Dec 12, 2019

Brittany Charboneau is Laughing All the Way to the Trials

By Barbara Huebner

Among the rules of improv theater are these: There are no mistakes, only opportunities. Don’t deny. Stay present. Say “Yes, and …”

So when comedic performer Brittany Charboneau found herself in the “pinch me” moment of leading in the early miles of the 2018 TCS New York City Marathon – fronting a pack of women that included an Olympic champion in Vivian Cheruiyot and a world record-holder in Mary Keitany – she went to work, telling herself: “I’m running with the best of the best. These women are amazing. Yes, and … I am, too!”

In improv, performers are not allowed to negate the statements of their stage partners. If they say you’re leading the world’s largest marathon, you’re leading the world’s largest marathon. You don’t say “No, that’s crazy.” You say “Yes.” You embrace it and advance the story.

Charboneau, a 31-year-old from Denver and winner of the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon, is hoping to advance hers all the way to the Tokyo Olympics.

“That’s my goal, and I’m training for that,” she said. “For me, if you’re at that level or on the cusp of making the team, you have to approach it and believe it and tell yourself you’re capable of it. Otherwise, you’re defeated. Race and you never know what happens.”

Now that sounds like improv, the art of creating theater in the moment. “Saying ‘yes, and ...’ means you accept the unknown gracefully, which people in sports need to do all the time,” said Denise Maes, co-founder of Bovine Metropolis Theater in Denver, where Charboneau teaches and performs. “It says, ‘You have my attention and I’m going to build on what you just offered me.”

Charboneau heads to Atlanta with a qualifying time of 2:36:25, which she earned in finishing sixth at the 2018 Los Angeles Marathon in late October. She was hoping to improve on that at the 2019 Marine Corps Marathon in late October, where she went in with a goal of 2:28 but was thwarted by rain and heat as she reluctantly settled for a victory in 2:44:47.

“I was ready,” she said. “I still feel like even though it didn’t come together on the day of the race, I know I have that speed and capability in me. I’m more motivated than ever.” She has already traveled to Atlanta twice to scout the course, at Atlanta Track Club’s Road to Gold race this spring and a Club-hosted group test run the weekend before Thanksgiving.

After competing as a walk-on for Colorado State University, from which she graduated in 2010, Charboneau launched a career in sales and marketing that in 2014 included a stint living in Australia. Looking for a way to meet people, she took an acting class and found herself putting a comedic spin on even serious themes and discovered that she loved “the high of making people laugh.” After returning to the States, she lived in Chicago for a while and started taking classes there, studying and writing comedy at theaters including the famed Second City.

In 2015, she won the first race of her life, the Chi Town Half Marathon.

“It all came together at the same time,” she said, of comedy and running. “The two have kind of grown together.”

Perhaps the first public example came one weekend in May 2017. On a Saturday night, she competed in the finals of a months-long contest at Bovine Metropolis Theater to find “Denver’s Next Improv Star,” then set an early alarm to run the Colfax Marathon. After falling short of victory on the stage, she won the marathon a few hours later in a course record 2:52:50, a five-minute personal best.

Soon after, just before getting married, she quit her full-time job at OtterBox (which still sponsors her) because she was “pretty sure I could be a professional runner and make this work and also be this famous actress.”

She acknowledges having no basis on which to justify the decision other than a gut feeling, something in her soul that told her she had to do it.

“Looking back, I’m like ‘what were you thinking,’ but also looking back, I never could have imagined I would be where I’m at right now,” she said.

In 2018, after being inspired at a February workshop at Second City, Charboneau returned to Denver and just three days later – without a single word written – booked Bovine for a June one-woman show. Thus was born “My Long Distance Relationship With Running – From the Early Miles to the Olympic Trials.”

In her 52-minute one-woman show, in which she has an ongoing conversation with a “talking” treadmill, Charboneau takes the audience through a 17-year running journey that began after it became clear that softball wouldn’t work out and she couldn’t afford gymnastics. (When the voice of running tells the 13-year-old newbie they could stay together for the rest of their lives, Charboneau hesitates. “I don’t know if my mom would like it if we had that big of a commitment,” she tells the treadmill as she jogs. “She hasn’t even let me get silky underwear yet.”)

“It’s important to me to not just be running,” she said. “It’s my full-time focus but at the end of the day I also have to have my creative outlets.”

Sometimes they carry over into the training itself. After a back injury forced Charboneau to scratch from the Virgin Money London Marathon this spring, she coach Jenni Nettik decided that her training needed an overhaul and devised theme weeks to inject some fun into her routine. For instance, “Presidents Week” included a run to Lincoln Park in a shirt the color of a copper penny; “Rebel Week” featured a tattoo and backwards running.

“It’s getting some of that creative energy she has and using it to power her through her runs,” said Nettik. “If you overthink it, the fun leaves.”

There will be runners at the Trials, Charboneau readily concedes, who wouldn’t find dressing up as a former president conducive to their training. The same could probably be said for her habit of gleefully picking up pennies on her runs, or even her foray this summer onto the trails – in which she won all three of her races.

But every apparent diversion has a point. Theme weeks keep her fresh. Pennies are seemingly insignificant things that add up, just like miles. Trail races make the hills of Atlanta look a lot smaller.

Another rule of improv? Make statements.

“I’m having fun and training harder than ever, but doing it my way and doing it with just silliness,” said the woman found on Istagram as funnyrunner26.2. “You can accomplish big things while still having fun. Working really hard, but playing.”