Brittany Charboneau does Denver improv, leads NYC marathon

Brittany Charboneau’s sudden ascent to elite status as a distance runner is pretty funny, and not just because she won a race at Disney World while wearing green mermaid tights and toting a salad fork decorated to look like Ariel’s dinglehopper in “The Little Mermaid.”

“The Funny Runner” is as passionate about performing comedy as she is about trying to make the U.S. Olympic team in the marathon.

In May 2017, she reached the finals of a three-month comedy competition at Denver’s Bovine Metropolis Theater called Denver’s Next Improv Star. The night the competition concluded, she went home, set her alarm for 4:15 a.m., got four and a half hours sleep, toed the starting line of the Colfax Marathon at 6 a.m., and won it in a course record.

In March, she finished sixth in a tough field of the Los Angeles Marathon, a breakthrough that earned her a ticket to the New York City Marathon this past Sunday as an elite racer. There, she earned exposure on ESPN’s coverage of the race while leading it for 4 miles, finishing 17th in the women’s standings. She went to Chicago during its marathon last month, too, but that was to perform her running-oriented comedy sketch at the famed Second City comedy club while more than 44,000 marathoners were in town.

With the big breakthroughs coming one after another in running and comedy, Charboneau — who changed her name from Brittany Lee after getting married in September of 2017 —  began to believe it wasn’t outlandish to set a goal of making the Olympic team in 2020 or 2024.

“After Chicago, I was like, ‘Did I just perform my own show at Second City?,’ ” Charboneau said while sitting in a Starbucks in Lakewood in early October. “If you had told me a year ago where I would be right now, I don’t know if I would have believed it. It’s just crazy.”

But she has had dreams of being an Olympian since she was little.

As a child, Charboneau adored gymnastics and staged neighborhood “Olympics” in the backyard while wearing a USA swimsuit she pretended was a gymnastics leotard.

“There were two summers when I set up a 2-by-4 balance beam in the backyard and I was out there every day in this USA swimsuit, doing gymnastics,” she recalled. “The whole neighborhood came and I rigged it so I got gold every time. My friends were part of it and they couldn’t be the U.S. I was the U.S. They had to be Norway and France.”

The girl with Olympic dreams did not join a gymnastics team, but ran track and cross country without distinction at Mullen High School. Conversations with Charboneau now are laced with lighthearted chortles and giggles when asked if anything in her high school running suggested she had elite ability, finding the irony amusing.

“I wasn’t a top athlete,” she added. “I didn’t have any aspirations to get a scholarship for running. I would go out there and work hard, but I wasn’t the top runner. So I went to college and I partied.”

She ran track and cross country at Colorado State University as a non-scholarship “walk on.” She graduated in 2010 and ran her first marathon in 2012, the Colorado Marathon in Fort Collins. It was an excruciating experience.

“It was the most pain I’ve ever been in,” she said. “I thought my hips were broken.”

But by finishing her first marathon in 3 hours, 33 minutes, 32 seconds, she achieved something that is an elusive dream for most runners: qualifying for the prestigious Boston Marathon. She ran that race in 2013, the year of the bombings, and remembers the panic on faces of runners fleeing the scene and ambulances speeding to it.

“It was the most terrifying thing ever,” she said.

In 2015, she moved to Chicago and ran its marathon in just over 3 hours. That was also the year she decided she wanted to pursue comedy, so she took classes at Second City and another Chicago club. She moved back to Denver in 2016.

That’s when it all started to happen: breaking the Colfax Marathon women’s record by more than 4 minutes (running 2:52:50) and blowing away her personal record with a 2:36:25 in L.A.

“The announcer was like, ‘Here comes Brittany Charboneau, our second American, with a 15-minute PR?’ I went crazy, the crowd went crazy, the announcer went crazy, because it was just ridiculous.”

Until then, her goal had simply been to qualify for the Olympic trials when they are held on Feb. 29, 2020. After Los Angeles, the goal became to actually make it to Tokyo. She figures she will need to run 15 minutes faster than she ran at L.A. or New York, but she has 15 months to improve before the trials. She will be 30 years old.

“I think about it every single day.”

Charboneau pours herself into her coaching and comedy work with the same intensity she brings to running, despite the toll that the 100-mile weeks take on her body. She coaches middle-school runners at Bell Middle School in Golden, and teaches improv one night a week at the Bovine.

Brittany Charboneau trains while running 8 miles along Clear Creek in Golden on Tuesday morning. She found a penny along the way. (Eric Lutzens, The Denver Post)


At a recent training session on the track, Charboneau cracked jokes and kept the mood light even though the workout was hard.

“The work comes here so we don’t have to freak out on race day,” she told her runners, who sometimes work out to Michael Jackson tunes on a boom box and dance to “Thriller” between intervals.