Career & Jobs

Career Inspiration From Three Marathon Runners: ‘Do The Next Amazing Thing’

Are you stuck in a career plateau, simply craving inspiration and/or movement to catapult to the next level? Or maybe you’re experiencing some challenges that seem implausible to power through?

Well, by looking outside ourselves, there’s nothing quite like goal setting and pushing past your limits like running a marathon. Sure, it may be a cliché, but the saying “it’s a marathon, not a sprint” is truly on point based on three runners who comprised Degree’s Not Done Yet marathon team.

Meet Ashley Zirkle, a senior civil engineer, who recently completed the San Francisco Marathon. In 2016, she ran the marathon in Savannah, but at mile marker 18, between cramps and bad shin splints, she had to stop. This year, her achievement is all the more poignant based on her back story.

As Zirkle read an article two years ago, her mindset was wanting to make a difference in the world. “I didn’t know what that looked like, but it was pandemic times and everything was dark and scary. And then I found that article. It said, ‘Florida woman.’ I’m originally from Florida and was like, “Oh, okay you want to pull at my heartstrings.’”

Zirkle was moved by the story of a woman who was diagnosed with stage four of chronic kidney disease, a woman who wanted to be a mom and accomplish other things in her career.

“It was basically saying she’s ‘six months to live’ kind of thing. I felt really touched and it’s something I clicked on by the time I got to the end of that article. Here’s an opportunity to possibly bring back a little bit of sunshine — that was the place that I was in mentally.”

As they matched and Zirkle approached her boss about upcoming surgery in spring 2021, he informed her about the company’s transplant leave policy — two weeks of paid time off. She took the leave and supplemented it with sick time she had accrued.

One week before surgery in spring 2021, the strangers met. “I keep calling it the most awkward first date you could ever go on because I’d already committed to doing this. She’s so sweet and she and her husband were so thankful,” said Zirkle.

Now, they once strangers are sisters for life. “We check in with each other all the time. I was running for her. I was running for anybody that’s thinking about donating, running for everybody that’s on the transplant list. To have this platform to show people that life after donation is not scary. Physically, my life has not changed that much. Before [surgery], I was a very active person, I’m still a very active person. There’s no limitations holding me back. Life is still great post-donation. It’s rewarding for your recipient, but it’s also rewarding for you too as the donor because you get that family member. This new support system for life.”

Training started literally with taking steps around her living room, then eventually walking down the block, then jogging down the block, not unlike Sagirah Ahmed Norris’ training to crossing the finish line in San Francisco, although their journeys are very different.

“I went from a cane to being able to walk out on my own accord. I worked with a physical therapist, I relearned to walk nine months later. It was hard and definitely intensive,” said Norris who was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis in 2018 and wanted to spread awareness about an alternative procedure and being your own health advocate.

A few years ago, when she started running the Chicago Marathon, she felt sharp pains, numbness, and other symptoms. After going from a sports doctor to a neurologist, when she was diagnosed with MS, Norris was told she would lose her ability to walk and would be dependent on a wheelchair within five years. Norris pursued an alternative treatment that has given her the ability to continue running.

Norris, who runs Airbnb properties in Houston with her husband, said, “To just keep going one stay at a time, one mile at a time, however it gets done. We already have these pretty wild, big dreams for our business. Could I maybe start building on a design resort-style home in the middle of Houston and, you know, take on construction crews? Possibly. It [completing a marathon] definitely makes you really inspired to just do the next amazing thing and the next amazing thing.”

Next, meet Michael Zampanella who has a degenerative eye disease. After losing his vision, he was forced to leave his career as a public school administrator.

Zampanella said, “I wanted to raise awareness being in the blind community that life is not over. You still can accomplish things. Maybe you can’t do things the same as everybody else, but you just have to find a way to do things differently. I’m still running using my legs. I just need someone else’s eyes out there.”

Zampanella crossed the finish line in California alongside a runner who helped guide him from Achilles International, an organization that transforms the lives of people with disabilities through athletic programs and social connections. In the San Francisco Marathon, two Achilles runners participated; they each ran a half-marathon alongside him. “I couldn’t do any of this without them,” said Zampanella.

“This race was bigger was way bigger than our times each of the other girls and myself. We wanted to prove to everyone that can’t stop us — we’re not done yet,” said Zampanella who set a new goal to run a triathlon. (He powered through training while running his first marathon, but an injury prevented him from initially crossing the finish line.)

The thread of these three champions is Degree’s Not Done Yet campaign which looked for three things in supporting marathoners starting with diversity to represent the real world.

“The second one is that they had to have a compelling and engaging Not Done Yet story where they didn’t give up a challenge that they went through, they kept going, they pushed through, they smashed the limits, they squashed whatever doubt they had for themselves, whatever doubt society may have,” said Desi Okeke, director of Degree North America.

As for the third criteria, they didn’t complete a previous attempt at finishing a marathon. Okeke said, “And so we were now giving them a second chance to really bring it home and that dream, that aspiration.” (Degree set up markers on the course indicating breakthrough lines consisting of flags and banners with the runners’ names from points along the race where they stopped running in their prior marathons.)

“Our core to us at Degree is that we live within active movement. That’s our sweet spot, so we were able to integrate this idea of marathons.” Okeke continued, “If you think about the idea, it’s long-lasting, it’s not like a sprint….We have a background that helped shape us, build us. And some of those were challenges. Some of those were positives and with all of them, they make us who we are. If we didn’t have both of those sides, we would not be who we are, which is our best.”

Tyler Cameron, marathon runner, author, and television personality led the team as the Not Done Yet team trainer. The three-time marathoner Cameron said, “It’s important for people to hear their stories. When you hear their stories, what they’ve gone through, you’re like, ‘Why can’t I keep moving? Why can’t I keep going? I’m not done yet either.’”

Back to Zirkle, crossing the finish line to keep going transcends past running. “The same work ethic can be applied to any goal that I go for in my career. Finishing today was proof that I could do anything, not just the physical aspect. Mentally, too,” said Zirkle. “I’m going to put my mind to it and put in that work in the same way that I did with this marathon. I can go for a next promotion, new job, whatever it is. Figure out your plan and just grind on it.”

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