It doesn’t matter if it’s an improv stage or a podium. When Brittany Lee is standing atop either, she’s at her happiest.
Within a span of 12 hours, Lee, a 28-year-old distance runner and improv performer/comedian from Denver went from competing as a finalist in “Denver’s Next Improv Star” to winning the Colfax Marathon. Along the way, she shattered her personal record in the marathon by five minutes and broke the course record with a time of two hours, 52 minutes, 50 seconds. To boot, she did it on just four hours of sleep.
“There really aren’t a lot of competitive runners in improv and vice versa,” she told us a day after her first marathon win. “But I think the two work hand-in-hand. I have to run every day if I want to be a record-breaking marathoner. Same thing with improv. I have to put in a lot of time, I have to learn and I have to be vulnerable in a way I am with running to get better.”
Although she didn’t win the 14-week improv contest, Lee has her sights set on moving her way up in the industry. And, she’ll be eying the 2020 Olympic Trials as well.
“I think it’s great I have both because I don’t have time to stress out about one over the other,” she said.
A Running/Comedic Sweet Spot
Lee is a self-described nerd, but she was also your typical class clown growing up. In eighth grade, she was even voted ‘Best Comedic Girl’ by her peers.
“I always loved engaging with other people through humor,” she said. “I have siblings who are 10 and 12 years older, so it’s almost like I learned to speak their language of sarcasm at a young age so I could fit in with them and be able to relate to them.”
Also in eighth grade, she started running because going out for track-and-field was “the cool thing to do.” She found her sweet spot in the mile, so her coach convinced her to run cross country as a freshman in high school. She never excelled on the 3.1-mile courses as a teen, but she did make it to the state championships with her relay team as a senior.
After that, she hung up her competitive laces and declared herself a triple major in Spanish, international studies, and history while attending Colorado State University. Two years into her studies, she met the school’s cross country coach, who encouraged her to tryout as a walk-on.
“That was an eye-opener. I never thought I would ever be a collegiate runner because I didn’t have scouts after me, but I learned through that experience that there’s always a way to make things happen.”
After graduating from CSU, she began her professional career in marketing, and today, she works for OtterBox in Fort Collins.
So, how did she get her start in the improv world?
“I visited my cousin in Chicago five years ago and went to a show at Second City,” Lee said. “I had never seen sketch comedy before, never seen improv live before, and it was this amazing moment on stage where people were creating something out of nothing.”
She was so inspired that she enrolled in an acting class, and when her job moved her to Chicago, she studied at Second City and other area improv theaters. When she got transferred back to Denver, she continued to pursue her passion.
“I love when you’re on stage and you’ve got a whole audience that lights up. The laughter of a theater from something you just said or did is unlike anything I’ve ever experienced,” she said. “The fact that people take an hour out of their day to come watch, and are involved in this crazy world you’re creating on stage, that’s what I love about it.”
‘Practice Makes Progress’
Running and comedy mix perfectly for Lee. When she goes on long runs through downtown Denver, she listens to improv podcasts, and when she gets nervous prior to stepping on stage, she channels everything she’s learned from running.
“I know how to get into ‘the zone’ for running,” she said. “I’m having to do the same for improv, and just trust that I’ve put enough good work in to have a good performance.”
As a participant in “Denver’s Next Improv Star,” Lee outlasted 10 other competitors to reach the finals in the “Survivor/American Idol-esque” contest. Each Saturday for four months, she performed with the cast in front of three judges and an audience.
“The best part about improv for me is it’s a group activity,” she said. “It’s about yourself when you’re on stage, but the main thing is it’s a group pride thing.”
And that’s a nice contrast for a runner who is accustomed to an individualized sport.
“Backstage, you’ve got your whole cast there. In a race, you’ve got thousands around you at the start line, but you almost feel like you’re on your own little island,” Lee said. “There’s so much room for self-doubt at the beginning of a race whereas in improv, you’ve got everyone else supporting you and reaffirming you that you can do this.”
So, as Lee continues to fiercely pursue her passions, she has this insight to offer others.
“If you want to achieve something bad enough, you have to promise to commit to it. It’s carving out that time every single day,” she said. “People say, ‘practice makes perfect,’ but really, practice makes progress. You have to build time into your schedule. Even if you’re not where you want to be right now, you can get there and it’s those little baby steps that will get you there. It’s about not forgetting why you’re doing something.”
And that’s advice she’s not joking about.