Running #ForTheCulture: Dannielle McNeilly
by Na'Tasha Jones
For many people, the “just-me-and-the-road” feel of distance running is what makes it such a great, solitary sport. For a select few, however, running can begin to feel more solitary when they start to get really good at it.
Since famously “BQ”-ing on her first marathon in 2013, Dannielle McNeilly, 31, has become a rising star in distance running. A natural talent that doesn’t shy away from hard work, the young powerhouse can be found bounding across New York City with a five-foot 10-inch frame that seems to have been built specifically for running.
We saw this frame in action in April at the 2018 Boston Marathon. Already known as the oldest and one of the toughest road marathons in the country, The New York Times reported that with freezing winds and rains, the conditions this year “were amid some of the worst weather in decades“ with more than 50 percent increase in midway dropout.
Dannielle was not one of those dropouts. She shares her experience:
“Pardon me, but ‘GEEZUS H. KRICE!’ That was the hardest race I ever ran and it made my first Boston Marathon, which was also in rain, look like child’s play. But, I was warmer than I thought I would be. Seven-and-change-minute miles [pace] will always keep you toasty. That, and five years in Buffalo, prepared me well.
We had [cheer] squad every five miles of the race with Maurten (for hydration). If it weren’t for them, I couldn’t have finished. Knowing that I would see someone every couple of miles helped me tackle the race piece by piece. I just had to f—king do it. Not finishing was not an option. I trained way too f—king hard and had too much riding on it.”
Dannielle’s grit and the support of her crew pushed her to pull off an impressive finish time of 3:22:11, despite the miserable weather.
Fast Out of the Gate
While her skill level is on par with many considered veterans in the sport, Dannielle’s running journey didn’t officially start until just a few years ago. In high school, she was an 800m runner for her track team, plus indoor/outdoor Cross Country. Yet, she had never really run any considerable distance. She also ran on and off in college recreationally but it wasn’t until 2011, when her best friend was diagnosed with breast cancer, that she began to hit the road with regularity. She and her friend both lived equidistant from a park, so she agreed to run with her to help her lose weight for an upcoming surgery. “After that, I never stopped running,” says Dannielle.
Her endurance built up naturally, and she started to track racing lengths. “I would say to myself, ‘this many miles gets me to Queens, this many to Manhattan.’”
One day in 2012, Dannielle looked up at the end of her run to find that she’d hoofed it from her home in Brooklyn all the way to Harlem—13 miles. Her run had been fueled by adrenaline from a big fight with her sister, which had left her upset and feeling antsy. She’d gone for a run to clear her head and ended up across the city. Surprised by what she’d unintentionally been able to do, she then realized it was time to start really tracking her miles.
“I had always liked running, but it became an outlet, a form of freedom,” she says. “I didn’t have to wait for anyone, just me and the ground.”
Dannielle’s friends began to notice how much she was running and encouraged her to do something on a more official level. Inspired by the aforementioned friend’s fight with cancer, she decided to run the 2013 NYC Half Marathon while raising money to benefit the Leukemia and Lymphoma Society. It was her first official race since running track in high school and her first taste of running for a purpose. She also learned how important having the support of a team behind you on race day can be.
“I knew that running the NYC Half was going to whet my running appetite,” she says in a May 2013 post on her team fundraising page.
Soon, the team she had been training with encouraged her to sign up for the Chicago Marathon. As she was preparing for the race, she met the NYC run crew Bridge Runners through a friend and began running with them.
“That’s where I became a real street runner, not afraid to dodge traffic,” she says, chuckling. “They were tougher runs, longer runs and really challenging routes. By the time the race came, I felt really prepared, because I had been running like a savage.”
And it did pay off. For this first marathon in Chicago, Dannielle qualified for the Boston Marathon, a highly-competitive feat known in the running world as “BQ”-ing. For a while, this even became her nickname to a few friends (“Ay yo, B.Q.!”). She felt great that others could see the progression that she was starting to see in herself.
Again, it was encouragement from friends and her team that propelled her to the finish line. In a Facebook post from October 2013 she expressed her gratitude, saying, “Yeah I did the gritty part of this whole thing, the running, but honestly, it was the support that got me through the hardest parts.”
It wasn’t long before she received an invite to join her current team, Black Roses NYC.
“I knew that it was serious, because when I told my other friends I’d been invited, they were like ‘Oh shit!’,” she says, laughing. “I was like I’d gotten the golden ticket. It was lit!”
When she first joined in July 2014, she went just to train and didn’t bother to stay after and commiserate. She soon found, though, that the key was to really get to know her fellow runners.
“The stronger my relationship got with my team, the better I became as a runner,” she says.
A New Breakthrough
In September 2017, Dannielle set out to run the Berlin Marathon.
“Berlin was different, because one, I am a minority, and two, I had braids in my hair. You notice people staring,” she says. “Aside from elite [runners], I recognize that I’m an anomaly. Yes, Black girls run, but they don’t often run that fast and that long. I know that there’s the curiosity. I don’t take offense to it. But as I try to tell my teammates, ‘you don’t know how it is to stand out all the time.’ I want to blend in sometimes.”
But Dannielle ended up standing out for a different reason. Along with other members of Black Roses NYC, she had been tapped to be featured in Nike’s Break Through ad campaign, which focused on using personal barriers as a means to drive yourself forward. As part of the campaign, she set a goal to break 3:15:00 as her marathon time for Berlin. It was a lofty goal for her, and one that was plastered on Nike store ads and digital billboards across the city. The pressure was on.
On race day, her worst fears were realized in the form of cramping as she made her way through the toughest part of the race.
“My initial feelings were death! I was hyperventilating, cramping up really bad, looking at my watch the whole time, and I fought so hard to do it,” she says.
She made it in 3:14:38, officially.
“It’s always crazy to actually do shit you set out to do,” she says.
Matters of Representation
To date, Dannielle has completed eight marathons, eight half marathons, one ultra marathon (50 kilometers) and one relay race. Obviously, she’s really good at running, but what motivates her?
In a word, representation.
“I do it for the culture, always. Because I want people to know it’s out there and that you can get it,” says Dannielle.
“I run for the ladies and for Black people. I’ve seen little girls, kids in general, looking at me. People comment and say I inspire them. I aspire to inspire, so I love it. If someone else can be motivated to do it because of me, that’s what matters,” she says.
Sometimes, though, Dannielle feels the burden of being one of very few Black women doing what she is doing at the level she is doing it.
“I don’t feel discriminated against or intimidated on the running front, because people [in the running community] know I can perform,” she says. “But y’all don’t understand how lonely this shit gets. I don’t always want to be the ‘token negro’ in terms of representation and how people see me. Even on my team, I am the only Black girl in Black Roses. There is not really anybody that I can relate to, and it can get tiring.”
When things get tough, Dannielle likes to remember the time she met John Carlos, famous for his Black Power protest salute at the 1968 Olympic Games in Mexico City, which he raised on the platform during the U.S. National Anthem after winning the bronze metal for the 200m.
“He told me, ‘You don’t have to win to be a winner’,” says Dannielle. “That stuck with me.”
“I do it #fortheculture, always, Because I want people to know it’s out there and that you can get it.” -Dannielle McNeilly, distance runner.
Though her training schedule makes it difficult to find the time, she still plans to get certified as a coach and says she wouldn’t mind being a coach to high school kids or even other women like herself. Here again, her focus is representation. “You can find a white [woman] coach, you can find a Black man, but you can’t find a Black woman coach. It’s hard. I’d like to be that.”
When asked who she looks up to, she hesitates. “I’m going to sound like an asshole for saying this but I don’t really look to anyone like that, per se. I admire people’s strength and drive, and perhaps wish I had a sprinkle of their speed, but beyond that, nah. More often I wish that I had a liberal schedule to train like others do. I’d like to look up to more people like me, but considering that [there aren’t many around], I find much satisfaction that I can be that person for others. ‘Aspire to inspire’,” she says.
Although many have asked her about her goals and pushing for the next level, Dannielle says that trying out for the marathon Olympic qualifier is not on her radar at the moment.
“I don’t actually like running marathons, just because I’m good at them,” she says laughing. “Also, I’m not ready to hurt that bad, because fast hurts. My biggest fear, though, is to become miserable while running. I’ll work hard and train as I need to, but I don’t want to train so hard that I stop enjoying running.”
Beyond enjoyment, it has also become therapeutic. “Running, for me, has always been about freedom. Some people go to church—my long runs are my ministry,” she says.
So, that’s what she’s focusing on for now—enjoying running. She’s still training, though, because she could always be faster.
“Everybody wants to get faster or stronger. Being fast does low-key feel like a superpower,” she says. “Scarily enough, though, I’m only beginning to tap into it. I’m not in my final form yet.”
Images provided by Dannielle. Follow Dannielle's (very fast) journey on Instagram @vexyspice.
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