Next up in our SHEs in Sports series is Jillian Neal. Jilliam is an amateur runner and professional fundraiser who lives in Nashville, TN. Over the past seven years of racing, she has completed seven marathons, three marathon relays, 11 half marathons and countless 5Ks. Strangely enough, she has never run a 10K. In addition to running, she also loves biking, hiking and just generally being in motion. Besides sweating profusely, her passions include gender equity, reproductive justice and animal welfare.
Name: Jillian Neal
Industry: Not-for-profit fundraising
SHEroes: Shalane Flanagan, Des Linden, Bobbi Gibb, Kathrine Switzer, Molly Barker
Five favorite things: Dogs, food, running, reading, documentaries
You run marathons. Is running something you’ve always done, or something you recently picked up? What made you want to run competitively?
I started running my freshman year of college. I participated in other sports growing up (I took dance classes when I was really little, played rec league basketball in 5th-7th grade and did sideline and competitive cheerleading 8th-12th grade), but always hated running. When I started college, I was terrified of gaining The Freshman 15 and grudgingly started trotting around my university’s indoor track. I hated every minute of it. But then I started making friends who also ran and wanted to run together outside. This changed my whole attitude towards running. I started to legitimately enjoy getting out with my friends and logging miles together. Then over time, I came to enjoy running alone, too. Before I knew it, I couldn’t imagine my life without running.
It took another six years before I started running competitively. I started dating a guy (now my husband) and he encouraged me to enter some races. I hemmed and hawed and made some excuses about how “I don’t want to be competitive. I’m just running for myself!” but the truth is, I was scared. I’d been avoiding participating in races because I knew I wouldn’t win. It took some soul-searching and gentle coaxing to help me realize a race is worth running even if you’re not the winner. The accomplishment is in its completion. I am so grateful to my partner for giving me that push. He remains my biggest fan and my constant crew and cheerleader for every race.
What does your training look like for a marathon? What happens leading up to and the day of, and what sort of care do you do afterwards?
I’m a creature of habit and routines! I have my favorite 16-week training plan with three shorter runs during the week and a weekend long run. Long runs start at 14 miles and build up to 22 miles with a three week taper before the actual event. I also take a circuit class at my local YMCA three times a week for cross-training. Finally, I try my best to take Sunday as a day of complete and total rest. We’re not machines and our bodies need time to recover from all that hard work! For those of you counting, I did describe seven workouts. One day a week, I do my circuit class in the morning and a short run after work, too.
The night before the race and the day of are also very ritualized for me. The night before is pasta for dinner, arranging my clothes/supplies for the next day and an early bedtime. The next morning I wake up far too early. I eat oatmeal for breakfast, get dressed and then putter around the house (or hotel) vacillating between being ridiculously excited and inexplicably nervous. I also like to listen to the song “Roar” by Katy Perry and do a little crying. Pre-race emotions are weird.
After a race, I take a little time off between training cycles (a month or more) to decide what I want to do next. I used to run two marathons a year – one in the spring and one in the fall. A couple years ago I cut back to one a year because I was always exhausted. Now I focus on a spring full (usually timed around my birthday – yes, this is my preferred way to celebrate) and a fall half.
We know that runners get segmented by gender; for instance, there will be runners placing in the male class and runners placing in the female class. Do you ever feel like, because of your gender, people underestimate your competitiveness or ability?
I will accept any challenge for a foot race from anybody, male or female. I ain’t scared.100%. I encounter this weird assumption that I’m fast “for a woman” and that a man (literally any man, anywhere, anytime) will be faster than I am. Yes. The most elite male runners are faster than the most elite female runners. As for your casual weekend warriors? It’s a toss-up!
What’s the general reaction from people when they find out you run marathons? Are they intrigued? Disbelieving?
I think people are surprised. When people find out I run, they ask “Oh, do you do 5Ks or half marathons?” And yes, I do run 5Ks and half marathons. But I also run full marathons. That’s what seems to catch people off guard. I wouldn’t say I “look like a runner” (or what people often assume runners look like) so finding out that not only do I run, but I run 26.2 miles at a time surprises people. My favorite reaction when I say I run fulls are the people who say “The whole thing?” Yup. The whole thing. What, like I’d stop a quarter of the way in?
What’s been your relationship between running and body image or mental health? Have you found that running has had a positive effect on either?
As you may have gathered from the description of my first attempts at running, I wasn’t in a good headspace when I first got into the sport. I was mainly focused on getting skinny. Frankly, I think that’s why I hated running initially. I grew up in a mentality that exercise was the way you punished your body for being the wrong kind of body (aka not skinny enough.) It wasn’t until I started to see running as an act of self-love that I started to love doing it! (Imagine that…)
Running has served as my rock through every difficult time in my life. No matter what else was going on, I could always count on running. It’s also served as wonderful therapy. I process so many situations while I’m out pounding the pavement. I hash out problems, rehearse difficult conversations or just enjoy the opportunity to turn off my brain and tune into the sensations of running. Finally, I think it’s helped me develop a much healthier relationship with food and exercise. It’s impossible to train hard and log serious miles if you aren’t kind to your body.
You’ve been an avid volunteer with Girls on the Run of Middle TN for several years. What do you love about Girls on the Run and why do you stay so involved?
I love the mission of Girls on the Run of Middle TN – to inspire girls to be joyful, healthy and confident using a fun, experience-based curriculum which creatively integrates running. I especially appreciate Girls on the Run’s effort to reach 3rd-5th graders because that is such an important and pivotal time in girls’ lives. Elementary school girls are still so brave and confident before those rocky middle school years, so I think it’s so smart to meet girls in that place and hopefully counteract the negative noise they might soon encounter. I also love that the focus of the program is personal accomplishment instead of competition. During the course of the curriculum, you’re preparing the girls to run (or walk or skip) a 5K. At the end of the program, everyone completes the 5K and that’s all that matters. It goes back to my own realization that the completion of the race is the point. You don’t have to beat everyone else to feel good about your performance.
What’s been your favorite race that you’ve done so far? What’s made you the most proud, and which race are you looking forward to running next?
Hands down, my favorite race was the St. Jude Memphis Marathon. It was my second marathon, so I already had a sense of what it was like to put in the miles. I also did it as a fundraiser for St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which was a really meaningful experience. The course for the full takes you through the campus of the hospital twice. The patients come out and cheer for you, which was really emotional for me! Finally, it was my first time qualifying for Boston, so that was really amazing, too.
My proudest accomplishment was definitely running Boston. I ran it in 2016 – 50 years after Bobbi Gibb was the first woman to run the Boston Marathon in 1966. The emcee at the start line announced that tidbit right before we took off and I definitely teared up. I was so excited and so honored to share such an amazing, historic course with so many incredible athletes. I met so many wonderful runners during race weekend. I hope to do it again in a couple years!
My next race will actually be a Chicago 5K in September for a good friend’s bachelorette weekend. I’m excited for a nice, flat fall race and the fact I’m doing it with a friend makes it even better.
If you could go back in time and give yourself sixty seconds of advice, what would you say?
I’d love to tell my 18-year-old self that there are so many more important things in life than “looking hot.” I’d also want to remind myself that I have so many different ideas, interests, thoughts and talents that I should explore and cultivate. Finally, my younger self would probably benefit from a reminder that I am perfectly imperfect and that’s just fine.