Uta Pippig: Sharing the Joy

© Tim De Frisco

© Tim De Frisco

Uta became a world-renown runner as she won three consecutive Boston Marathons, the New York City Marathon, and three times in Berlin. In the process, she won the world over with her smile and the kisses she blew to the crowds on her way to the finish lines. No grimly-set, elite athlete’s face for the doctors’ daughter with a prescription for bridging the divide between athlete and fans.

“The joy of running always has inspired me, and I wanted to share my excitement and make the spectators a part of the joy I was feeling,” she explained. “It was my way of saying ‘Thank you,’ because I always felt that the energy I drew from the crowds helped me run to my limit.”

Now, Uta channels the joy, passion, and discipline she brought to world-class competition into Take The Magic Step®, the health and fitness programs she developed, coaching individuals and groups, and her Take The Magic Step Foundation, as well as her speaking engagements with “Running To Freedom™” and role as a broadcast analyst.

For her Take The Magic Step audience, Uta aims to provide another bridge to a healthier and happier life. “I hope I am able to inspire people whose lives may be on a downturn—because I’ve been there,” she said. “People, for me, are the highest form of art. Each of us is unique. I learn so much from every person I meet. I try to see beyond the expression on their faces, to catch a glimpse of their dreams—but also their struggles and worries. When someone in need asks me how to reach his or her goals it creates in me the desire to be part of a bridge that may help them to advance on their journey. I see their inner beauty and I am in awe.”

Uta has known heartbreak as well as triumph. Her potentially risky departure from the unstable political dictatorship in East Germany… the victory in the “Reunification Marathon” in 1990 that spanned from West Berlin through the Brandenburg Gate into East Berlin… the then unknown pelvic stress fracture that forced her to drop out of the 1996 Olympic Marathon when she was confidently in the lead… and the challenges that come along with starting a business.

She used these life lessons when she designed Take The Magic Step® to be engaging and educational, shaping the content in a way that appeals to nonprofits, schools, companies, athletes and non-athletes alike. Uta shares what she has learned about living a healthy life. She works to help people learn key principles and apply them—joyfully and effectively with her motto “Intensity Meets Playfulness™.” Not everyone is a marathoner, of course, so she adapts the elements of inspiration, fitness, training, nutrition, stress management, and yoga to each individual’s needs.

Her broadcast work lends uncommon insight into running events, particularly the marathon coverage and news segments featuring fitness, training, and yoga. Uta’s partnerships with charitable organizations that promote education, fitness, and health enable her to help others—all possible through her Take The Magic Step Foundation.

The Early Years

© private

© private

Uta was born on September 7, 1965 in Leipzig, East Germany. Once home to Bach and Goethe, it was also the site of the mass demonstrations that ultimately led to the fall of the Berlin Wall. Uta lived there until she was four, when her parents, who were young doctors, moved the family to a town in the countryside outside Berlin. Her parents influenced her deeply, teaching her the value of approaching a task with purpose, persistence, and resilience—all characteristics that are invaluable, particularly to an endurance athlete.

When she was 13, a girlfriend invited her to join ”TSG Blau-Weiß Petershagen,” a youth sports club in her hometown. The elite clubs recruited from these “farm” clubs, making them the foundation of the East German sports system. Uta showed great promise, but running wasn’t yet a priority because her parents, intent on her becoming a doctor, insisted she concentrate on her studies. As Uta explained, “My parents did not see me as the Olympic athlete I dreamed of becoming.”

Uta's first coach: Heinz Lüdemann. © Victah Sailer

Uta

But she was a natural and she excelled. “The joy of running always has inspired me,” she said. Uta loved being part of the team and she loved being outside. She seldom focused on her pace, she remembered, except when she was being timed. It was more important to enjoy the experience. She ran on the streets, on hilly cross-country trails, on flat forest trails, and—her favorite—at the beach during summer vacation.

“It’s the same for anyone today,” she said. “You only need a pair of running shoes, somewhere to run, perhaps a friend to jog with, and a little love of being outside and in nature. With these in place, you only may have to give yourself a tiny push to get out the door and take the magic step outside but, within a few moments, you can start enjoying your run while feeling refreshed and liberated.”

Her training was varied and included running hurdles, and doing the high jump and the long jump. The coach also organized running games, which kept everyone motivated. “These were special days, when I reflect back,” Uta said. “I just went out and raced with my team mates—dressed in cotton shorts and shirts, and wearing canvas shoes. It was a world away from today’s high-tech gear. We ran for the love of it. I often call upon those times to remind myself of the special qualities of running and why I love it so much!”

Running To Freedom™

©  Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Friedrich Gahlbeck, 1986

© Deutsches Bundesarchiv, Friedrich Gahlbeck, 1986

In March of 1983, Uta was recruited by one of the top sports clubs in East Germany, the Army Sports Club in Potsdam, known as ASK. There, in 1986, she met Dieter Hogen. He has been her coach and good friend ever since. Under his tutelage and with a great deal of hard work, she became one of the most successful long distance runners in East Germany. But, despite the successes, the oppressive political system, which didn’t allow her to travel together to the West for competition or pursue the training system she and Dieter envisioned, was preventing her from realizing her potential.

They contemplated defecting, but the risks were too great. Finally, in January 1990, they couldn’t wait any longer. The Berlin Wall had fallen in November, but the Communist Party was still in power, meaning that as a member of the Army Sports Club, Uta would be considered a military deserter if she left East Germany.

“The most challenging race of my life was the one that began in East Berlin on an early January morning in 1990 and ended in West Germany—where freedom and opportunity awaited,” she revealed. “Most runners have to worry about ‘the wall’ that stealthily appears somewhere around the 20-mile mark in a marathon. The wall I faced was 15 feet high, made of steel-reinforced concrete, and topped with barbed wire. It was still manned by troops stationed in watch towers, armed with machine guns, with guard dogs by their sides.”

On January 5, 1990, almost penniless, they drove a small car across the border between East and West Germany. They were not detained and left unscathed, albeit literally with not much more than the clothes on their backs. Three months later, the first free elections were held, and the people of East Germany voted out the Communist Party. As a result, a general amnesty was declared. Uta was no longer a deserter—she was free.

Making the transition to the West was easy, Uta said, because she had often dreamed of freedom that “it felt as if I already had lived in this new world for a long time.”

Boston: The Holy Grail

Happiness after one of her road races in the spring of 1990.  © Uta Pippig and Take The Magic Step

Happiness after one of her road races in the spring of 1990. © Uta Pippig and Take The Magic Step

From behind the Iron Curtain, Uta could only imagine the excitement and drama of the world’s oldest and most revered marathon—Boston. “I started dreaming of the Boston Marathon after I ran in my first World Championships in Rome in 1987,” she said. “I pictured it in my head, imagined over and over what it would be like to run there. But I was on the wrong side of ‘The Wall,’ and it was a dream I thought would never come true.”

But three months after she and Dieter drove into West Berlin her dream was realized. She stood on the starting line in Hopkinton along with the best women runners in the world. Uta finished second, behind the great Portuguese World and Olympic champion, Rosa Mota. But no one who witnessed her gutsy performance that Patriots Day doubted that a new star had been born.

Later that year Uta won the “Reunification Marathon” in Berlin, a race that served as a symbol of freedom to the millions of former East Germans who had dreamed of the day liberty would become a reality. Winning this prestigious race remains one of her most emotional and gratifying victories. Together with 25,000 other runners she had the extraordinary experience of running from the former West Berlin through the historic Brandenburg Gate into what had been East Berlin. “It’s a moment that I will cherish for as long as I live, and I feel fortunate to have shared that special occasion with so many,” she said.

Medical Student or #1 Marathoner?

Uta’s parents had a dream, too—that their daughter would become a doctor, like them. And from 1990 to 1994, continuing her studies she began in East Berlin’s Humboldt University, Uta juggled both her medical studies at the Freie Universität in West Berlin (Free University in Berlin) and world-class running competition. “That’s when I gained an understanding of the lives of so many women who face the challenge every day of fitting in two or more demanding jobs,” she explained. “They work 9 to 5, then come home to cook for their families and raise their children. It is so hard. Finally, I knew I had to choose between medicine and running—but at least I was lucky enough to have a choice.” She decided to focus solely on running. That focus catapulted her to the kind of success that few athletes are able to achieve. It would lead to a headline-making string of victories achieved with the humble grace that made Uta a role model for a generation.

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© private

She had already won two Berlin Marathons and had set up home in Boulder, Colorado, when she went to New York City in the fall of 1993. There she became the only German to win the New York City Marathon. She controlled the race from Mile 11 and crossed the line in Central Park on a warm day in 2:26:24 hours.

Five months later in Boston, Uta wiped out the memory of the defeat by Rosa Mota, winning the 1994 Boston Marathon in a course record time of 2:21:45. In 1995, she was crowned Queen of Boston again. And one year later—on the 100th anniversary of the venerable race—she joined the best in the world, becoming the first woman to officially win the Boston Marathon three consecutive times.

No one who witnessed her courage that day will ever forget it. Beset by embarrassingly visible problems and suffering severe intestinal pain, Uta considered dropping out as early as the fifth mile. Finally, at 7.5 miles, her body refused to go on, and she had to stop running and walked a few steps.

But that was not the end of the story that day in Boston.

With fans providing water to clean herself and urged on by the adoring crowd, Uta started forward again, step by step, mentally drawing on her parents’ teachings of resilience and perseverance. Ever increasing her pace, she dramatically came from 220 yards behind in the final stages to pass Kenya’s Tegla Loroupe—and won the race in 2:27:12. Soon after making history she was hospitalized for days for treatment of ischemic colitis.

The Boston Globe’s Dan Shaughnessy, a dean of sports writers, marveled, “She was Carlton Fisk after clanging a homer off the left-field foul pole. She was Larry Bird after stealing Isiah Thomas’ pass to beat the Pistons. She was Bobby Orr flying through the air after beating the St. Louis Blues to win the Stanley Cup.”

Uta was at the pinnacle of the sport and her career. She was voted Runner of the Year by the Association of International Marathons and Road Races (AIMS) in both 1995 and 1996. And she was ranked #1 in the world in 1994 and 1995 in both the marathon and the half marathon.

But just when she had the world at her feet—literally—fate intervened. Months after her Boston triumph she was the favorite to win the 1996 Olympic Marathon in Atlanta. And she was leading the race when pain increasingly shot through her legs. In agony from what was later diagnosed as a pelvic stress fracture, she fell back to 8th place. Later, she was forced to drop out for the first time in her life. The experience was devastating. “It was a nightmare to have to drop out of a race for the first time—especially at the Olympics. At first when the pain hit me, I thought I could still run well enough to win a medal. But, I was wrong. I ran with my heart and not my head—which made the injury worse. Later, I was hurting so much, that I was not able to endure anymore, I had to depart the race with just 7K to go.”

Suddenly, Uta, always a champion at heart, found herself dealing with illness and injury that would keep her from training properly and competing effectively. In summer 1997, another injury surfaced, and she finally was forced to have complicated foot surgery. She is thankful to have worked with a great team of experts, who gave her the ability to continue to run and train. However, the extended and very long running hours needed for top marathon training was no longer possible due to her weakened foot.

In spring 1998 as Uta slowly recovered from her medical problems and was on the road back to running, a random non-competition drug test found that her Testosterone/Epitestosterone (T/E) level was slightly above that allowed at the time. Although the tests found no banned substances in her system, the German Track and Field Federation (DLV), was forced to enact a suspension and the matter went to review and arbitration, where it ultimately was dropped after two years. Read more

Despite doctors attributing the T/E ratio to Uta’s low levels of epitestosterone caused by active bowel disease, the ordeal was deeply troubling to Uta and triggered bouts of depression. They were only conquered with medical help and the ardent and unwavering support of her family, friends, fans, sponsors, and the media.

Returning to Running

Between 1999 and 2002, Uta returned to good health, good spirits, and a renewed zest for running. In 1999, she had been accepted as a member of USA Track and Field, which gave her the privilege of representing the USA in competition. And her joy was made complete when she was sworn in as a United States citizen on July 3, 2004 in a special ceremony—fittingly close to the finish line of the Boston Marathon.

Uta continued to realize her potential as a competitive athlete, turning her focus to shorter distance Masters races in 2005. Today, she enjoys participating in running and biking events, most of them for charitable causes. She also joins in training runs and bike tours with her friends and clients, often using these events as part of her seminars “Running To Freedom™.”

Sharing the Dream

In 2004, adding a new chapter to her athletic career and life, Uta formulated a program that allows her to share her love for the sport and her enthusiasm for running and fitness. “I saw people struggling with what came naturally to me and I became convinced I could help them.” she said. “I formulated a concept—the fundamental aspects for the philosophy of Take The Magic Step®—through which I share my appreciation of our freedom and my love of exercise, the outdoors, and healthy nutrition. What I had been through gave me the vision to help others as I continue to learn from people who inspire us.”

Thus Take The Magic Step® was born.

As Uta shifted her focus away from that of a full-time professional athlete of great importance to her was the freedom to spend more time helping others and to be dedicated to her work with her charity partners. In early 2008, together with Michael Reger, she established the Take The Magic Step Foundation™ to expand the ability to help children and adults facing health or economic hardships.

Ultimately it is her life’s goal to use her inner joyfulness and experiences to impact others in a positive manner. She said: “I have always believed, and still do, that love, warm-hearted care, sensitive empathy, and light words of understanding, combined with the right interest and knowledge, can move mountains. I hope to gracefully share a common goal with others who seek a happier, more satisfying, and healthier lifestyle. Thankfully, my blessings as an athlete have granted me opportunities that will have benefits that last long after my competitive days are over.”

© Raymond Chisholm

© Raymond Chisholm

For example, she expresses her passion for running and fitness, and strengthens her bond with her fans and fellow runners through charity affiliations that are very special to her. They include the Dana Farber Cancer Research Program (Jimmy Fund) in Boston, where she visits with the children and gives motivational talks, the leadership initiatives of the SOS Outreach Programs in Colorado, and the educational programs of Louisa May Alcott Orchard House in Massachusetts.

Each year Uta is coaching the runners of the Hoyt Foundation in preparation for the traditional Boston Marathon in support of the mission of the amazing father-son-duo Dick and Rick Hoyt to raise awareness of, and help, the physically challenged. She is supporting the “Kinderhilfe” in her hometown in Germany, a charity near Berlin that supports children who are lacking basic necessities including school supplies, transportation or means to attend after-school activities, and also organizes summer holiday camps for the children of the victims of Chernobyl.

She said: “The needs of these wonderful organizations push me to do as much as I can for those who are not as fortunate as we are.”

© AP

© AP

She has always brought her messages to a broad audience and enjoys sharing her experience with students and athletes at schools and universities, as well as serving as a keynote speaker for corporations, non-profit organization, other groups, and at sporting events. Running with President Clinton and appearing on programs like “The Late Show with David Letterman” were joyful and fun experiences. Closest to her heart are her motivational speeches, her coaching of the runners of the Hoyt Foundation in support of Team Hoyt, her corporate engagements, and appearing at the events of her charities partners in support of children, fitness, and education.

In late summer of 2012, she launched her speaking series, “Running To Freedom™.” In these history-inspired presentations she explores the desire for change and discovers together with her audience the fundamental tools needed to help them to be the best they can be and, along the way, draws parallels to their life experiences.

She uses her own journey to freedom as a framework for inspiration, and explores the value of freedom, and how it can be recognized within anyone and how it can become part of THEIR journey to reach desired goals—emotional, physical, or mental—one small step at a time.

© Bundesarchiv/Klaus Lehnartz

© Bundesarchiv/Klaus Lehnartz

Uta said, “I feel fortunate to have had a career filled with excitement and joy. What I most cherish is the freedom many of us can live in, and sharing what I’ve learned—with lessons of heartbreak and triumphs, suppression and freedom. And I hope that one of my vital beliefs of life, ‘The Belief That Change Is Possible,’ and how to keep a joyful approach to this change can be helpful in guiding people who want to move towards a healthier and more  balanced life. And never forget humor!”

Uta continually broadens her knowledge about the correlation between fitness, health, athletics, and one’s spiritual being and longevity. She is constantly furthering her already profound comprehension of inspiration, fitness, nutrition, natural medicine, and yoga.

Her understanding of the complex and intriguing relationship between one’s physical and mental wellbeing enables her to share her ideas and theories with others. One cornerstone of her presentations, seminars and writings was inspired by this quote from the Roman poet Juvenal: “Mens sana in corpore sano”—A healthy mind in a healthy body.”

Through Take The Magic Step she shares her experience and her ongoing research by giving participants clear and succinct information. She hopes to save them from having to navigate the jungle of often-conflicting health facts found in articles, news stories, books, and other online resources.

The Take The Magic Step program emphasizes five core values: inspiration, exercise, nutrition, yoga, and health management, and focuses on providing people with a gentle, tailored, and practical path toward a healthy lifestyle. This Website, which Uta has operated since 2006—as a writer and editor-in-chief leading an international team of contributors, a team she says “…is my family I owe my deepest gratitude to for contributing their support and inspiration to me over the years”—has the goal to help those who want to enhance the quality of their lives with the emphasis on a greater sense of wellbeing achieved and maintained through a combination of inspiration, education, and patience.

Intensity Meets Playfulness™

© Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (photography by Justin Knight)

© Courtesy of Dana-Farber Cancer Institute (photography by Justin Knight)

As a speaker at seminars or workshops, Uta understands that this educational process is sometimes challenging, often joyful, and always rewarding. Uta likes to call it “Intensity Meets Playfulness™—all done one small step at a time!” She says: “We will deploy a joyful and passionate approach: the elated visualization of the most desirable way to live, the exciting and fun journey, and the focus on trying out new things—and why that can be so rewarding. Expect a few laughs since I believe all this can be playful, cheerful, and enjoyable…”

In formats that range from formal presentations to interactive coaching sessions with groups or individuals, Uta reflects on her life in the hopes of prompting audience members and participants to do the same. She discusses how she developed her abilities—the role of feeling inspired and integrating exercise as part of one’s life—and how the state of mind factors in. Along the journey, she draws parallels to one’s life experiences. “It is important to assess one’s being and challenge one’s life direction by asking difficult questions and then sincerely answering them with an open heart,” she says.

Uta’s presentations also examine her own hardships and failures, since these brought forth important life lessons too. Through this exploration, she hopes to help others overcome obstacles and find fulfillment in sport—and life. It is her belief that such honesty and reflection can allow a person to overcome fear, develop the confidence to confront life’s tests, and dare to explore new territory.

Take The Magic Step® is Uta’s way of life and the vehicle she created to listen to people and to mentor them. It incorporates who she is, what she has learned, and what she hopes to share.

As Uta says, “…maybe one day you will come across me with some friends on a forest trail experimenting with running techniques or on a grass track running diagonals barefoot or on a mountain path hiking towards the sky, laughing and chatting away—feeling free together.”

Some of Uta’s Career Highlights

  • Winner of the Berlin Marathon—1990, 1992, and 1995
  • Winner of the Boston Marathon—1994, 1995, and 1996
  • Winner of the New York City Marathon—1993; the only German ever to win
  • Runner of the Year by the Association of International Marathon and Road Races (AIMS) 1995 and 1996
  • Ranked #1 in the world 1994 and 1995 in both the marathon and the half marathon
  • Former German record holder in the marathon: 2:21:45 (2 hours, 21 minutes, and 45 seconds). Recorded at the 1994 Boston Marathon. It was the third-fastest marathon result ever by a woman at that time.
  • German record holder in the half marathon: 67:58 (67 minutes and 58 seconds). Recorded at the 1995 Kyoto Half Marathon.
  • Olympic Games: 7th in the 10,000 meters, Barcelona, 1992; pelvic stress fracture and DNF in the marathon, Atlanta, 1996
  • World Championships: 6th in the 10,000 meters, Tokyo, 1991; 3rd in the 15K, Nieuwegein (NED), 1991; winner with the German team in this event
  • Indoor World Record in the 5,000 meters, Stuttgart, 1991 (15:13.72—15 minutes and 13.72 seconds)
  • Winner of numerous road and cross-country races, and Masters competitions (40+) worldwide
  • Founder, Take The Magic Step, LLC (2004)
  • Co-Founder, Take The Magic Step Foundation (2008)
  • Contributing writer for TODAY Health online, The Boston Globe, German Runner’s World, and other publications
  • Broadcast analyst, Boston Marathon; Berlin Marathon
  • Coach for Dick and Rick Hoyt’s Boston Marathon teams (2008 to 2014)
  • ReBrand 100 Award, 2006, Take The Magic Step
  • Member, Board of Advisors, MIT AgeLab in Boston (2005 to 2010)

© Copyright by Uta Pippig and Take The Magic Step®. All Rights Reserved.