For about three years, retired soccer player Abby Wambach has been on a journey. She started with 5Ks. Then she moved on to 10Ks. Then half-marathons. And now, Wambach will take on her longest run yet: the TCS New York City Marathon.
This Sunday, Wambach will run 26.2 miles at the 50th running of the NYC Marathon. The two-time Olympic gold medalist and Women's World Cup champion will run alongside her former U.S. Women's National Soccer Team teammates Lauren Holiday, Kate Markgraf and Leslie Osborne. The soccer stars will be running in support of the JLH Fund, a non-profit started by Jrue and Lauren Holiday that helps combat systemic racism and socioeconomic inequality.
Wambach talked to espnW about how she transitioned to running after her retirement in 2015, why preparation is key to marathon training and what it means to have a support system during her first marathon journey.
This has been edited and condensed for clarity.
On why she's running the NYC Marathon:
A couple of years after I retired from playing soccer, I realized that I didn't in fact earn enough goodwill with my body, even with all of the sprints that I had done and the running that I had done as a soccer player. I thought that I had earned enough goodwill, that I would never have to do any kind of anything ever again, well, that was a mistake and wrong. I decided to get back into shape by becoming a runner, doing 5Ks, 10Ks, half-marathons. That was working out pretty well for me for a long while. And then I decided I'm going to sign up for the 2020 New York City Marathon. I did, and then that got canceled because of the COVID-19 [pandemic].
I did a lot of training up until the time where that got canceled, that was kind of worthless, but I kept on running pretty frequently week after week. And then, five months out from the New York City Marathon, I texted a few of my former teammates on the national team, and asked if a few of them wanted to join me. We've been kind of doing this remotely. None of us live near each other, all training on our own. We're all using the same program, so we're kind of suffering together along the way.
On race-day strategy and preparation:
I have so much experience playing a professional sport, I know that the mentality of it all is super important and being prepared is the most important thing. The only way you can get prepared is if you train like you are actually in the race or you're doing certain training days like they are race days. You could ask my wife [Glennon Doyle], I was kind of a crazy person that day. All of us runners, we have the going to the bathroom problem, the stress of the going to the bathroom situation. Am I going to be hydrated? At what point? I don't want to get behind on my food intake. What am I going to be doing?
The big, long run days, I always used as prep days for what I was going to feel in my mind and experience on the day of the race. I'm pretty tuned in on what I need. I love to feel light, but I also know that I'm going to be burning through so many carbs that day. I'm just going to be heavy on hydration the day before. During the run, I can get six miles out without needing food. And then I'll ingest some sort of sugar or calorie or protein or caffeine throughout the period. I'll probably caffeinate when I start to get to mile 20 because that's when I stop worrying about going to the bathroom bit.
On her "why" and motivation for running a marathon:
I think that my why is just because why not? I don't really have a motto. I like to go out and try to prove to myself that the world is out there for all possibilities. I'm pretty strong-minded sometimes to a fault. I might in fact need ankle surgery after this escapade. I think for the first time I'm not doing something to prove it to other people. This adventure is for me. That's what's been most rewarding. After that 20-mile run, I just remember saying to my wife a couple of times, "I can't believe that I did that by myself." I had no running help. I had no friends. I can't believe that I did that by myself. And the confidence that that can give a person is kind of maybe what I'm after.
Becoming confident in a new sport:
I think that what's so interesting about confidence is it's never static. I'm not just a confident person a hundred percent of the time. During my playing days, I was probably very confident. But at the end of the day, we're all human beings and that confidence fluctuates. I'm trying to give myself every opportunity to be powerful and strong and confident. That stuff takes time. You have to actually be in this disciplined role. I've learned that I have to find that sense of confidence, which I was getting on a daily basis as a pro athlete.
On pushing herself to finish a run:
I have a weird sense of willpower. And I'm a big time podcast listener. Podcasts have saved me. I mean, I listened to the whole Britney Spears' Toxic podcast during the 20-miler. That was lifesaving. I've never been a person that needed a positive mantra. All I know is that I won't stop running. I don't know how else to explain it. It's just like... What I say is just, "Don't stop moving your feet, and you will keep moving forward." It's just kind of that equation makes sense to me. It's almost like I don't have the option of stopping.
On the importance of support systems during marathon training:
I have two realms of support systems. I have my teammates who are also in the training program with me. Having other people to do this alongside, whether it's remotely or literally next to you during your training days, is so important. It has given me just a sense of relief. I'm not doing this alone. I'm not suffering for no reason.
I would not be telling the truth if I didn't say this, so many of us needed to ask for a lot of help from home to be able to do this. My wife had to pick up so much of my slack because very rarely do you get to say, "Hey, I'm going to go for a three-hour run or two-hour run," and there not be any cost to that. The cost is often her staying home, her doing something more with the kids for this silly idea of completing this weird athletic feat.
What more would I need to prove to the world? Why would I need to do this? But here she is selflessly going about our family's life, letting me accomplish the dreams that I have for my life, and doing it in a way that is super supportive. She's going to be there at the finish line. I've asked her to maybe bring a towel because it will probably be really gross, that initial hug. I definitely wouldn't have been able to do it without my wife.
On supporting the JLH Fund with her teammates:
Jrue and Lauren are friends of mine. They are the kind of people that if they call and ask me for anything, I would do everything in my power to be able to help them in any way. The vision that they have for this fund is so pure and beautiful. I'm so happy that number one, that they created this fund to help the world. And then of course, if we can use some of our former fame to help those in need, those that deserve it, why not?
Fueling your body through marathon training:
Gatorade was a huge sponsor of our women's national team for many, many years. I was an endorsed athlete from Gatorade during my playing career. It's really interesting when you step outside of those environments where everything is completely taken care of for you. Your laundry gets done, and the meals are made and your protein mix is completely done for you. All you do is walk off a field and you get your hydration Gatorade bottle with whatever kind of stuff in it to get you prepped for the next day. One thing that I realized over the last couple of years is that it's really lonely and confusing to have to do this stuff on your own.
When Gatorade learned that I was training for the marathon, they approached me with this new GX Sweat Patch, the first of its kind. To me that is what my goal in life is. It's feeling like I've been in these really cool, rare spaces being on professional teams, getting the experience of being a professional athlete comes with serious privilege and advantage. Yet not often do those kinds of privileges, and advantages get offered to the layperson. Yet not often do those kinds of privileges, and advantages get offered to the layperson.
That's why this patch is so cool and unique because all you have to do is put it on. This is no joke. Because I put it on my body and went on a run, and then you scan it when you get home, and it will give you the exact amount of protein that your body needs, the exact amount of liquids or what your specific needs are for the rest of that day.
To me, if I don't need to make any more decisions in my life, I'm a better person. Fewer decisions, the better. That's what I feel this patch kind of gives me. It gives me more confidence in my training. Because it's all about the recovery, and how we recover is a big component to how we feel tomorrow and, of course, on Sunday for the race.