GRLs Who Race: Iesha Pankey and the London Marathon
by Na’Tasha Jones
In September of last year, while at a happy hour with her running friends Ashlee Lawson and Matt Green of District Running Collective, Iesha Pankey shared that she was toying with the idea of running her first marathon. Her friends told her, “If you are only going to do one, you should do it big,” and recommended that she choose one of the World Majors in London, Berlin or Tokyo. She was immediately intrigued.
“I did some research and saw that London was a ‘flat’ course and that it was going to take place on my 34th birthday. It sounded pretty perfect to me, minus the actual training,” she said, jokingly.
Soon, she was signed up to run her first marathon at a World Major, the 2019 Virgin Money London Marathon.
Running With the Squad
Iesha started training for London the first week of February 2019, after receiving a detailed training plan as a gift from a Charm City Run store coaching friend. She regularly runs with Riot Squad Running in Baltimore, Maryland, and she knew that she would need to lean on her running friends for support and advice as she took on this big challenge.
For training, she scheduled some of her recovery runs with Riot Squad on Sundays and speed work on Tuesdays. She enjoyed doing speed work so much that she now leads many of Riot Squad’s Tuesday morning speed workouts.
“I would reach out to all the experts I knew, near and far, for help and advice and everyone was so willing to help. Having support from my running friends [during marathon training] was amazing,” she said. “And when I showed up to District Running Collective in D.C. to join their Saturday long runs, I got the same supportive feeling as running with my home squad.”
“That is when the life-changing friendships started for me,” said Iesha. “Runners understand runners. I didn’t know that running really had such a strong community vibe until the last few years. The running community as a whole is just great.”
She also scheduled runs for every Monday and most long runs on Saturday with Back on My Feet, a national nonprofit that works to combat homelessness through running. She went on to choose this organization as the designated charity for which she fundraised as part of her marathon entry.
"I have never felt so supported by so many people in my life. In some cases, I also felt unsupported by those people I had felt so sure would be,” she said. “But training and running the race ultimately align with life lessons: life is a long race. There will be hills, flat surfaces, plateaus, good runs and not-so-good runs,” she said.
Running Through the Pain
In 2012, Iesha was diagnosed with a rare autoimmune disease in the Lupus family, which affects her lymph nodes and immune system.
“I didn’t start running again regularly until 2013, when I ran my first 5K, the Arlington Police, Fire and Sheriff 9/11 Memorial 5K,” she said. Since then, she’s run six half marathons, including her first international race in Bucharest, Romania in 2017.
Staying in motion, she says, is what helps her cope with her condition.
“As the saying goes, ‘A body in motion stays in motion’,” said Iesha. “The major challenges that I face personally are also strengthening my immune system. The joint pain and soreness, I attribute to constant exercise, instead of the disease. I keep moving so I don’t know the difference.”
Conquering the London Marathon
By the time Iesha arrived in London, she already felt connected to the running community. “When I showed up, it was all love from the beginning,” she said. “It felt great.” She joined a shakeout run with London Brunch Club to get acclimated to her surroundings and ready for the big day.
Despite her impression that the marathon would be flat, Iesha soon learned that there were, in fact, some hills to come. However, training in the notoriously hilly Baltimore area had left her well prepared to tackle them. Although she was able to manage the physical hills, the race was not without other ups and downs.
“There was not one dull spot,” said Iesha. “My left foot went numb three times, but it didn’t stop me from pushing through.
She even made new friends on race day--Sophie from London, Ellis from Whales--sharing conversation and keeping pace, if only for a few miles, to help each other to the finish.
“By mile 14, everything hurt, but not enough to quit. At mile 18, I was questioning why anyone would put themselves through so much self-imposed pain. The race had supporters screaming and cheering every kilometer of the way and, since my name was on my shirt, people would call out my name and even yell ‘Happy Birthday!’ because of the head band I wore.
“The sight and feeling of running over the tower bridge was definitely a once in a lifetime chance. Overall, the race itself was an indescribable experience,” she said.
Running Lessons as Life Lessons
Training for her first marathon left Iesha with many lessons and even more tears. “The training turned me into a cry baby, but I learned so much in such a short period of time,” she said.
Iesha’s training taught her practical skills like how to fundraise for a race, and general skills like how to be open to new people and all possibilities.
However, Iesha did hit several hurdles. There was the posterior tibial tendonitis that she got early on in her training, then there was the $4500 in fundraising that was still needed 45 days before the race (which didn’t seem possible). Work life was killing her, along with all community and personal commitments; it was HARD.
“I am a God-fearing Jesus believer,” she said. “So I thought about it, I prayed about it and waited for an answer. Luckily it was only over a weekend. I had to believe that every time I hit a hurdle that it was going to work out.”
Iesha says that what she took most from marathon training was the inspiration from everyone around her and lots of prayer.
“Overall, I learned that I really can do anything I put my mind to,” said Iesha. “I know it sounds cliché and it’s what every parent tells their children growing up, but it just ‘hits different’ when you prove it to yourself.”
In the end, just as in life, it was recovery, strength and endurance that mattered most.
“The moment I crossed the finish line and felt like I beat science, I could not stop crying,” she said. “I needed this training to learn how to dig deep and condition myself to keep going. Just keep going.”
Follow more of Iesha’s running journey on Instagram.