Miles of joy, pain, tears, cheers

Courtesy BRANDed Management

Ashley Freiberg realized that the New York City Marathon was about being brave and pushing through pain.

Race car driver Ashley Freiberg is providing a series of blog entries exclusive to espnW on her first experience competing in the ING New York City Marathon as part of Lady Gaga’s Born This Way Foundation team.

On Friday, I left Vermont and started my journey of running the New York City Marathon. From the moment I drove into the city, everything became surreal. I was about to run in my first running race ever, a marathon -- the biggest in the world -- and for a cause that I strongly believe in. I knew it would be special, but little did I know that it was going to be one of the best experiences of my life.

Once I arrived, I went to the Marathon Expo to register for the race. When I was handed my bib, I felt like I was “officially” accepting the challenge even though I really had no clue what I was about to go through. I felt excited and thrilled but at the same time scared because, for those of you who read my last blog post, I had trained for only seven weeks.

On Saturday, Cynthia Germanotta, Lady Gaga's mother and co-founder and president of Born This Way Foundation, threw a prerace party for the BTWF team at her restaurant Joanne. It was so cool to finally meet the other BTWF runners, and it was amazing how dedicated everyone was to the foundation and its goal of making the world a kinder, more accepting place. Almost all the team had started as nonrunners; some hadn't even run a mile before they started training. One had been getting up at 3 a.m. to train before work. One recently had a baby. Another trained on treadmills because she was in another country working. Some were nursing injuries. The list went on and on. The fact that everyone was so willing to take on a marathon to spread the word about the BTWF was incredible. I was truly inspired to push myself hard the next day.

Sunday morning I was expecting to be super nervous when I woke up, but instead I was excited. A world of unknowns was awaiting me, and I couldn't wait to seek them out.

BRANDed Management

A prerace party thrown by Lady Gaga's mom gave Ashley Freiberg a chance to meet her Born This Way Foundation teammates.

It wasn't until I was at the start that everything really hit me. The bus ride alone was an hour; the finish line in Central Park seemed so far away. Standing there in a pack of 50,000 people shoulder to shoulder, I had a massive question mark over my head wondering how in the world I was going to do this, and then the guns went off.

I was expecting everyone to dart off the starting line over the bridge in excitement, but because there were so many of us, it took us a while to get going, and we started off with a casual walk. As you can imagine, it was different from the starts I am used to in my race car, but I found it to be sort of humorous and a nice reminder that this was supposed to be fun.

Once we were up and moving, I wanted to try to get around a good chunk of people because I thought it might help me not get caught up in traffic. Silly me! I realized quickly that running with 50,000 other people rather than with 40 other race cars meant that I would be shoulder to shoulder the entire race.

About two miles in, I took a wild guess at my pace based on how I was feeling and stuck with it, hoping it would all work out in the end. Luckily, I found a couple of guys who were running that same pace for the first eight miles or so, and since there was a pretty good headwind, I decided to use my racing knowledge to tuck in behind them and draft.

As soon as we crossed the first bridge, we hit a wall of screaming fans who would outline the rest of the course. The crowd was filled with people with signs that were both inspiring and hilarious who yelling out my name, screaming positive things and holding their hands out waiting to give me a high-five. It was honestly impossible to comprehend the number of people and the amount of support in one place at one time.

I had been to New York a few times before, and usually people are heading in their own directions trying to get to work or wherever they need to be. What was amazing was that this event really pulled everyone together for one common goal. To them the runners weren’t just people running; they were their family, neighbors, mothers, grandpas or sisters pushing through adversity. It was inspiring to run alongside these people who were in wheelchairs, who were blind or who had prosthetic legs and were still going strong. I ran with people who were young and old and who were from countries all over the world. The crowd went absolutely nuts no matter who you were.

I really can’t describe how powerful this was to me mentally. Every time I felt like I wanted to give up and slow down and walk, the crowds, runners, my BTWF teammates and my friends who came from all over the place to support me gave me that extra push to keep going.

In the last few miles, I really started to feel the pain in my legs, and it felt like I had been running forever when I finally saw the 23-mile marker. I had 3.2 miles to go, and I thought my legs were about to explode. I wanted so badly to stop and walk, but the energy from the crowd somehow continued to rise and so did my need to fight the pain.

When I got to Mile 26, the raging noise was so loud that I couldn’t even hear my own thoughts, and I ran hard for the finish line. I looked at my watch and saw a time of 3:59.16. An unbelievable wave of emotions came over me. I have pushed myself mentally in so many ways through driving, but this was different.

Suddenly everything made sense. This marathon truly had nothing to do with me. It was about the sense of community, the diversity in the runners, the determination in the runners with disabilities and being supported and accepted for what you are, no matter the circumstance.

I had limited training, but it wasn't about being physically ready. It was about being brave, strong and empowered by pushing through the rough times and spreading kindness to others by giving them a high-five or shooting them a smile along the way.

Even though I could hardly walk afterward, tears of amazement ran down my face. The whole thing was so emotionally powerful. It wasn't just a race. It was a journey, the experience of a lifetime.

I feel as though I have an additional pit crew of people who have my back. Not just Lady Gaga, Cynthia and the Born This Way Foundation, but our team of runners who crossed the finish line strong for the same goal.

The marathon affected me in a way I never expected. It made me realize that even when things get tough, you have people who believe in you and that you can make it if you just keep pushing. For those who don’t know much about my career in auto racing, it unfortunately is not just a talent-driven sport; without funding, you cannot drive. While I don’t have the corporate sponsorship in place for 2014 yet, I am more empowered than ever to work hard to raise the funding to get myself back into a race car full time. I hope that through my adversity I can help be the support system for someone else too.