few months before I signed up for the marathon, I listened to Wim Hof teach a one-and-a-half-minute breath-hold practice. I could barely last 45 seconds without squirming and wanting to jump out of my skin. When I realized my irrational fear of not being able to breathe, I recalled this session and wondered if I could learn to hold my breath, would it help overcome my fear? I remembered him extolling the benefits of the practice and its positive impacts on athletic performance, so I decided to give it another try. I began listening to the session every day.

The first week was torture. I could not relax or trust I wouldn’t just suffocate right there in my bed. It took nearly a month before I could calm myself enough to comfortably hold my breath without freaking out. My body’s automatic response fought me every step of the way. Holding my breath meant I was in danger. I wanted to fight.

In the process, I realized I breathed very shallow breaths. My belly did not move like the meditation teachers described, or it seemed to move in the opposite direction. My belly would contract on the inhale and expand on the exhale. I started focusing on my belly and making sure it was moving in and out with the inhales and exhales.

@yourpositivehealth Wim Hoff demonstrates simple and effective breathing technique#breathingtechniques ♬ original sound - Your Positive Health

One, two, three, four…I would count my breaths on long runs, feeling my stomach moving in and out, catching myself when my belly expanded on the exhales. I had to concentrate on pulling my abdomen in as I breathed out. It felt like I was learning how to breathe for the first time.


RELATED: The Quick Breathing Technique That Can Make You Feel Superhuman

Listening to my body

Breathing was one thing, but I needed to run faster. Having never run competitively, I had no experience with speed workouts or hill repeats. I’d do random sprints or occasionally run some of the hills on my route, but I never followed a set workout. I knew I needed to add specific speed and pace targets to my plan, but I didn’t think I could meet them. They were well beyond my usual pace. I permitted myself to go into learning mode. I set a goal for each run, essentially a “let’s see what happens if I…”

The first test was running at a faster pace over a longer run. I stayed on target for the first six miles but as I approached the hill at mile seven, I heard the regular voices in my head telling me it was ok to slow down. The pain was speaking its soothing words, giving me an out, protecting me from the panic. I listened, tempted by its excuses to dial it back. Then I looked down at my legs and asked what they wanted to do. By just turning my attention to their presence, I started to feel my muscles, the same ones I admired running the dirt road as a young girl. They were not as tired as my brain just told me they were. They wanted to run.


I recalled the mantra Wim Hof repeated in the breathing session, “Let the body do what the body is capable of doing.” I repeated it over and over to myself, pushed up the hill at my intended pace, and held it for the remaining seven miles.

It was a game-changing moment. I realized it wasn’t just me and my mind out there running, but I finally became aware of my body. It wasn’t my physical capacity or lack thereof keeping me from Boston, but my mind’s protective shield that tried to keep me from feeling pain. The trauma of the attack was holding me back. As I read Dr. Gabor Mate’s book, The Myth of Normal, I resonated with his statement that “trauma is not what happens to you, it’s what happens inside you.” What happened inside me was my body learned to shut down. It was that automatic response that held me back.

Between my breathing exercises and speedwork sessions, I coined my marathon training program the “Pain Experiment.” I wanted to discover what would happen if I pushed myself harder than I ever had, knowing it might involve pain. What would happen if I crossed the threshold that had kept me safe all these years? And would it be enough to push me across the finish line in time to meet the Boston cut-off?

Trusting the process


I was afraid my pain experiment would ruin my relationship with running. I started running as an escape from the pain and anxiety I felt when my sister got sick. It was my way of releasing the emotions (or pounding them into the ground). I didn’t want to turn my saving grace into a source of stress.

Reframing the training as an experiment — a learning process — tapped into my values around self-improvement and growth. I loved learning and figuring out why and how things worked. My “let’s see what happens” approach kept me open to the discovery process without the pressure to perform.

I discovered that running became more enjoyable without the invisible brick wall that kept me from being in my body and feeling the power of my legs as I did that day when I was 11 years old. That was the original joy — seeing my body as powerful and free. Trauma limited my ability to experience that joy, keeping me stuck in the safe zone. It disconnected me from my body and denied me the true freedom you experience when you push yourself beyond your perceived limits. What happened inside me was I built a wall behind which I was safe. I now realize that threshold was under my control. I could choose to go higher, and still be safe. I would not collapse or stop breathing.

RELATED: Running As A Marathon Guide For People With Disabilities Made Me A Better Human


Risking it all

After months of breathing and pushing the pace of my runs, I stood at the start line for my qualifying race and knew I had already reached my goal. I (almost) didn’t care if I qualified. I had achieved something far greater. I had healed a wound I had no idea oozed and seeped into the sacred space of my running.

I took my body back during those 12 weeks of training. And that body ran free and easy for 26.2 miles and finished six-and-a-half minutes faster than I needed to hit the requisite time. I did it. I finally qualified to run the Boston Marathon! My BQ stood not just for Boston Qualifier, but ultimately a Body Quest.

woman running towards the finish line Pavel1964 / Shutterstock


I had no idea how my body internalized the trauma from so many years ago and did not expect it to impact my running. If anything, I believed running was what kept me going despite whatever bad things happened in my life. Nor did I fully recognize the disconnect between my mind and body and how much I learned to distrust my physical self. I thought I loved my body; I used her all the time — running, biking, hiking, and everything else outdoors. But I just took her for granted. Feeling my legs that day on the hilly run was like a baby discovering their toes for the first time.

Studying trauma and the mind-body connection opened my eyes to how my traumas embedded into my physical being and created automatic responses in my brain. The breathing exercises helped me move through the panic and my survival response to shut down. By learning to hold my breath, I taught my brain to trust my body to hold it calmly. Listening to my legs shifted me out of my mind’s panic response to connect with my physical self. It was all about teaching my mind it was safe, and that my body was capable of more, as Wim Hof preaches. My many failed attempts were not about physical capabilities, but invisible walls I created as a result of my past experiences.

I am not a therapist, but as a professional coach, I understand how we self-sabotage. When I panicked and thought I would suffocate if I ran faster, I asked myself the same questions I use with clients who are struggling to reach their goals and fear the unknown.

  • What is the worst thing that could happen? This is when I imagined collapsing and dying on the course.

  • Where does that fear come from? As I sat with this question and listened to my fear, I saw my 17-year-old self. She was afraid of the pain and not being able to breathe.

  • What is that fear trying to protect you from? My fear was protecting me from reliving that night and feeling pain.

  • How can you acknowledge it and gently test it? I needed to listen to my younger self and encourage that she would be ok. My pledge to “let’s just see what happens…” allowed me to gently test the waters. I didn’t force it.

My answers revealed how I held myself back. The barrier between me and Boston was an invisible wall I built. Once I recognized the barrier, I could remove it — breath by breath, mile by mile — to get to the other side.


I ran my first Boston Marathon in 2023 with a lightness I had never experienced and a tingling sensation throughout my body. It was a magical run, and I finished with a qualifying time to apply for the 2024 race. Standing on the start line in Hopkinton in 2024 reminded me of the power of our human bodies and minds. I am capable of more than I think, as my body so wisely demonstrated to me as I achieved my BQ goal not once, or twice, but I finished in a qualifying time in 2024 — the third year in a row.

Running is a mental and physical sport. I could only reach my goals once I fully understood my mind and learned to trust my body. Qualifying for the Boston Marathon took more than just faster running but a renewed trust in myself — a trust I had lost many years ago. It was a race to heal, a pursuit of potential, and a celebration of resilience.

RELATED: How A Record-Breaking Pikes Peak Marathoner Found The Strength To Run Again After Surviving Sexual Assault

Rochelle Finzel is a leadership coach, writer, speaker, and outdoor adventurer. She can be found on Medium and her memoir, "The Run of My Life," will be released in September 2024 with Bold Story Press.