A flight attendant celebrates a milestone birthday with the biggest race of her life
On November 7, more than 30,000 people will take to the streets of the Big Apple for the 50th running of the New York City Marathon. United flight attendant Akiko Higa will be one of them, but on top of the marathon’s golden anniversary, she’ll be celebrating something more personal: her 50th birthday.
United has been a New York City Marathon sponsor for over 20 years, and every year the airline is lucky enough to sponsor a handful of its employees to run in the race. This is Higa’s first time to tackle it.
Higa was born and raised in Japan and made her way to United as a flight attendant when the Tokyo Narita base opened in Japan, where she worked for 24 years, from February 1997 to September 2020. When that United base closed, Higa made her way to New York/Newark, even though her husband was living in Honolulu at the time.
“I grew so much being a United flight attendant, because it’s not only a job but my lifestyle,” Higa says. “I believe every one of us is responsible for making this world a better place every day, so I try to take care of my customers and crews sincerely, like I do with my family and neighbors.”
After taking to the skies for two decades, Higa decided to put her feet on the ground. In 2012, a friend who was running a marathon in San Francisco asked if she wanted to join. Higa thought the marathon would be a good challenge to build up her confidence and become a better version of herself.
“Running my first marathon was overwhelmingly joyful,” she says. “At each mile, I counted a blessing in my life, so it felt like 26 miles was not long enough. The feeling of achievement after crossing the finish line was not just about getting a finisher’s medal but a triumphant celebration of my life.”
Higa wasn’t always a runner—at the time of her first marathon, she had no experience with sports at all. She made a plan for herself, following a four-month training program specifically aimed at marathon newbies who didn’t consider themselves athletes.
She did her best to stick to the regimen, even when her flight schedule may not have allowed it.
“I tried to run when I could,” Higa says. “I did at least one speed run for two to three miles and one long run—gradually adding distance from 10 to up to 20 miles a week—along with two to three easy runs sprinkled in.”
When Higa completed her first marathon, it gave her a new perspective, along with an additional appreciation for life. When the pandemic hit, she decided to take her struggles to the road. Once again, she started to run. “I thought it would be helpful for me to restart by running a marathon, counting my blessings in every mile,” she says.
As Higa began training again for this year’s New York City Marathon, she reflected on how far she’s come since she first completed that 26.2-mile feat. She says it’s not about how fast she finishes but finishing with a smile, and she can’t wait to run in New York, showing her appreciation and gratitude for all the support she’s received from her friends, family, and colleagues in the Big Apple, as well as her family in Narita.
“After all the changes in my life in 2020 and 2021, I’m just as afraid as before my first marathon, feeling that 26 miles is too long to finish,” she says. “But I also know there is no right or wrong way of running a marathon. Enjoy your surroundings, the company, and the course with a smile. Every small step will take you to your goal.”