GO!-ing the distance


Nancy Lieberman is a study in where following one’s passions can lead. She worked as a teacher and selling mimeograph machines before landing in healthcare, where she had several jobs over the course of 20 years. As a single mother raising a daughter, Lieberman took up running not just for exercise, but also to relieve tension and help alleviate migraine headaches.

At the age of 47, when a dear friend was dying of breast cancer, she found herself losing herself in thought on her runs; one day, she ran from Olivette to Clayton before realizing how long she had been running. It was then she decided to try a half-marathon. Soon after, she ran a full marathon. Before she knew it, she was hooked.

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Today, Lieberman, 59, is president and founder of GO! St. Louis. Over the last eight years she has led the organization from an upstart marathon weekend event to one that offers year-round activities aimed at getting St. Louisans healthy and fit. Earlier this year, Lieberman was honored with the 2009 Trailblazer Award, presented by Women’s Running Magazine, which celebrates women who are leaders and pioneers in the sport.

The Jewish Light caught up with Lieberman before Go! St. Louis’s signature event this weekend to discuss getting started as a runner, Jewish connections to athletics and her own fitness goals.

Do you have any tips for those of us who would like to run, but don’t seem to be able to get started?

Yes, run with a friend. One of the things that really helped me is that I have a network of friends who I run with every week. Paul Gallant, president of our board (and a Trustee of the Jewish Light) and “the father” of our running group, calls everyone to tell them where to meet. Afterwards, we all go to St. Louis Bread Company for coffee. Over the years, it’s become a social group and a wonderful opportunity to meet people who you would never have met otherwise.

Why the change from the Spirit of St. Louis Marathon to Go! St. Louis?

In 2007 we did some strategic planning and realized we were more than just a marathon. We did things not only on that weekend for everybody — there are 10 events — but we also do things year-round. We have a corporate-wellness program, educational programs, youth programs. So while we have 20,000 people participate over the signature marathon weekend, only 2,000 run the marathon. By changing the name to GO! St. Louis, it became more inviting and more inclusive. It gives us the opportunity to share all the things we do year-round.

What distinguishes the St. Louis marathon from others around the country?

Some marathons, like New York and Chicago, are exclusively that –marathons. They are also destinations and people make a three-or- four-day weekend to check out the sites. Our weekend is more than a marathon — it’s about the whole community and not just about how fast runners can run. If someone wants to run a marathon, that’s great. If they want to run a 5K, that’s great, too. The idea is to get everyone up and moving.

Where would you like to see it five years from now?

The mission of the organization is to encourage individuals and families to get fit, stay active and eat a nutritional diet year-round. To support this mission, we refine our existing programs and create new ones based on community needs. We have a strong focus on kids with programs such as the “Read, Right & Run Marathon,” which challenges them to read 26 books, “right” the community with 26 good deeds and run 26.2 miles over a six-month period and the new “Students on the GO!” which encourages high school students to run a half-marathon. This summer, we have been asked by the St. Louis Cardinals and Major League Baseball to put on their All-Star Run so when the All-Star Game comes to St. Louis, we will be responsible for putting on the 5K competitive run and 1-miles fun run July 12.

Do you run every day?

No, but I do some form of fitness every day. I prefer triathlons, so I vary my workouts among swimming, running and biking. I also do stretching and Pilates and yoga.

Is there any kind of Jewish connection to exercise or fitness?

Sports and fitness have always been important in the Jewish community. Being a cultural Jew and growing up in that environment has given us — me and our board (several members of whom are Jewish) — a desire to give back to our community and share our passion with others. I think that is something that we as Jews really want to do. And we feel strongly, it is incumbent upon us, to help the community get fit by promoting this year-round fitness program.

Also, in 1993, when my daughter Elissa (Udell) was 15, she was one of six Jewish girls to represent the U.S. in junior tennis at the Maccabiah Games. What an amazing experience it was not just for her, but for me as a parent observing. Jewish athletes from all over the world began the March of the Nations and came into the stadium and when 500 marched under the American flag, I was out of my seat with tears in my eyes. It was one of the most overwhelming experiences of my life — sitting in the stands as a parent of a world-class athlete. A major part of it, too, was being in the Jewish homeland and congregating with Jews from around the world, knowing these are many of the world’s best athletes.

You had a one-of-a-kind athletic honor, too, connected to the Olympics in 2004. Tell us about that.

Prior to lighting the torch at the Olympic Games in Athens, the torch traveled throughout the world and St. Louis was one of the stops for the Olympic Torch Relay. Samsung invited me to represent the company by running one of the legs of the relay when it passed through St. Louis. I was one of only three Jews to participate in St. Louis. What an honor that was.

Any personal goal when it comes to fitness?

Finishing the Ironman Triathlon in Louisville at the end of August. I did two before and completed one and was 10 miles away from the other. I’m doing a half Ironman in Maryland in June. My dream is to qualify for the World Ironman Championship in Hawaii. This would be the time to do it because I’m turning 60 (in October) and would be in a new age group.