Our Mothers Ourselves

Michiko Miki Gorman: New York City and Boston Marathon winner. A Conversation with Danielle Mika Nagel

June 28, 2020 Danielle Mika Nagel Season 1 Episode 8
Our Mothers Ourselves
Michiko Miki Gorman: New York City and Boston Marathon winner. A Conversation with Danielle Mika Nagel
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Our Mothers Ourselves
Michiko Miki Gorman: New York City and Boston Marathon winner. A Conversation with Danielle Mika Nagel
Jun 28, 2020 Season 1 Episode 8
Danielle Mika Nagel


This week, Katie talks with Danielle Mika Nagel, Director of Mindfulness at Lululemon, about her mother, Michiko "Miki" Gorman, the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon, in 1976. Four decades passed before another American woman won that race.

Gorman arrived in the U.S. from a small Japanese village in 1963, at age 28, took up running in her 30s, and never stopped. She was so accustomed to running 100 miles at a time that a marathon was a relative cinch. She won the New York Marathon twice, and the Boston Marathon twice.

Danielle talks about her mother's optimism and grit in spite of growing up in a Japanese culture that expected women to be submissive and unambitious.

Gorman died in 2015, at age 80. Her 2018 obituary appeared in The New York Times's Overlooked No More series of belated tributes.


Don't forget to visit us at ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.

Music composed and performed by
Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Intern: Rosie Manock (@RosieManock)


Show Notes Transcript


This week, Katie talks with Danielle Mika Nagel, Director of Mindfulness at Lululemon, about her mother, Michiko "Miki" Gorman, the first American woman to win the New York City Marathon, in 1976. Four decades passed before another American woman won that race.

Gorman arrived in the U.S. from a small Japanese village in 1963, at age 28, took up running in her 30s, and never stopped. She was so accustomed to running 100 miles at a time that a marathon was a relative cinch. She won the New York Marathon twice, and the Boston Marathon twice.

Danielle talks about her mother's optimism and grit in spite of growing up in a Japanese culture that expected women to be submissive and unambitious.

Gorman died in 2015, at age 80. Her 2018 obituary appeared in The New York Times's Overlooked No More series of belated tributes.


Don't forget to visit us at ourmothersourselves.com. And while you're there, please contribute your word to the mother word cloud.

Music composed and performed by
Andrea Perry.
Artwork by Paula Mangin. (@PaulaBallah)
Producer: Alice Hudson
Intern: Rosie Manock (@RosieManock)


Intro :

Katie Hafner :

Danielle, if you had to choose one word to describe your mother, what would that word be?

Danielle Nagel :

I would say gritty.

Katie Hafner :

Gritty!

Danielle Nagel :

Yes, gritty. There was so much tenacity and drive. She's gonna be so mad that I chose that word.

Katie Hafner :

Welcome to Our Mothers Ourselves, a weekly conversation about one extraordinary mother. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host.

Danielle Nagel :

Try to imagine this. It's 1963. You're a 28 year old woman from a poor family in Japan. You've just made the bold decision to leave Japan and move to Los Angeles by yourself. And you barely speak a word of English. You take up running, running becomes your glorious obsession. You can run a hundred miles at a stretch. Thirteen years later, it's 1976 and you've just turned 40. You're married now and you've just had a baby. You decide to run the New York City Marathon, the world's biggest race, and you win it. Even better, you become the first American woman to win it. Then you win it again the next year and four decades go by before another American woman wins that race. My guest today is Danielle 'Mika' Nagel, she the director of mindfulness at Lulu Lemon, and she's the daughter of Michiko 'Miki' Gorman, the runner I just described. Danielle, thank you so much for talking to me today about your mom. She sounds like she was a really incredible woman. She was and it's challenging for me to sometimes refer to her in the past tense. So during our conversation, I may flip to present or past and I already feel like I need to get a box of Kleenex.

Katie Hafner :

Do you have a box of Kleenex there?

Danielle Nagel :

I do. But when I told my friend, a good friend of mine that I was doing this, she said, Oh, you better get those box of tissues. That's the only thing you cry about these days.

Katie Hafner :

So um, the way that I even came to this idea to talk to you is that sometimes I write obituaries for the New York Times and there's a special series called "Overlooked No More" about people whose obits weren't done at the time they died. And I was talking to Amy Padnani who's the editor of that special series. And she said, "You know, you should really talk to Miki Gorman's daughter." I said, "Okay, who's Miki Gorman?" And she sent me the link to your mom's obon. And I have to say, I'm a little bit surprised that the Times didn't run an obituary at the time of her death in 2015. It took three years before an obit was actually written. Do you remember that at all?

Danielle Nagel :

No, I was. So in my. I was going through a lot of anger and sadness, that... I mean, I didn't tell anybody that my mom passed away for a couple of weeks. I told just my family and her very close friends. I didn't want to put it out there into the world, because I felt like it finalized her death. And even saying "her death" sounds so final, even now. So I wanted to keep all that kind of close, so I could feel that she was still alive with me in this space. And then when I finally did I, I did get a lot of people starting to email me from the from her running community. Yeah, if the Times had posted something, I probably, I wouldn't have even noticed it.

Katie Hafner :

Okay, let's start with a little pop quiz. One thing I do well, I've been doing it for a long time. I wrote a book about my own relationship with my mother a few years ago. And I would give book talks, and I had this notebook and I would send the notebook around and ask everyone to write down one word to describe their mother. So if I were to ask you, what one word would you use to just scribed your mother, Danielle, what would that word be?

Danielle Nagel :

I would say gritty.

Katie Hafner :

Gritty!

Danielle Nagel :

Yes, gritty but graceful as well. It's challenging to sum it up in one word for her. But there was so much tenacity and drive at she persevered, even when she didn't have cheerleaders supporting her. She's gonna be so mad that I chose that word. I'm supposed to be graceful and beautiful and elegant. She would have much preferred that I had used a word like that to describe her.

Katie Hafner :

Did she talk much about her childhood? It sounds like it was not a very easy childhood.

Danielle Nagel :

She did tell me stories about her childhood. She definitely did not live a privileged life at all. She grew up in China for the first ten years. So she was born in Qingdao and lived there for the first ten years of her life. It was during, yeah actually it was 1935. So it was before the war, but then she had moved back to Japan with her parents and stayed there till she was about 28 years old when she moved to the States. Did her parents stay in Japan? My grandfather passed away when she was, I believe, 21. Then her mother, my grandmother had stayed in Japan, her brothers as well, and she came by herself. Really brave. And what's sparked the whole idea to come to the States? I think for my mom, it's part of this vision that she had. She is such, and this is where I go back to present and past tense, but she is such a dreamer. And that's what she instilled than me too. She would always say, "Anything as possible. Whatever you want in your life, you can create." So I think for her, she really looked at the States as an opportunity for a new life, a better life. And as soon as she got there, I knew she was living at the Salvation Army like woman's housing...

Katie Hafner :

In?

Danielle Nagel :

In Los Angeles. I think it was $80 a month for rent. And two meals were included. So she only had those two meals. She been, I think made like $100 a month at her secretary job. So the $20 she was sending back to her mom in Japan.

Katie Hafner :

So when she showed up in the in the United States, she had $10 in her pocket. Do you have trouble imagining anyone who would come to this country with $10 in their pocket?

Danielle Nagel :

Yes. I cannot imagine the trust, the leap of faith, the courage that it took. I mean, 28 is not that young. And by 28, I think you you are.. I think most people would think about consequences and like, "Okay, what if this doesn't work out?" But at 28, for her to have that courage to say, "Okay, I'm going to leave everything that I know, go to another country where don't speak the language, and just like take this leap of faith." I mean, it kind of tells me that Japan for her at that time was, it was not a place that she envisioned for her future or for her, her family. And how old was she when she married your dad? She was... okay she was 39 when she had me, and it took them about seven or eight years. So I think she was about 31.

Katie Hafner :

So what I've read into is that she was just so light, five feet tall, 89 pounds, and that your dad said, "You know, you could go to the gym, and then you gain some weight because you'd be hungry." Right?

Danielle Nagel :

Right. Well, my mom always had a pretty big appetite. She is one of those types of people who is so small but able to eat like, large, extra large size ramen. So that's something that's one of our comfort foods that we'd always have together is ramen. So yeah, she would have like an extra large bowl. And somehow she wouldn't gain weight. Perhaps it was also just for her overall wellbeing. And so my dad had suggested "Oh, why don't you go to the Athletic Club with me." And so this little person starts running and loves it. And I guess kind of catches the running bug. Mhm. I think for her running was kind of like transcending. So it was her meditation, she was very musical. And the way in which, which she ran, some of her friends would describe her as having a built in metronome, where she was anchored to the beat of the rhythm that she set for herself. And so when people would run with her, they would also anchor to her beat, she would be that lead. So I feel like from talking to my mom, because I'm not a runner at all. And I would say, "How do you get past all these thoughts where when I start running, I say to myself, 'Ugh, I feel so heavy. This is so exhausting, I want to stop.'" And she would say, "Those are the what we call the junk time at the beginning. And you've got to get past those first few miles where your mind is telling you to stop. And then you move into a place of just absolute, I would use the term transcendence. Of just being in the flow, being in the zone. You're not distracted anymore by your limiting beliefs and you're in this state where you're absolutely connected." And she said when she would get there, she she would run for a hundred miles, which she did.

Katie Hafner :

Amazing. Yes, she was a hundred miler. And so running a marathon was nothing.

Danielle Nagel :

Hopefully.

Katie Hafner :

Okay, so she trains for the New York City Marathon. And then the famous scene where she's eating at a magic pan restaurant?

Danielle Nagel :

The night before. It is such a cute story. Yeah, she's at the magic pan restaurant and she orders to spinach souffles. The people next to her, a couple, just looked at her like, "Yeah, how, how is this tiny woman eating two entrees?" So she turns to them and says, "I'm gonna win the New York City Marathon tomorrow." And they were both so shocked. They're like, "What?" She said "Yes, I'm going to win." And so they said, "Okay, we'll see you tomorrow at the finish line."

Katie Hafner :

And they were there!

Danielle Nagel :

And they were there! I asked my mom after I said, "Oh my gosh, do they end up showing up?" And she said, "Yes, they were right there waiting for me! They were so excited!" That's amazing. I mean, the talk, I mean, I hate to disappoint your mother but gritty really comes to mind. I mean, she then decides, so she, she runs it. And she was behind the, the kind of the favorite who was favored to win. Then she sees, first she can't see her because she's so far ahead of your mom. She's running alongside her, and then she overtakes her and she tries not to seem tired. Your mom tries not to seem tired, and she just goes, she, although she's exhausted. She's sprints ahead. And then this woman is in her rearview mirror for the rest of the race. And she wins, and there the magic pan people. Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And you were how old?

Danielle Nagel :

That was, I was born in '75. So I can't remember which one that was. Necause she won the New York twice, and the Boston Marathon twice as well. And so did people recognize her? Do you know? Would they recognize her on the street? They would. I mean, these are stories that she would tell me later because I was.. When she was winning I was an infant. And when we would go back she was inducted in the Hall of Fame several years ago, I want to say a few years ago, but she passed away a few years ago, when we went to New York. It was like all these people remembered her and she definitely left a legacy. She left your dad when you were how old? Seven.

Katie Hafner :

Seven. And she raised you by herself. And it sounds like she was a very devoted mom.

Danielle Nagel :

She totally was. Imean after she left my dad, she never dated anyone. She was completely focused on me. She was driving me, I mean, now as a mother myself, I'm wondering how she had the energy to do all the things that she did for me. Like driving me to ballet classes, piano lessons, school, also being a secretary. And running? So at one point, that's when I think she just said, "I need to let go of the running." Well, also, let's see. So she was then, by that time, in her 40's and 50's. Correct. So she wasn't competing, but she did continue to run as, as I mean as a form of exercise.

Katie Hafner :

I see. And because it was her, it was her space. It was, as you said, her meditation, or it gave her equilibrium.

Danielle Nagel :

Power too. I mean, when I think about the Japanese culture during the time she was growing up in Japan with some of the cultural differences, like inequality, the gender inequality and back then it was just so much more present. So I think for her, she was raised in a way where women were taught to be subservient. Women were supposed to be in the kitchen. They were to serve the husband. So a lot of her beliefs were also like that too. And I'm surprised at how much my mom was able to just break those beliefs down, even though they were core to how she was brought up. And they were still there, but she was able to detach from them too. So I think the running gave her this space where she was equal to men. I mean, she was beating men. She was winning. And it allowed her to have this sense of power. Like, "Yeah, I'm, I'm the same as everyone else. I'm not beneath anyone." Yeah, it reminds me that I am, I was reading your blog series about her, her illness and her death. And you said that you had come across an old letter or something in her journal. She'd written a journal entry, where she said, "I'm so good," in this subservient tone, "When you were born, I'm so glad I was able to give Mike a child." Yes.

Katie Hafner :

And your reaction was, "That's not the power mother I know." That was, that the tone was of subservience. Right?

Danielle Nagel :

Right. And there's some relationships in which we can revert back to that old pattern. And so sometimes I would witness that with my mom and my dad. Where she would kind of revert back a little bit to more of the subservient wife, even up until her death. And that would drive me crazy. And do you have any sense of why she left? Why she left my dad? I feel like the two of them.. I mean, my dad is a really sweet human being. I just can't see them in great partnership together. And perhaps part of it was also the language barrier, and maybe the cultural barrier too. But yeah, I don't, I don't think that they were a good match for one another. I mean, maybe they were. Who am I to say if they were a good match or not. I mean, they were they were together for fourteen years, which is crazy to think about that they lasted that long. Japanese, obviously was her first language. Mm hmm

Katie Hafner :

And how, how was her English?

Danielle Nagel :

Her English was was pretty good, especially learning English as a second language when you're an adult. Japanese was definitely her her mother tongue and so she felt most comfortable in Japanese. And then with her and we we always mixed. Spoke Japanese and English. I would speak mainly half and half and she would be speaking primarily in Japanese. And then my grandmother didn't speak any English. So I would spend a lot of time with my grandmother too, especially when my mom was out running. I would be with my grandma.

Katie Hafner :

Did you ever resent it that she was out running?

Danielle Nagel :

Oh, no. No, I always wanted my mom, because she's spent so much energy on me, I would always want her to date. I was more like, "Go out!" And I think perhaps as a teenager too, I appreciated my freedom when she wasn't in the house. So there's probably some, some like selfish desire in me telling her to do things too.

Katie Hafner :

You said in one of your blog posts, that she was always fast at everything. Everything had to be a race and a competition. If she was driving, she was cutting off other drivers.

Danielle Nagel :

Yeah.

Katie Hafner :

If there was a line to check out at the grocery store, she was speeding through.

Danielle Nagel :

Yes, all the time.

Katie Hafner :

That's not very zen.

Danielle Nagel :

No, definitely it's not. No, she wasn't very zen. I mean, she was.. So some say that the Japanese culture, externally we may seem like we're we're put together.. And maybe I'm just, I'm just, I should just talk about my my mom and myself. We're gracious. But then once those doors are shut. Then we're like screaming, and we're loud. And it's the complete opposite of what we may be showing. But that's kind of how it was. So she would, yeah, she would just be racing all the time. Or competing in some way too. So very competitive. Well, of course. I mean you can't win a marathon, a big marathon, the New York City Marathon unless you are competitive. Right. And competitive in all things.

Katie Hafner :

Interesting. She sounds like a multi-layered person.

Danielle Nagel :

Yes, yeah.

Katie Hafner :

So when she got sick, and it was with lung cancer. Right?

Danielle Nagel :

I was shocked. I mean, she was probably one of the healthiest people I've ever known. I mean, she had pretty much a macrobiotic diet. Not that- that was just the way in which he grew up, never smoked. And so for the doctor to say lung cancer, I mean, I was just completely shocked. And then he explained this is non small cell lung cancer. So it's not unnecessarily- it's not from nicotine. And you must have felt, so you were the only child and you must have felt an incredible burden. Because what you were seeing was this gradual, and then when she got diagnosed, sudden reversal of roles. Mhm.

Katie Hafner :

She had taken care of you for all those years, and then you were taking care of her.

Danielle Nagel :

Right.

Katie Hafner :

Did she accept the caregiving?

Danielle Nagel :

Oh totally. That was also a journey.

Katie Hafner :

So, so what would you say? In what way did she shape who you are?

Danielle Nagel :

Yeah, my mom has impacted me so much and who I am today. And sometimes the experience of watching her and being a first generation Japanese immigrant, I can, I can sometimes take that on too. That experience of subservience occasionally. And then sometimes I swing completely in the other direction. Because I'm like, "Aw hell no, no one's ever going to talk to me like that." You know, I'll go into that direction too. So any strength I have is from her and she's so much stronger than I am. I have a competitive drive too but not as much as my mom. I think it has been diluted through me. I'm definitely lazy. When it comes to physical exercise, mean, you know, I'll walk and she'll run. And this was happening when she was in her 70's. I couldn't even keep up with her.

Katie Hafner :

And what did she give you that's very positive that you want to pass on to your daughters? You have two daughters?

Danielle Nagel :

Yes, they're 13 and 15. I think one of the most positive things is that she really believed and demonstrated that anything is possible. That's a lesson that I want to share with my daughters as well. That they can do anything they want to. And that might tie into my next question, which is what was the best advice she ever gave you? You know, it's kind of like, I think it's in line with this "you can do anything you want to." But I remember, and I don't know if I put this in my blog post, but I remember I was in her place in Los Angeles. I had married my first husband. Just like a week before. I was in my bedroom, my old bedroom I grew up in, in LA. I'm crying. And my mom comes over to me she's stroking my hair. And she's like, "Don't worry, Mika-chan." And she never called me Danielle unless she was really mad. So she's always called me by my Japanese name.

Katie Hafner :

Which is what?

Danielle Nagel :

Mika. It's Mika. But then when you're speaking to a child, or you're speaking to somebody who's younger than you are, or, like conversational friends, you add 'chan.' It's like the more casual, endearing form of 'san.' A parent would never say, like, Katie-san, they would think Katie-chan. So my mom would say, "Mika-chan, don't worry, you know, people get married two, three, four times. You can get a divorce. You can get married again, who cares?" And so that's just what I remember. Because I was crying thinking, "Oh my gosh, I made the biggest mistake by marrying this person." And yeah, I think that was the best advice that I can think of right now in this moment. So you, and you did. You divorced that person. Right!

Katie Hafner :

Found your person.

Danielle Nagel :

Yes.

Katie Hafner :

Found the right person. And she never did. Do you think that just isn't something she wanted? Or might have been a little gun-shy?

Danielle Nagel :

Yeah. I think part of her I think also growing up in Japan, she's not, she was never like the proactive. She's not going to start dating people. And I think so much of her attention was on raising me that she didn't put any effort into that.

Katie Hafner :

Mm.

Danielle Nagel :

I did really want her to, to experience like a beautiful partnership.

Katie Hafner :

That makes me sad. Because it sounds like she had so much to give.

Danielle Nagel :

She did. I mean, I think also the problem was, she just looked so young. She was 70 but she looked like she was 40. So when she would get asked out, it was always by people who were like 20 or 30 years younger than she was. And my mom would say, "Oh my gosh, I'm old enough to be your mother." And I'm like, "Don't say that, just go for it!" Yeah. Did she ever take you back to the village in Japan? She might have taken me when I was really young, but I don't have any memory of it. Her town is called Minami Izu.

Katie Hafner :

Which I understand has, they have a race named after her? Is that right?

Danielle Nagel :

Right. I know, it's called the Gorman cup. It's, I think it's a 10K. And the year that my mom passed away, it was so beautiful. And they had sent me some photos and all the runners. It's still, it's still emotional for me to talk about this, but all the runners had tied black bands around their arm. But I do, I do want to go and visit that town and, and maybe walk the race. Danielle, I want to thank you so much for talking to me. You know I really appreciated you reaching out. And when I received your email, I know I already said this to you in my response, but just tears came into my eyes. I was so grateful. Brings my mom back into this space for me.

Katie Hafner :

And that's it this week for Our Mothers Ourselves. Our theme music was composed and performed by Andrea Perry. Paula Mangin is our artist-in- residence. And a special thanks to Susan Kare, who helped with graphic design this week. If you have a mother to suggest -- and she can be your own -- send an email to [email protected] Our Mothers Ourselves is a production of Odradek Studios. I'm Katie Hafner, and I'm your host. Have a great week everyone and stay safe. (This transcript was proofread by Benjy Wachter.)