When I first moved to the DC area and began working a desk job that dealt with numbers and statistics, I quickly developed my own formula:
(Unadjusted food intake level from college + Sitting at a computer for eight or nine hours a day) * Age in years^Slowing metabolism = Exponential weight gain
Since the second term was pretty much a constant, I set out to do what I could to control the rest; namely, to invent an anti-aging serum. Failing that, due to a desire not to go back to school for a degree in biochemistry, I defaulted back to diet and exercise. I also had an even more serious health-related motivation: since my family has a history of diabetes, I wanted to do all I could to avoid getting that disease for as long as possible. I began packing my lunch when I could and tried to increase my daily servings of vegetables – you know, the basic things. And then I started hitting the gym.
“The gym,” as we say, still does not come naturally to me. I was never an athlete, and nobody ever taught me how to use all the funky machines and weights. So became largely self-taught, adding bits and pieces to my routines after watching huge muscle-bound guys grunt and drop unimaginably heavy weights to the floor, combined with some strategic Internet research. I never set out to be Arnold Schwarzenegger circa 1984. As long as I basically maintained my weight and had some sort of muscle tone, I was going to be happy.
That took care of weight training. But what about this mysterious thing the experts called “cardio?” I remember getting on a treadmill for the first time and hoping my lungs would hold out long enough to cover a mile and a half over the course of 30 minutes, which of course brought to mind running up the hill near Washington Street in Blacksburg on my way to McComas Hall the three or four times I actually worked out in college. I had to stop to catch my breath at the top. It wasn’t really a steep hill, and the run might have been three-quarters of a mile total. Flash-forward a few years to my life as a working man, I kept at it despite the burning in my lungs. I gradually increased my times on the equipment and learned the seductive ways of the elliptical machine. Gradually, it did get easier.
Looking back, I don’t really remember what the catalyst was that got me to try running more seriously. I suppose it was just a quiet sort of gradual determination that I barely noticed at the time. When I moved in with Matt and Josh, I would gradually start covering 1.5 to two mile stretches on the trails around a pond near our place. I bought my first real pair of running shoes around this time. By 2008, I was still mainly sticking to treadmills, but I had started working in Crystal City with cheap access to a gym, so I was trying to make running and exercising part of a lunchtime routine to break up the day. Before long, I even ventured out to the Mount Vernon Trail running parallel to the GW Parkway, and all of a sudden I was an interloper among serious runners and cyclists. You haven’t lived until you naively turn around, without signaling, in the middle of a shared bikepath and come within inches of getting taken out by a commuter on a mountain bike.
By 2010, even though I had officially been “running” for maybe two years, the concept of organized official races still daunted me; I would deflect any recommendations of that sort by saying I wasn’t trying to compete at anything, I just wanted to be able to eat whatever I wanted. I finally took the advice of some co-workers that spring and signed up for the Crystal City Twilighter, a 5K race taking place just blocks from my office building. Maybe the fact that it was in familiar running territory made it seem less scary. I did all kinds of Internet research on how best to train for a 5K and formalized a regular jogging route among the surrounding neighborhoods of my and Gina’s apartment. As my distances lengthened to two and three miles on the hard pavement and murderous hills, it was eye-opening. No, let me be clear: it felt like a freaking achievement! The fact that the human body could withstand such gut-wrenching punishment made me feel alive!
- No grimace, no gain.
And then came my first real race, the aforementioned Twilighter. As luck would have it, that balmy July day topped out at a record-setting 101 degrees, and it didn’t really cool off much by the time the race began in the evening. I was drenched in sweat after the first half-mile, but I finished the dang thing. And it felt good! By then, I guess you could say I was hooked, but I never deluded myself into thinking I was one day going to be an elite runner with a 5:30 per mile pace. Even as I gradually tried my hand at progressively longer races – the odd 10K there, another 5K here, a 5-miler over there – I still never considered myself a “runner.”
By 2012, I took a deep breath and signed up for the Wilson Bridge Half Marathon, mainly because I had wanted to do a ten-miler but all the local ones had sold out before I could commit. Running 13.1 miles was another daunting idea, but by that point I had ingrained in myself the long view of running: each race is a milestone, and in training for it you gradually build yourself up to be a person that can finish that race. Ideally, this takes months, because as the old adages go, “the journey is the reward,” and running is “95% mental,” and so on. But those are all true, because without consciously flipping a mental switch on, it was during the weeks of training for the half marathon that when someone casually asked me, “Oh, are you a runner?” I could actually reply “yes” and keep a straight face.
The half marathon was not my greatest race. It was rainy and cold that day and I misjudged how much effort it would really take to push through the final three miles or so. But, again, I finished it and remember thinking that was the longest distance I ever needed to go to prove anything to myself. A full marathon was this distant, mystical thing that only ultra-serious runners did, and though I finally thought of myself as a member of the running club, I did not think I was that serious.
All it took to break that mental barrier was Gerritt completing the Marine Corps Marathon in 2012 and encouraging me to run it. The seed of the idea was planted, and over time a marathon seemed less mystical and more… well, doable.
And so, here I am, some kind of midway-serious runner in the final weeks of training for that marathon. I’ve set and broken personal distance records six or seven times over the last couple of months. I’ve gone through two and a half pairs of running shoes. Some days have felt great, while others have been painful. I now have boring running “war stories” to tell. While I’m only trying to finish the marathon without getting injured, I now see it as something that I’ve been building to for years. Slowly. Almost subconsciously, until I had enough experience behind me to climb over the mental barriers and just say, “why not?”
With every day, the race gets closer. With every mile, my legs get stronger. Every time I go out, my mind gets sharper. Right now, I can’t imagine ever training for a marathon again.
But I’ve been wrong before, and by now I know not to question this running thing.