The afternoon sun beat down on me as my feet pounded the asphalt. I was on my way back to Heron Drive after a full running circuit of our little suburban development. It was a route I had followed dozens of times by now although today was different. Today I had a shiny new running gadget on my wrist: My first running computer. It was a Garmin 305. At the time, the 305 was the latest and greatest bit of gadgetry offered by the budding sports fitness division of Garmin. Other than a vague guess based on time and effort, this would be the first time that I actually had some way to measure the distance of my neighborhood loop. I made the turn on to our street, slowed to a walk, and pressed the “Stop” button on the computer. I stared expectantly at the screen looking to see how far I’d run. 5 miles? 6? The digital read out showed 2.45. I was crestfallen. To this day, it was the most disappointing moment of my life as a runner.
I find myself oft engaged in conversations with new runners or people starting to think about running. Most, like me, want to do so to get some good cardiovascular exercise to try to reduce a swollen belly or out-of-control scale. The questions are usually similar. “Did you like it? Were you always sore? Are you still sore? How long did it take to get good at it? When can I call myself a runner?” I’m certainly not an expert and there are far more accomplished runners out there than me but I always try to provide encouragement and share my memories of getting started. It also isn’t hard to get me to talk about running.
One common phenomenon is that runners have always been runners or at least those that meet a runner after he started running believe that. We exited the womb and literally hit the ground running. That may be a slight exaggeration, but it does quickly become part of your identity. As an example, I’ve known my friend Larry Filtz for years before I ever started running. Larry, at least in my mind, has always been a runner. He has run the Boston marathon dozens of times and I can remember years ago at work seeing him head out with a hand full of other folks for a lunchtime run. That was years before I thought about lacing up a running shoe. I remember thinking that runners were a bit of a quirky, kookie bunch. Now after years running I still think the same thing.
So how does one go from looking sideways at those people in their funny little shorts and expensive shoes to becoming one themselves? Well, I suspect for most of us it all starts with the bathroom scale or even possibly a scarier wake-up call. For me, there were a couple factors all around weight and health. The first was one fall morning after having been lucky enough to put my archery hunting tag on a moderately sized deer, I had to drag it a couple hundred yards up hill. Mind you it was not a big hill. Halfway up the hill my heart pounded in my chest, I gasped for breath, and felt dizzy. It took me a full half-hour to get that 90 lb. deer back to the car. It was ridiculous. Still in denial, early the following year I participated in a rather large archery tournament in Pittsburgh. As it happened, we had a group of about 5 left-handers all shooting together. It was so noteworthy, my wife snapped a picture. That picture became my refrigerator picture. You know, the picture you hang on the fridge so you have to look at it every time you open the door. In the photo there was one guy with an enormous gut hanging out over his belt. I realized the fat guy was me! I could no longer continue to be “that guy”.
That was it. I needed to take action. But the action wasn’t immediately to strap on my sneakers and set out for 10 miles. Fortunately, I did not fall into the trap of “I wanted to get in shape so I signed up for a marathon.” That is a guarantee of failure. This had to be a lifestyle change. I started with my diet. It was absolutely rubbish. In addition to freely stuffing every bit of sugar and junk into my pie hole, each night involved snacking all night as I watched television. That had to stop. Once I got the nutrition under control, I began walking. First around the block, then the neighborhood, and then a more brisk pace. Finally, I ran. Well . . I ran for a few hundred yards, and then walked a bit, ran a few hundred yards, etc. (I may even have sat on the curb for a bit some days.) Remember that up until this point, when talking to running friends my retort had always been “I only run if something is chasing me”. It didn’t take long to realize that unless I shaped up I would get caught pretty easily.
At the time, running was exhausting. I’d make the 30-40 minute belly-bouncing jog around my development and then I was done for the rest of the day and I was sore the next day but it was a good kind of sore. I was using muscles that hadn’t had to do more than waddle from the kitchen to the the living room for years. Now and then I’d torture them by unexpectedly hiking into the woods to hunt but with my burgeoning belly and poor physical conditioning that was getting harder.
I did not get on the scale at first. I knew I was over 240 pounds and was in a bit of denial. As I ran each day and watched my diet, suddenly pounds started coming off. I began weighing myself and each Friday I averaged the weights for the week and wrote the number on the calendar. The first number I wrote on the calendar was 238. A week later, 235. Another week 232. I took notice! This was good and encouraging. Running was hard but exercise and a healthy diet were working! The more I ran, the better I felt and the pounds continued to melt away. As I got lighter running became easier and I got fitter and faster.
That first day I laced up and set out to run the goal was to hopefully see my toes again without bending over. As running became more a part of my life I suddenly wanted more. What about one of these races? Could I do that? Isn’t that only for real runners? But when do I become a real runner? I sought out the real runners both in person and on-line and all told me the same thing. “You became a real runner the day you started running and kept at it”. This bit of truth was enlightening. There was no class, test, or license required. I was, in fact, a runner. Now about that 5K?
For my very first race I chose the 5K distance at the Pagoda Pacer’s Oley Valley Country Classic. The same event features a very popular and beautiful 10 mile distance. I arrived at the race location early. I was nervous, and worried. I’d ran a practice 5K at home and finished in 27 minutes or so. I’d reviewed past results and figured if I could just do that today, maybe I wouldn’t finish last. I was running with my buddy Gary who had raced a bit more than me. We both watched the start of the 10 mile event with a sense of awe and I remember turning to Gary and saying “I’ll never run that far”.
My day was successful. I managed to toe the line and make my way the entire 3.1 miles without walking or even being anywhere near last. In fact, I finished somewhere smack dab in the middle of the field with a time of 26 minutes and some odd seconds. Crossing the finish line was euphoria! I remember watching the awards ceremony and being amazed at the folks running in the mid-to-high teens. Wow! I could never imagine being that fast.
Never say never. While it has been a few years since I ran my last sub-20 5K the truth is I accomplished it many times over the years. I also have a collection of shirts and age group awards from the Oley Valley 10 miler. In fact 10 miles is my very favorite distance to run despite swearing I’d never run that far. And I’ve gone a lot farther too! There have also been a bunch of marathons, and half-marathons and long course triathlons all of which, at some point, I said I’d never do.
So I hate being an advice columnist and there are approximately 10,937,832.2 blog posts and magazine articles out there on how to start running. The bottom line is “Go start running“. But . . there is always a “but” isn’t there? And I don’t mean a runner’s butt although who doesn’t want that?
In this case the “but” is before you start running even once, go buy a good pair of running shoes from a running store. No, Not Amazon. You can do that later. I want you to seek out your local running shop and go talk to a salesperson that knows how to help you pick the right pair of shoes for you. And yes, they are expensive. Figure on spending anywhere from $90-$150.00. If you think that is expensive, consider the cost of a visit to an orthopedic doctor is somewhere in the neighborhood of $200.00 for starters. Running in poor shoes will quickly lead to a test of you medical insurance.
While at the running store you may want to pick up a couple pairs of socks to go with those shoes, for now you can run in whatever other clothes you have. Over time you will find the clothing that works for you. You don’t need to spend a fortune on running clothes. Just get started and go from there.
And let’s be clear about one thing: Running does not ruin your knees. Being overweight and stagnant ruins your knees and all your other weight bearing joints too. While there may be the odd runner or two that has naturally terrible form that suffers bad consequences just look around at who is getting knee replacements. I’ll let you draw you own conclusions based on your observations there but here is an article of interest to print out and have handy. I suggest leaving it on that overweight co-workers chair who is telling you, in their vast exercise experience that “you’ll ruin your knees”. Maybe leave it there when they are in the elevator and heading to the cafeteria for a donut.