Bria Wetsch Marathon Project | How Bria Wetsch Rediscovered Joy in Running – runnersworld.com

Bria Wetsch Marathon Project | How Bria Wetsch Rediscovered Joy in Running  runnersworld.com

With just five kilometers to go in the Marathon Project, it was time for Bria Wetsch to channel her mental strength to capitalize on a difficult moment.

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As her quad muscles burned in the later stages of the course in Chandler, Arizona, Wetsch was struggling to hang onto the sub-2:30 group—an overall time seven minutes faster than her personal best. In the past, the Boulder Underground runner might’ve interpreted the soreness in her legs as a sign of weakness, then accepting defeat and falling behind the pack.

But not this time. She thought, “let’s dance,” the mantra she repeated to herself on runs prior in anticipation for this challenge. “It shifted my perspective from the pain and the hurt to this is fun. You get to do this, and you’re grateful for this,” Wetsch, 32, tells Runner’s World.

Minutes later, she crossed the finish line 10th in 2:29:50, shattering her previous career best of 2:37:16.

While the performance is a vast improvement, it wasn’t unexpected for Wetsch; she believed her breakthrough would come, thanks to a shift in mindset inspired by her fiancé, coaches, and teammates. They helped Wetsch regain her confidence and ultimately find joy in running again after years of hardship—navigating high expectations as a prep standout; a fractured relationship with her father, who is serving his second prison sentence; bouts of depression; and bilateral Achilles surgery three years ago. For Wetsch, the Marathon Project performance wasn’t just a PR. It was the achievement of a lifelong goal that she can now fully appreciate.

“Enduring a lot of things in my life, and to finally be back on top, I’m really proud of myself,” Wetsch says. “If you’d asked me five years ago, if I was proud of myself or enjoying my journey, I probably would have said no. To be here doing what I love, having fun, enjoying the day-to-day process and being in the moment, I’m really grateful.”


Wetsch was 11 years old when she decided she wanted to be an Olympic runner. Growing up in Chaska, Minnesota—a suburb outside of the Minneapolis-St. Paul metropolis—Wetsch soon became one of the fastest high school runners in the country. While competing for Holy Family Catholic, she won state titles in the 3200 meters as a sophomore, junior, and senior. She also finished top 10 at the USA Junior Cross Country Championships two years in a row. In her senior track season, she won the 2-mile at the 2006 Nike Outdoor Nationals. Wetsch’s accomplishments earned her a spot on the nationally ranked track team at the University of Oregon.

Courtesy of Bria Wetsch

But with so much success at a young age, Wetsch says she also put a lot of pressure on herself, comparing her performances to other runners and equating her self-worth to race times. “I had to be the best at everything I did,” she explains.

In 2005, when she was 17 years old, Wetsch’s life changed forever when her father, Mark Wetsch was imprisoned after being convicted of defrauding a Twin Cities nursing home, where he had worked, out of $1.4 million; he used part of that money to finance his daughter’s training, according to the Star Tribune.

When Mark was sentenced, Bria started to doubt everything in her life, including her ability to run at a high level. “I didn’t blame myself, but I thought, how could you not know this had been going on?” she says. “I lost trust in myself.”

Competing at Oregon, one of the most prestigious collegiate programs in the country, created another high-pressure environment for Wetsch. She struggled with injuries and underwent surgery on her hamstring, and she didn’t know how to handle the low points that came along with that. “I felt that I didn’t really matter as a person because there was another girl who could take my place easily,” she says. “That was hard to deal with.”

Instead of trying to succeed, Wetsch says she was trying not to fail. In the process, she lost sight of the reason why she enjoyed running in the first place.

At the same time, Wetsch was also navigating her anger toward her father, who was released from jail after three years and later remarried. She says she felt abandoned and didn’t recognize him as the father she grew up with. “There’s no handbook for this,” she says. “I lost myself just because I didn’t know how to deal with any of these heavy things going on in my life—to lose a parent and to lose that love.”

In 2014, Mark—who changed his name to Sheikh Bilaal Muhammad Arafat—was sentenced to 14 years in federal prison for 31 bank robberies, according to the Duluth News Tribune.

Wetsch hasn’t spoken to her father in 10 years. Over time, she’s let go of her anger towards him and found a way to move forward by leaving the past behind and focusing on the support from her mom and two younger siblings. “I didn’t need to let what he did absorb me and become my identity,” she says. “I can forge my own new path, and it can be light and positive.”

After she graduated from college, Wetsch continued to run while working as an accountant in Portland, Oregon. In 2013, she decided to put all her effort into running full-time, so she quit her job and moved to Mammoth Lakes, California. Early on, she felt pain in her Achilles tendon, but continued to train because she assumed it was a mild case of tendonitis. Eventually the pain became so great that she struggled to walk.

“If you’d asked me five years ago, if I was proud of myself or enjoying my journey, I probably would have said no.”

In Mammoth, she started dating her now-fiancé, Aaron Lange, who was recovering from a torn ACL when they met. Over time, they learned to navigate the challenges of injury together. He recognized that Bria was slow to open up, so he showed up for her even when she didn’t expect it; skipping the back-and-forth logistics to make plans, he’d take her out for a spontaneous dinner, or if they got into an argument, he’d be mindful of getting overly defensive and listen until they resolved the issue together. “When you care about someone, you don’t storm off and never talk to them again,” Lange tells Runner’s World. “It was cool to see her understand what it’s like to be in a relationship beyond what she had experienced before.”

In the summer of 2016, Wetsch and Lange moved to Boulder, Colorado. Without a job outside of running, Wetsch felt she was missing balance in her life, so she started working as an accountant again. That fall, she joined coach Lee Troop’s training group, the Boulder Track Club. Looking back on that point in time, Wetsch credits Troop for helping her rediscover the happiness in running.

Wetsch’s first race under Troop’s guidance was the Golden Gallop—a local 5K in Golden, Colorado—in September 2016. Prior to the race, she said Troop advised her to “have fun,” a recommendation that came as a shock to the elite runner who spent years hyper-focused on times and performance-oriented goals. “I was like, have fun? What does that even mean?” Wetsch says.

In the spring of 2017, Wetsch ran a personal best of 1:16:33 at the Pittsburgh Half Marathon. But at the same time, her Achilles pain became unbearable. A doctor informed her she had bone spurs that were shredding her Achilles tendons on both feet. To prevent her from having pain for the rest of her life, she underwent bilateral Achilles surgery in November 2017.

After the procedure, Wetsch had to relearn how to walk and grapple with the possibility that she may never run again. But following 13 weeks of rehabilitation—including six weeks in two boots and crutches, and a week spent in a wheelchair—she was back to running.

But Wetsch’s world was rocked again in February 2018, when marathoner Jonathan Grey lost his battle with depression and died by suicide at 29 years old. Wetsch was especially close to Grey; he would wake up 30 minutes earlier to meet her for long runs she’d otherwise have to start solo because her mileage was higher than the rest of the group. “He was a really great friend,” she says.

Wetsch says Grey’s death was devastating and also relatable to her own experience of dealing with depression in her early 20s. The loss ultimately made her reevaluate her environment and realize she needed to make a change. “It was hard for me to keep training in the group while we were all sharing these emotions,” she says. “We were all struggling. I had to step back and wanted to be training on my own and focusing on myself.”

In the process of healing, Wetsch and Lange went on a two-week vacation to Iceland in May 2018, to celebrate her 30th birthday. During the trip, Wetsch had a realization on a run that became another turning point in her journey.

They set out to do three miles on the Latrabjarg cliff—the westernmost point in Europe known for its high concentration of sea birds—with the goal of finding puffins. With the waves crashing below and the sun shining on their search, Wetsch says she stopped focusing on the run itself and instead enjoyed the moment in nature. What started as a 3-mile run turned into 10 with a fast mile at the end.

“It was then that I was like, this is the secret,” Wetsch says. “Running is hard and yes, you need to be tough, but it’s so much more than that. You need to be loving every second of it and you need to have passion in it.”

Three months later, Lange proposed to Wetsch in front of friends in their backyard. “[Lange] really showed me how to love again, to believe in love, and to love myself,” she says.


In November 2018, Wetsch was training on her own and looking for guidance ahead of the California International Marathon (CIM) in December. Matt Hensley of Boulder Underground was working with Lange at the time, and she reached out to him to see if he could assist her as well.

For the first time in years, Wetsch competed pain-free in Sacramento, California. She was also able to hone in on the positive mindset she’d been practicing with Hensley. Wetsch says she remembers the negative thoughts started to creep in around mile 20, but she was able to use cheers from spectators to shift her perspective and appreciate the pain of a hard effort rather than pain from injury. “I thought, stop thinking about the expectations of what if you fail,” she says. “What if you succeed?”

Thirteen months after surgery, Wetsch ran a five-minute personal best by finishing 14th in 2:37:16 at CIM. She considers that race a celebration point in her career.

Hensley has since transitioned into Wetsch’s full-time coach, and helps her find joy in the everyday process by introducing mental health tools—including daily meditation, mindfulness, and visualization practices—which have helped Wetsch become more self-aware and shown her how to trust her ability. “[Hensley] helped me realize that if I show up everyday with a smile and have fun doing it, things would turn around and eventually I would reach my lofty goals,” Wetsch says.

Hensley also reframed her training with a focus on process-oriented goals (enjoying the everyday and supporting teammates, for example) and effort-based workouts instead of putting the emphasis on splits. And he encourages all of his athletes to find the positive elements in every situation. According to Hensley, there’s no such thing as a bad workout.

“You should leave workouts and take as much positive as you can from it,” Hensley tells Runner’s World. “So if it was a slower day, [think] I strengthened coping mechanisms, I learned to stay relaxed when I was uncomfortable—all these little benefits that you can get.”

In 2019, Wetsch ran four personal bests, including a time of 1:14:22 at the Philadelphia Rock ‘n’ Roll Half Marathon. In February 2020, she finished 27th in the U.S. Olympic Marathon Trials in Atlanta, her highest finish ever at the championship.

“I thought, stop thinking about what if you fail. What if you succeed?”

After the COVID-19 outbreak forced most major races and sports events to be canceled, Wetsch and Hensley focused on goals that she considered exciting. “What we’re trying to do is create a happy, fun environment where she can test herself, but also dabble in some other things that really interest her,” Hensley says.

This fall, that meant competing in her first trail race. On September 26, 2020, she finished third at the USATF Half Marathon Trail Championships in Hayward, Wisconsin.

By the time she arrived in Chandler, Arizona for the Marathon Project in December, Wetsch felt ready for a great effort, and it finally came to fruition when she focused on joy in the moment. Just as she made a choice to find the positive in the last three miles of the race, Wetsch knows she has the ability to make that decision in every aspect of her life.

“For a long time, I was waiting for someone to tell me that things were going to be okay,” Wetsch says. “I had to come to that realization for myself, that things would be okay and I could turn my life around. … I had the choice to get out and that’s really empowering because it was all within myself all along.”

Taylor Dutch is a sports and fitness writer living in Chicago; a former NCAA track athlete, Taylor specializes in health, wellness, and endurance sports coverage.

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