(Fair warning - this one is pretty long.)
The previous two posts were about me becoming a runner in high school. The next decade of my life can be summarized pretty quickly.
Four years of college, college food, and college beer. Four or so years of living single, eating too many dinners on the road, drinking too many beers. A couple years of living with a woman who can cook like nothing I'd seen before, and more beer.
There are a few common threads there. Beer. Food. Now, I was not a sedentary person that decade. Far from it. College was hockey, ultimate frisbee, running now and again, snowboarding, and time in the weight room. After college was more snowboarding, rock climbing, ice climbing, mountain biking, hiking, some odd running mixed in, and who knows what else. But to round it all out, college involved way too many hours sitting at a keyboard, or sitting and reading. And after college work involved about 40 hours a week at a desk.
Over a decade, the sitting, eating, and drinking snuck up on me. At one point I was pushing 230 pounds. At 5'8", I was a big boy. Sure there was a fair bit of muscle in there. I could throw around hay bales like you wouldn't believe. But at the end of the day, I was simply not healthy.
I started to mix things up a bit on my own. I know I lost a few pounds. Then there was a health fair at work. I hadn't seen a doctor in about 8 years at that point. I felt fine. I wasn't sick. There was no point in going in. But here at work I got to see a doctor, a couple nurses, and I think there were even clowns and balloons.
They took my blood, checked my blood pressure (not in that order) put me on a scale, and asked me a bunch of questions. I went and enjoyed the healthy snacks while we waited for the results.
I don't remember the numbers because they aren't important. What I remember was a doctor that I had known for all of about 15 seconds took me into a corner and sat me down (most didn't get this treatment) and explained to me that I was at a dangerous crossroads. At 28 years old I was still young enough to handle what I had given myself, but at least once in the next 10 years my body was going to try to kill me. My blood pressure was incredibly high. My cholesterol was insane. My weight was fine if I were 18 inches taller.
This was pretty sobering news. Sure, I was a bit overweight, but I was active. I could bike to work and back no problem. Climbing a 14,000 foot peak was a big deal, but not impossible. Rock climbing happened every chance I got... There's no way a guy as active as I was could be that unhealthy.
So I coped with the news as I did most things back then. I had a pizza (No, you read that right. The whole thing.) a bunch of beer and some ice cream. And I ate that for about a week straight.
At the end of that week there was a Weight Watchers meeting at work. I went. Turns out work would pay for the program if I committed to it and made a certain number of meetings. The meetings kind of didn't suck. After the first week the plan wasn't so bad. I admit the first week was terrible. But I kept going back and I stuck it through. The weight was coming off.
At some point the weight loss was slowing. The one thing I hadn't embraced was exercise. The office also had a gym and a locker room. So one day I jumped on the eliptical for a bit. I'm not exactly sure why I chose the eliptical over the bike. But I know I avoided the treadmill because I was favoring my knees.
But as I was there churning away on the eliptical the treadmill was right there. In the back of my mind was the memory of high school. The memory of ultimate frisbee in college. The memory of running. After a few weeks, I caved and jumped on. A couple days later, I went and bought running shoes and kept churning away on the treadmill in the basement of the office.
Spring happened. Spring is incredible. It draws everyone outside. Including me. I started running through the office park. It felt good to be outside. I felt good to be running.
There was a 5k around the mall. So I signed up. And I raced. It wasn't quite like the high school races. But it was still good. There was competition. I finished the 5k with a great time for an old guy who had been horribly overweight just a short time ago.
What I didn't understand about this race is it was the last chance qualifier for the Bolder Boulder. I don't think that's the biggest 10k in the nation, but it's certainly top 10, and probably near the top of that list. And I had a qualified placement. I had a GOOD qualified placement in heat BB.
I pondered that for a couple days. 10k. I had never raced that far. In fact, in my training for the 5k, I don't think I went the .2 miles past the 6 mile mark to make it into a 10k training run. The race was just a few weeks away. But I signed up anyway.
And the training was rejuvinated.
Every day at lunch I could be found making laps through the office park. I found paths and trails. I found an illegal train track crossing that opened up MILES of trails with all sorts of hills. And I ran. Every day I ran. And I ran fast every day. (I wouldn't do that today. Today I know that not every run is supposed to be the same speed. But at the same time, I don't think I can put down a 5k or 10k time like that today...)
Race day came and it was glorious. There were thousands of runners. There were trumpets at the start. It was as much fanfare as anything. And I was able to channel that and feed my serious runner attitude.
And I finished a 10k race. It was a pretty good time. I even finished within a reasonable margin of error of where the race system predicted I would. And this was good. I enjoyed being a finisher.
As I joined the runners filing out of the finish area I struck up conversation with a guy I had been bird dogging the last three miles. Turns out he was pacer for marathons. I don't remember much of what we discussed, but I remember he mentioned I was a pretty solid intermediate runner.
At some point in the weeks following that first 10k, probably while running, it hit me that I wanted to push farther. The Denver Marathon. October. About three months away. When I returned to the office I took a minute to find a training plan and stumbled into an intermediate training plan for 13.1 miles.
I studied that training plan long and hard. I tried to memorize it even though I had three copies printed - one for my desk, one for my car, and one at home. And I ran to the plan. Mostly. The plan talked about all sorts of repeats, and tempos. None of that made sense. I just ran. Fast. I would run hills the days it said to run hills. That was no biggie. But the rest of the plan was just miles. This was the intermediate plan. It didn't just send me to 10 miles and leave me praying for the last 10k. No, this one sent me well past 13.1. I don't remember the exact high mileage mark, but it must have been in the 15-17 mile range. And I ran it. Every step of it. It was not all good. In fact, several days it was downright bad. I remember those feelings clearly. But I always made it back.
The day before the race I met up with an internet acquaintance who had traveld across the state to run his first full marathon. We had a pasta dinner, and polite conversation. We'll get back to him later.
Race day hit. I arrived insanely early. This was a very different feeling compared to Boulder. The start was less organized. The people were less organized. The starting gun fired and I was off. Only, no one was moving. I spent most of the first 5k dodging people. I assume now they were all out to run the full 26.2. But at the time I was just angry that they were all running so slowly and blocking the road. It was as if they had never run with a big group before and didn't care about courtesey or the suggested "rules" for running the race safely.
But I powered through. And kept powering through. And I passed people. I passed lots of people. Some friends came out to a park not far from their house to watch me run. I almost missed them. I stopped for a moment to chat and say hi to their kid (just one at the time) and I took off running. Passing more people.
I ran. I passed people. The miles melted away. I finished by myself. The finishers area was a blur. I gathered my things, changed clothes, and wandered out. I wandered over to the finish line chute and watched the runners pour in. All shapes. All sizes. Men, women, and I seem to recall a few young enough to be considered children.
Each runner was clearly fighting their own inner battle. But most of them were winning. And it touched me. And I began to cry. I cried. watching these strangers fight and win their battle with the distance and whatever else in their lives they were overcoming was just too much. And then I noticed the joy of the finish line. Kids running in with parents. Runners finding friends along the course. Runners holding hands across the line. And I smiled.
I don't know exactly how long I waited there. But I noticed my internet friend was approaching. And he did not look good. His posture was terrible. His arms were hardly moving. His stride was short and jerky. He was still running, but in a very loose sense of the word.
Without thinking I yelled at the top of my lungs, "Hey everybody! There's my friend Billy (name changed) about to finish his first marathon! Help me cheer him in!" And everybody did. Billy's head raised slowly as he heard his name. Strangers were cheering for him. And his back straightened. I don't think his stride got any beter, but anyone who has run the distance will understand why that is. But just by a few simple yells, Billy's finish line experience changed. I had something to do with that.
And it was watching this man I had spoken with for only 45 minutes over a bowl of noodles finish his 26.2 mile battle representing whatever it was he faced in his life at the time that I realized something.
Remember the high school story about the other runners welcoming the big guy on the team with the new uniform? I had become one of them. I was there creating a positive, supportive environment for other people so they could better fight their battle. And that felt really, really good.
Since then, I have been looking for a way to continue to do that. Run JunkEes has given me a bit of an outlet to help make that happen. At the core of it, I like to help people because it makes me feel good. And if other people get the encouragement they need to win their battle, then it's' one of those things that will work out just fine in the end.
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