I’m not sure what’s more fascinating about Asmeret. The fact that she is African-born, Swedish-raised and Brooklyn-dwelling, or that she rises at 3am to run (so she can be back in time for when her family wakes at 6.30). She assures me that when going on ‘normal’ runs she gets up at 5am—in a conceding tone that suggests her normal is the same as everyone else’s normal. Asmeret has an alluring ambiguity about her, in that you can’t quite put your finger on what makes her so intriguing, so you are intrigued further. As she shares her story it all starts to make sense—her parents, her upbringing, the things she wants for her daughters (Joie, 6 and Ella Rose, 4). She’s the kind of person you want to be around in the hope that she might rub off on you—to open your eyes a little wider, be a bit more deliberate, run a little further.

“The first run I went on is still so vivid in my mind. I looked up a route around Prospect Park on my phone and thought, 3 miles can’t be that bad. But once I started running I was like—oh my god. I hate this. I hate this! But I kept going, making more and more progress, until I kind of fell in love with it. Before I started running, I had always been active but had never done anything competitive. Then one day I was watching the New York Marathon after I had Joie and thought, I want to do this. But I wasn’t a runner and had never gotten into that consistency that it takes to run a race. It wasn’t until after I had Ella Rose (3 years ago), that I was talking to a friend of mine and said you know what—I really want to run a marathon. With anything I do I have to have goals—I see everything in projects with a start and finish. I need to have that goal in mind to motivate me.

So I decided to run two marathons, one for each daughter,

completely underestimating what went into it; which is how I ended up at Prospect Park that day, hating the 30 minutes that I ran for. But 30 minutes turned into 45 minutes, which turned into an hour, which turned into 2 and then 3 hours. I’ve always been driven by personal progress and development, and it was the same with running.

What I get out of running is constantly changing and always surprising me. What motivated me in the beginning is not necessarily what motivates me now, or what I enjoy about it now. It has been about time for myself, empowerment, being part of a community and getting inspired by others, or at the OKREAL event when we ran with music—that was a new experience for me. I try and be present when I run, so running with music was something different that I really enjoyed. It’s not only about the running in itself, it’s that I’m discovering new things about running at all the time.

This summer I broke my toe and couldn’t run for 6 weeks. I honestly thought I was going crazy. My husband kept asking—when can you start running again? I realized how much I need that time and space. The physical element is important to me, but it’s also a meditative element—it’s a form of therapy and meditation. When I run—and one of the reasons why I like running in the morning—is that it’s my time. It’s the only time I have for myself. I plan, I think, I clear things out of my head. It’s a time for me to connect my head with my body. When I was training for the marathon, getting up at 3am was routine. I have to be home by 6.30am. For my normal runs, I typically get up at 5am. But if I’m doing a 3 hour run, I don’t have the luxury to go at midday. And at night I want to be with my family.

Balance is elusive.

I’m constantly striving for it. The only way to try to achieve it is by always having to re-prioritize. If I’m trying to do everything, it all falls apart. When I had Joie I was working full-time while running my own company, which I sold when she was 7 months old. Following that, I freelanced as a brand consultant on project basis. I went back to full-time in April this year, so I’ve entered another phase. I’m always trying to step back and re-evaluate—What am I doing? What is most important? Am I driving myself crazy? Juggling family, work, friends—the first thing that always goes is myself. I tend to put everyone else first, and have to constantly check myself. Managing it all is constant work.

It is not something that flows. It’s a constant effort.

The things I don’t compromise on are family, time with my kids, and working out. When I’m working out I’m a better person all around. I’m more productive, more efficient. I realize now that I can’t be supermom, superwife or super-worklady at all times—which is why I set goals for different areas of my life. It helps me focus. I think that constant stimulation and having so much going on is part of living in NYC. Even though I am Eritrean and grew up in Sweden, I feel most at home here. As I’ve gotten older I’ve become more culturally self-aware, especially since having my girls and considering how their own identities are going to develop.

I first came to NYC right after high school. In Sweden, we grew up in a diverse, bohemian community that was basically a 70s commune experiment. It was in the middle of an affluent area just outside of Stockholm. There were no cars allowed, there were communal daycare centers and shared vegetable gardens. It was very hippie. For my parents in their early 20s and having recently immigrated from East Africa, it was a completely different way of living for them. My home life was traditional; our parents encouraged us to speak our native tongue and learn about our culture. School was a different dynamic altogether in that they were not diverse at all. They were predominantly native Swedish—not second or third generation. So I had a traditional Eritrean home life, while living in a diverse and alternative community, and then a very Swedish schooling experience. It gave me the tools to appreciate and flourish in completely different cultural environments.

People tend to want to place you in categories… woman, mother, black; and if you don’t fit into a specific mould that someone has of a certain culture, they will try identify you as otherwise. I really appreciate now how adamant our parents were with language, custom and family when they raised us. It gave us a secure identity, we didn’t feel the need to change ourselves in order to fit in.

You’re going to go out into the world where people will tell you what you can and can’t do based on presumptions of who you are.

So having that stable foundation was really important, and it’s something I try and provide for the girls. I want them to feel comfortable in all kinds of environments and around all types of people. Giving my kids that kind of exposure is really important to me—they need it to develop their own voices. It is constantly with me; that I have girls, that I have girls of color, that I am a woman, that I am a woman of color, and to not let myself or my daughters be defined by how others want to define us.”

Asmeret’s #OKREALTALK Tips

  • Set clear, practical goals and use them as motivation for achievement.
  • Balance is not something that flows naturally. Instead of trying to do everything at once, re-prioritize.
  • Are you looking after yourself as well as everyone else?
  • Don't let others define you according to their pre-conceived notions of who you are. A strong sense of self is your best secret weapon.

b. 1977

i. @asmeretasmeret

As told to Amy Woodside, April 2014