How to Be Happy, According to the First Deaf-Born Person to Run Every Major Marathon

Thomas Eller talks Tokyo, superpowers and daydreaming to the finish line

January 30, 2023 5:50 am
A photo of German marathoner Thomas Eller against a background of blue skies.
After four rollercoaster decades, Thomas Eller is at his happiest.
Courtesy of Thomas Eller

This is The Cloud Nine, a series dedicated to unraveling happiness — in all its wonderful, pesky forms. In each edition, we’ll ask an interesting person exactly nine questions about their personal pursuit of happiness. How it’s intersected with success, love, memory, drugs, art, grief, exercise…you name it.

Over one million people run a marathon each year, but since the World Marathon Majors started keeping track in 2016, only about 8,000 have completed all six of the circuit’s prestigious races: Berlin, Boston, Chicago, London, New York, Tokyo.

It’s a remarkable feat, which requires preparation, sacrifice and accountability in their most brain-bending forms — running before the sun rises and after it sets; running when it’s below freezing and when it’s over 100°F; remaining focused enough to register for races on the other side of the world; remaining fast enough to qualify for races on the other side; somehow staying healthy and happy(ish) through it all.

Thomas Eller will join the ranks of these hallowed few when he crosses the finish line at the Tokyo Marathon this upcoming March 5th. And in doing so, he’ll become the very first deaf-born Six Star finisher.

The 42-year-old is a native of Essen, Germany, where he now teaches Deaf students, and run marathons everywhere from Jordan (Petra Desert) to Greenland (Polar Circle). He ran 11 in 2019, alone. But he says that a few hours in Japan this spring will mark the pinnacle of his running career, as resounding proof that Deaf people “can achieve big things in their lives.”

In fact, for Eller, “deafness is happiness.” So too is running and teaching and traveling…and even just closing his eyes. We spoke to the marathoner on how far he’s come, how his relationship with the “hearing community” has changed, his happiest memory and his hopes for the next 25 years.

Eller finishing the Matterhorn Ultraks on his birthday last July.
Courtesy of Thomas Eller

1. What role does running play in your happiness? 
When I’m running I feel free as a bird. I leave my mobile phone at home and enjoy the nature outside…whether it’s raining, snowing, cold, hot, windy or foggy. It’s the biggest gift in my life and always makes me happy. Running is how I calm down and relax. I like that I can do what I want and decide where to run. So many beautiful things can happen during a run: meeting a friendly dog, enjoying the warmth of the sun, seeing the flowers blooming around you, meeting your friends unexpectedly, receiving a smile from a stranger…it always helps me keep my work and life balanced. When I have feelings of anxiety or sorrow, I lace up my shoes.

2. Reflecting on childhood and your adult life, can you talk a bit about how your deafness has impacted your happiness?
Communication always has played a big role in my happiness. As a Deaf person, I often struggle with it. So many people don’t know how to start a conversation with a Deaf person. Some of them avoid interacting. That isolation is always awful. I typically have to ask people to repeat things again when I didn’t understand them, and some people think they have to speak very slow or very loud. My childhood wasn’t easy, either. I grew up with an older brother, who was able to phone his friends and meet them whenever he wanted. But as there were no mobile phones at the time, I wasn’t able to send texts or emails. I had to ask my parents or brother to call the family of my Deaf friend for a meet-up. And that was when there was time — I had to go to the speech therapy three times a week.

I was always dependent on the help of my parents and brother. When there was a birthday and many relatives came together, and so many people were speaking at the same time, it was hard for me to hear any one of them. I would interrupt them so many times. My family always gave me their love and support, but sometimes they weren’t able to help me with other struggles. My happiness increased from year to year as I figured out how to overcome some of these challenges. I became a stronger person. Now I’m a Deaf teacher for Deaf children and teenagers. I’m happy to get them prepared for their life as a Deaf person. My aim is to make them stronger for the world outside, for living with the “hearing” community and building a bridge between both communities.

3. Are there ways in which being deaf has specifically helped you find happiness?
I have the opportunity to take off my hearing aids and live in a silent world when I need a break or time-out. That makes me happy. I don’t hear a noise when I’m sleeping, even in a very loud environment— I’m always grateful for that. I can sleep like a baby and won’t wake up due to a noise. As I work a lot with my eyes, signing with other Deaf people is so amazing because I don’t need to lip-read. That’s pure relaxation for my eyes. I also have the ability to see people’s behaviors, facial expressions and their mood very quickly. I often tell my Deaf students that we have superpowers. I only need to close my eyes to find my inner peace and relax. Hearing people still hear noises; they’re more stressed than Deaf people. I don’t see deafness as a disability. For me, deafness is happiness.

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4. You’re running the Tokyo Marathon in March. Can you talk about your preparation and hopes for this race? 
When I finish the Tokyo Marathon on March 5th, I’ll become the world’s first deaf-born Six Star medal finisher ever. I’ll write history for the Deaf community worldwide. It’ll be the pinnacle of my career. I hope the feat will inspire the Deaf and hearing communities worldwide and show the world that Deaf people like me can also achieve big things in their lives. I also hope I can open some doors worldwide and shed some light on the Deaf community. Deafness is an invisible disability and still little-known in parts of the world. Some people have prejudices towards Deaf people, and I hope I can help break down them with my achievement.

I was originally supposed to run Tokyo Marathon in 2020, but the pandemic pushed back my dream. Ten days before the marathon, I got an email message from the Tokyo Marathon Foundation that the marathon was cancelled. I remember standing in the classroom and writing something on the blackboard. My watch vibrated and I saw the message pop up. I went pale in the face and started cying. I didn’t want to turn around and face my Deaf students. I didn’t want to make them sad with my tears, but they saw that my legs were shaking and then they all ran to me and hugged me. They helped me to bring my happiness back and they inspired me not to give up. I am training every day for the Tokyo Marathon now. I do long runs of 20 miles on Sundays, speed interval sessions on the track on Wednesday and Fridays, and recovery runs in between. I also go to the gym three times a week for body core workout sessions.

5. Most cities treat marathons as celebratory occasions, with cheering crowds and loud music. Do you ever feel like you’re missing out on these things? As a deaf runner, where do you turn to in order to get a joyful “spark” on these special days?
When I was running my first marathons I’d sometimes wish I could hear the crowds shouting my name, or the motivational words they were yelling at me. But now a lot of people out there know that I am a Deaf runner. It always amazes me to see them using the “Deaf applause” or holding the visualized signs for me. Deaf applause is a very visual form of feedback, where you’re waving both hands in the air (using a twisting movement). Due to my deafness I can’t listen to music but I figured out a method to replace this. When I’m running a marathon, instead of listening to music I use the time to daydream. For me, it’s like a movie is playing in my brain; I think about childhood, happy moments, future plans. I focus on my breathing skills, my posture, the world passing by around me. I can still see all the people smiling at you and admiring you, the funny signs they are holding, the show performances from the dancers and the drummers. I can feel the bass within my body.

6. Aside from running, what do you do to bring happiness into your life on a consistent basis?
Every time I enter the classroom and see the sparkles in their eyes I’m happy. Deaf children and teenagers need more Deaf role-models in their lives. I am running marathons and half marathons worldwide, building a bridge between the hearing and Deaf communities and overcoming challenges like communication-barriers and difficulties as a Deaf person. Lots of people think Deaf people can’t achieve big things in their lives and I am the living proof to show them that they are wrong. When returning from marathons and traveling I am always happy to share my experiences with my Deaf students and strengthen their identity. I call this Deaf empowerment. Deaf role-models always have a big impact on the lives of the younger Deaf generation. The curiosity, the joy and the smiles of my Deaf students always make me happy.

Eller will compete in the Tokyo Marathon this March 5th.
POOL/AFP via Getty Images

7. What’s a truly happy memory from your life?
Running the TCS New York City Marathon in 2019. It was my first marathon in New York, and I was so overwhelmed by the amazing crowds there. It was like a 26.2-mile party from Staten Island to Manhattan. All the policemen and policewomen, the crowds and happy runners — it was like a stunning fireworks display for my Deaf eyes. I soaked up the whole atmosphere and after crossing three boroughs I entered The Bronx and a very special moment happened there. There was a child shouting at me and cheering me along. I didn’t acknowledge him, so he figured something must’ve been wrong with me. Then he saw my hearing aids and realized I was Deaf. He ran to me, looked at me and tried to sign with me. He did very well. He signed: “You are awesome. You are a hero.” Then he held my hand and ran with me for half a mile. I told him that he touched my heart and he was speechless that I was able to speak with him. It was such an emotional moment. After that, I smiled all the way to the finish line.

8. What would happiness look like for you, 25 years from today? 
Modern technology gives Deaf people a huge boost to gain happiness in a pretty quick way. Lots of TV shows in the past didn’t used have CC (closed captions), but now most TV channels and streaming services are accessible for Deaf people. Mobile phones are also game-changing for the Deaf community worldwide. Deaf people like me are able to get connected with other Deaf people from other countries and stay in touch with them. I’m pretty sure that our happiness will only increase in the future. There will be fewer communication barriers, lots of events will have sign language interpreters and Deaf people will be acknowledged more by the “hearing” community. I hope to leave an impact for the Deaf community with my six star medal, and open more doors. I want to be a deaf role model for younger generations. I often tell them not to give up and to fight for their rights. Happiness for me in the future will be recognition of the Deaf community by the “hearing” community. I am very hopeful that the Deaf community worldwide is heading towards a bright and happy future.

9. Do you have any advice for the hearing community?
Thanks to running, I no longer feel isolated by the hearing community. My hearing friends include me in their activities and lives…my running family just keeps growing. I have a message for everyone else out there: don’t be afraid when meeting a Deaf person. Tap the shoulder of the Deaf person, look at the person, smile and start a conversation. I promise the conversation will go well. It will leave a happy impact in the life of this Deaf person. I’m so excited about running Tokyo Marathon 2023, but I know it won’t be the end — it’s just the beginning of a new chapter.

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