Comedian Mara Marek's 4,100 mile odyssey to fight domestic violence

On August 13, comedian Mara Marek got on her bike like she’s done thousands of times before. But that day’s ride was different and Mara is like no other biker. That ride launched Bike, Laugh, Heal, her epic cross-country comedy tour to raise domestic violence awareness and provide support to survivors. The 4,100 mile odyssey kicked off at New York’s famed Caroline’s comedy club and will end 78 days and 60 shows later in San Francisco on November 15. Mara will bike every mile. On September 4, she’ll brake in Chicago for a show at Under The Gun Theater. Her partner-in-comedy, Andrew Collin, whose family has deep roots in Chicago, will join her for the show.

Back in New York, Mara and Andrew host the brutally honest and hilarious podcast Happy Never After, true stories about divorce and finding “laughter on the other side.” The podcast, which has over 12 million downloads, is a study in resilience and the magical rejuvenating qualities of the human spirit. Notice to the world: when the apocalypse comes, I call dibs on bunking with Mara and Andrew.

Both have been through their share of hair-raising, potentially soul-eroding experiences and they’ve only emerged funnier and more buoyant. Mara has lived through three marriages and seven engagements, which included a cocaine addict, an Olympian, a billionaire and life-altering encounters with extreme domestic violence. Andrew grew up in the shadow of his parents’ difficult divorce and once as a teen was stabbed in the chest by a Navy Seal, although there’s no way to keep a straight face listening to his rendition of how it happened.

mara-marek-bike-laugh-heal-graphic-get-permissionMara is also an experienced and accomplished personal trainer. She’ll combine her professional and life skills as she cycles across the continent. Accompanying her is a truck carrying her dog Frank, everything she owns, and the equipment to film her journey for a documentary.

In each city, she’ll partner with local comedians, shelters and survivor advocates. Proceeds from the show will benefit the shelters in the cities she visits. On her GoFundMe page, her goal is $1 million dollars, also earmarked for the cause. As she travels, she’ll offer progress reports and work-out routines for everyone who would like to follow along and take part in this cycle for life.

Mara kindly took time to speak with me by phone as she got ready to roll.

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Teme: How did you and Andrew meet?

Mara: He was the first person I met when I moved to New York from Los Angeles. My first job was walking dogs and he worked with me. We became instant best friends.

Andrew and Mara/Photo by Mike Maloney

Andrew and Mara/Photo by Mike Maloney

Teme: How did you decide to become a comedian?

Mara: I didn't grow up having a television, so I had to come up with my own entertainment. I'd perform on an elevated platform for my neighbors. I listened to stand-up comedy and I would dial in to this phone number where you could listen to comedy stories.

When I was a personal trainer in Los Angeles, I met Mike Epps and other comedians who worked out at the gym. They invited me to shows and then threw me up on stage and said, "Go for it," and I never looked back.

Teme: How would you describe your comedy?

Mara: I talk about my life and not learning anything from my mistakes. I've been married three times and engaged seven times, and I keep getting married. I haven't learned how to say “no” yet. So that's what I talk about. And about how, one day … one day, I'll learn.

Teme: I can relate. I’ve had two marriages and four engagements.

Mara: Yeah, that's my girl right there!

Teme: It’s decades later and I still have no clue about two of the engagements. They made no sense. Maybe it's different for everybody, but what drives us to seek those attachments?

Mara: I think mine's from my upbringing. I grew up in northern Michigan. I grew up in the church. I went to private Catholic school and you learn that you're being groomed to be a wife. We had cooking class. We had manners classes. It's like you’re groomed to be this thing. By the time you're an adult, you're like, "Wait a second. That's not me."

Once when I was younger, I saw a beautiful mansion and I said, “Oh, I love this house.” And my mom said, "Well, you better find a rich husband." I was like, "How about I just get it for myself?”

Teme: I didn’t realize for a very long time that I had “agency.”

Mara: That is a good word for it.

Teme: I thought it was my obligation to be obliging.

Mara: Me, too. I just feel bad sometimes when I say no to things. The only reason I said yes to all of the men is that they asked me in a public setting and I didn't want to embarrass them, you know? It’s like it’s part of a woman’s intuition to accommodate.

Teme: I totally understand that! What inspired you to start Happy Never After?

Mara: There's a shame in being divorced for a lot of people. It is a trauma. I don't know if you felt that at all ...

Teme: Yes, definitely.

Mara: When I got married the first time, I did feel a connection. When you divorce, you have to break that connection. It’s like a death. People hold on to that and think that they failed and they're ashamed. But there's no shame in divorce. Maybe we were meant to ride on our paths next to each other for a while. It doesn't necessarily mean that you have to be with that partner forever. There should be no shame in going on with your life in your own way and moving forward.

Teme: What inspired you to start Bike, Laugh, Heal?

Mara: I was on a cycling team when I lived in Los Angeles. One of the women who did marketing for the team was dating one of the coaches. We all thought there was some sort of abuse, but there was never any confirmation. Later, on an episode of Happy Never After I talked about my own experience with domestic violence. She called me and said, "This is happening in my own relationship," and I said, "We kind of all knew." She asked if she could come on the show and I said, “Absolutely. I would love to have you on.”

So she came on the show and told her story of being stuck in a domestic abuse situation for six years. After that, I received thousands of messages from people who were also in those relationships and some still in the relationship and asking how to get out. So I was like, "We've got to do something.”

Everyone seems to have a story. It's like cancer. Everyone has a connection to cancer. Everybody has a connection to domestic abuse and we need to stop the cycle.

Teme: What were your experiences with it?

Mara: My first husband played with cocaine and it made him angry. One night he hit me over the back of the head with a ketchup bottle and then he tried to take me out with our glass table.

You become immediately like a PTSD person. He was in jail. I was at the hospital, but something switched chemically in my head where I made him the victim. I felt horribly that I did that to him, which is not logical. It took me six months to get out of that haze to realize, "Oh yeah, that wasn't my fault. That was his fault." That's when I gained the strength to leave him. Whatever time you need to heal you can take. You shouldn't bash yourself for that. Everybody goes into survival mode in a different way.

Teme: How did you heal?

Mara: I went to court-appointed therapy with him. He had to go to anger management therapy and then we had to do court-appointed couples therapy.

Then I kind of just left. One night, he had been gone for a week and I moved my things out. I started a fake corporation so that he couldn't find me in any sort of listing and rented an apartment under that corporation name and started a whole new life in secret by myself far away from him.

The craziest thing was that one of my girlfriends who helped me move and keep my secret ended up starting a relationship with him and telling him where I was. We human beings are insane!

Teme: What happened after that? What did you say to her? That is insane!

Mara: I haven't talked to her since. We never spoke again, but he did find me. He showed up at my new job. Sober, he was an easy gentle person. He had a conversation with me in public. He apologized and said it wasn't going to happen again and he understood that we had to separate.

It took me a long time to heal. I thought that I was strong enough to handle it on my own. Then I kind of spiraled after that and I started dating and getting engaged and getting married and divorcing.

My second marriage was only seventeen days because I should've never gotten married to him. Then I immediately started going out with the billionaire. As soon as I got out of the billionaire relationship, I was like, "Maybe I should have some therapy." So I went and started therapy full-time.

Teme: I know what you mean. I did that serial thing. It was strange. It was almost like a drowning person hopping from island to island.

Mara: It's exactly like that!

Teme: For Bike, Laugh, Heal, how did you decide to take action on this awesome scale? Why a cross-country event? Why not a one-night fundraiser?

Mara: In major metropolitan areas there are always causes in need of awareness or you post something on social media that's outrageous and people are outraged for a little while and then it dies off. No one thinks about it ever again.

mara-marek-and-andrew-on-bikes

Mara Marek/Photo by Mara; Andrew Collin/Photo by Andrew

With Bike, Laugh, Heal, people will be able to go to bikelaughheal.org and get all the connections to our progress on the road. There are a lot of variables to this. (A) It’s a huge social media experience. Somebody shares it and someone who is affected [by domestic violence] sees it and can then find a resource.

(B) The fitness empowerment aspect of it. I love to share my fitness journey for free. If anyone would like to follow along and join me, they can email me and I’ll send them my workouts. You can do them at home, outside or at the gym. Take it. Use it. Don't use it. Whatever you like. Workouts are empowering. Bike, Laugh, Heal is about taking control of your whole life.

(C) I need to touch as many people as I can to get to one million dollars. People doubt that I’m going to make a million dollars, but we’re going to get there. I need to reach as many people in as many cities as possible to reach that number.

Teme: I noticed from your podcast and life stories that you and Andrew both have great resiliency. What are the keys to being so resilient?

Mara: You have a choice. You can either let the world beat you down or you can choose to live life. I always choose to live life and be happy. I went to a Tony Robbins seminar when I was 19. I haven't been able to have a bad attitude since.

Teme: What makes that outlook possible?

Mara: I work out every day. I saw a statistic that people who work out every day have a better attitude and ability to execute tasks and meet their goals. I believe it one-hundred percent. When I don't work out, I do feel more depressed and anxiety ridden.

I also try not to have toxic people in my life. If you're an empath, you soak up people's negative energy. I try to uplift people as much as I can, but if they're not receptive to having a lightened mood I remove myself from the situation.

Teme: Those are great tips. So what happens when you get to San Francisco?

Mara: Hopefully, I’m going to spend about 20,000 days in a spa! The vehicle [accompanying me] is my own truck so I’ll be driving back. Everything I own is in my truck right now. Maybe I’ll go see some friends. I have a client who has a place in Mexico. I might go there for a little while and let her rub my legs.

I would like to continue Bike, Laugh, Heal with micro-projects and maybe as a cycling team.

Teme: What will audiences experience at your shows?

Mara: Comedy! I want the shows to be a community experience. I am partnered in each city with a strong woman or man who has been affected [by domestic violence] and three to four local comics will perform. It will be a community party just to celebrate doing a good thing.

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Mara and Andrew bring Bike, Laugh, Heal to Under The Gun Theater, 956 W. Newport, on Tuesday, September 4 at 7:30 p.m. Proceeds benefit the national non-profit Futures Without Violence. Tickets here.

Follow Mara’s cross-country journey with blog updates at MaraMarek.com and at bikelaughheal.org, Instagram, Twitter  and Facebook.

Mara and Andrew’s podcast Happy Never After is here.

Please share Bike, Laugh, Heal with friends. If you can’t make it to the show, you can donate here.

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