I didn’t realize how out of shape I was until I tried to run a 5K. It was 2008. I was four years removed from college competition (I didn’t run my senior year because I got a job in my field) and even when I was competing I was an “also-ran” for a DIII program. I had never truly taken running seriously and in the past three years I had gone from every day runner to every day runner unless my friends are going to the bar after work. The latter happened a lotBut, how out of shape could I be? I ran all through high school and college, and despite my current diet of fried food and cheap beer, I still ran more than the average joe. Years of experience and my youthful age of 25 would keep me close to the front of the pack, right? Wrong. The race was tough. I ran about three minutes slower than I believed I was able to run. Three minutes is a lot of time in a 5K. I was sore for about a week afterwards. In the race photos, you could see my beer belly jiggling as I tried keep up. It was time for a change.
I had just moved to Charlotte, North Carolina that spring. I knew no one. No one knew me or anything about me. I searched “group runs” on the internet and found a few groups that looked casual. I started going every week, meeting at a local running store. On nights I didn’t go, I ran an eight-mile loop around my neighborhood, gradually getting faster and leaner. By the end of the summer I was down 20 pounds and had fallen in love with a sport I always flirted with, but to which I never committed.
I started logging my miles again for the first time in years. Once I was regularly running 50 miles a week, there was only one logical next step. It was time to train for a marathon. I asked local veterans about marathons in the region that would be good for a beginner. Many suggested the Myrtle Beach Marathon in South Carolina, just three hours away by car. It wasn’t until February, but I signed up right away with plans to gradually build up mileage and speed through the rest of the summer and the fall.
To say I knew absolutely nothing about marathons would be an understatement. I will never forget my first 20-mile run. A couple I had been running with frequently invited me along for their run up and then back down a nearby mountain. When we got to the parking lot, I got out of the car ready to go. “Where’s your water bottle and your gels?” They asked. I honestly had no idea what they were talking about. “You are running in that cotton t-shirt?” Sure. Why not? How hard is it to run 20 miles…up and down a mountain? I went home that day hungry, dehydrated, horribly chafed, scraped up from a few falls and absolutely addicted to running myself dog-tired. That summer I got the full costume: The tech tees, the short shorts, the best shoes, the Gu. I even started working part time at a local running store, soaking up every bit of knowledge I could glean from area experts.
On marathon day, I was ready. I had put in the mileage. I had followed the Hal Higdon workouts. What I did not do was formulate a race plan. On the starting line, I asked a couple of guys what they were aiming for. They told me 2:45 which I thought was about what I could run based on my training. When we went through the half marathon in 1:18, I should have realized those guys were either lying or setting themselves up for a big crash. Intentionally or not, they were setting me up for one. I was new at this and had no idea what it felt like to hit the wall. But something told me I was about to find out. 20 miles into the race, my body started to shut down. By mile 23, I was all by myself and barely walking. Every few minutes, I’d work up the energy to jog, but mostly it was a walk of shame. I was making deals with God to get me to the finish line. When I finally saw the chute, I got one last burst of energy and was able to run the last 800 meters, finishing the race in 2:58:06. I’ll do the math for you. That’s a 1:18 first half and a 1:40 second half. It wasn’t pretty. I cried tears of pain, relief and joy all at once.
As much as it hurt, I was hooked. That day changed my life. I went from being a guy who used to run in college to a marathoner. Running went from being a hobby to being a way of life. Since February of 2009, I’ve run six more marathons including Boston four times. In the 2012 Boston Marathon, I finished in the top 100. I’ve lowered my time by more than 20 minutes and run 71 minutes for the half-marathon. I’ve PRed in every distance from 5K up. More importantly, I’ve become part of a unique community in which I met my best friends – the people I’ve logged thousands of miles with – and even my wife.
I’ve also learned a lot. I’ve learned it’s better to under-do it than to over-do it. I’ve learned how to overcome injury and how to prevent injury. I’ve learned that good races aren’t only made by the time on the clock. I’ve learned that cheering on someone you love is just as fun as being out on the course. I’m hoping that I’ve learned the best way to train for the marathon. We will find out on May 24th. And I’ve learned the older I get, as jobs and cities change, as I add a baby jogger to my daily jaunt -- maybe a double baby jogger one day -- and later as age starts to slow me down, running will always be there and I will always be running.