Friday, October 06, 2006

My Love Affair With Running - Part 1


MARIA 1999

It was all Maria’s fault. She got me started. I had been lifting weights since I was 50 and was perfectly happy with that form of exercise. The changes it had made in my life were most satisfying. In fact, the only thing that weight training had not done for me was to transform my body into the similitude of Steve Reeves. This was a great disappointment to me, but a reality that I was slowly coming to grips with. Crummy genetics cannot be overcome.

I was 55, working at Adtran in Huntsville, Alabama, when I met Maria. I don’t remember her last name. She was a pleasant, slightly overweight black woman of about 30. At the time, I had been working out with weights for about five years.

Maria overheard me talking to someone about exercise and began to ask my advice about how to lose weight. Over the course of several weeks I gave her a number of principles and suggestions. She later told me that she had been sharing my ideas with her sister, who was a nurse. Her sister generally agreed with my suggestions and Maria began to follow my advice. We talked regularly and I encouraged her to continue her efforts. One of the activities I suggested to her was running.

Several months later, Maria announced to me that she had lost 50 pounds. I was amazed. I did not think that she ever had 50 extra pounds on her frame to loose. To celebrate her success she was thinking of running in a local race - the Pill Hill Run – to celebrate. She asked me to join her in running the one mile “fun run” event, held in connection with the main 10 kilometer race, since I was partly responsible for her success.

I reluctantly agreed, not sure that I could run any distance since I had not run a sustained pace or distance since Army Basic Training in 1966. I’ll do the math for you – that was 33 years before. But I could not let her down. My reputation as a trainer was at stake, and Maria was another success story for my resume.

At the time, I lived in a rural area on a paved road that looped back on itself. I estimated the distance of the loop to be about one half mile. Another road nearby also formed a loop and joined my road at almost the same point my road joined itself, so the two roads formed a rough figure eight.

The race was in early October and it was already late August. I began to practice, fearing that I would not be able to keep up with my student. My first practice, I walked the two loops just to gauge the effect the prolonged exercise had on my body. My five years of lifting weights had gotten me into good physical shape, but I was not sure if it would help me in a period of sustained physical effort. I walked the course with no ill effects. The next practice, two days later, I decided to up the effort and alternate between walking and running. I started running at a moderate pace to, again, gauge the effect it had on my body, thinking that I would be unable to sustain the effort for the whole course. I was mentally prepared to alternate between walking and running for the next several sessions as my body built up to running the whole course.

To my surprise, I ran the entire course. My breathing increased to an elevated level but never became so uncomfortable that I had to slow down or stop and walk. From that day on I was a runner. I practiced twice a week hoping to increase my strength and aerobic capacity so that I did not embarrass myself with my student or the many others who would be participating in the event. How many, I did not know. To offset the extra effort of my running, I cut my weight workouts from four per week to two.

A week before the race, at her suggestion, I met Maria at a health club on Bird Spring Road in Huntsville. The club had a running/walking path behind it. She was afraid I would out-run her. (I was afraid she would out-run me!) We ran the course together to see if our individual running paces matched well enough to allow us to run the race together. They did.

The following week we met at the site of the Pill Hill 10K race and watched from the sidelines as the hundreds of runners completed the difficult main race. After the 10K race Maria and I lined up with a couple hundred or so other men, women, and children and ran the fun run. We completed the one-mile course with no problems. Maria had accomplished her goal. And I had kept my promise.

ANNE 1999

It was Anne’s fault that I started racing. To me, running and racing were two different things. I had become interested in running, not racing. But that was about to change. Anne Park was 60 years old when I met her and an enthusiastic runner and running evangelist. I had met her briefly several months earlier before the Cotton Row Run in 1999. Seeking to enlarge my world, I had come just to watch the Memorial Day 10K race.

That day I learned that she worked at Adtran, but later found that she worked near where I ate lunch each day. It was during the time that I was practicing for the race with Maria that I began going to Anne’s office at lunchtime to eat and visit with her. The more we talked, the more we found we had in common. I told her about my contact with Maria and the plan to run in the Pill Hill Fun Run. She told me that she was going to run the Pill Hill 10K.

Anne encouraged me to enter another race to be held a couple of weeks before the Pill Hill - the Big Spring Jam 5K. (the spring refers to a source of water, not the season. Since the race takes place in September, the name confuses some out of town folks.) I was reluctant to participate. A one–mile “fun run” was one thing, but a 5K (just over three miles) among serious runners was intimidating. I wanted (needed?) more time to build my cardiovascular capacity for the Pill Hill. The last thing I wanted was to finish last in a serious race. But with Anne’s constant encouragement, I soon gave in. What was a week or two more or less of practice? This earlier race would be my practice for the fun run.

Now instead of running one mile “for fun” I was about to run three-plus miles “for serious”. To forestall possible humiliation, I decided to verify the length of my rural practice course near my house by driving around it in my car. To my astonishment, my estimated two-mile course clocked at almost exactly three miles. I was elated. I could run farther than I thought I could.

The morning of the Big Spring Jam 5K dawned bright and clear and cool. The 60+ degree temperature was “perfect running weather” I was assured by several runners before the race. I gathered with 800+ other runners and waited nervously for the starting gun to be fired. After some preliminary talking and the acapella National Anthem, the gun blasted loudly and with my ears ringing, I shuffled off with the crowd in my first race.

After being used to running by myself (my faithful dog, trotting happily along next to me added no real competition), I was not prepared for a run surrounded by hundreds of runners of every description from 7 years old or so, to 70-plus, and everything in between, both male and female. And these people ran at all kinds of paces. I found myself passing many of them while others were passing me. And one could not always gage how good a runner a person was by their looks.

I quickly found that some genetically blessed individuals ran like they looked – beautifully. Others, less impressive visually, were equally fast. Contrariwise, some unimpressive-looking people ran like they looked. Somewhere between these extremes was myself.

I was most surprised by the females. Mentally, I knew that some women runners were faster than I was. But to see so many - to see them going past me – was amazing. It was inspiring, demoralizing, and intimidating.

Somewhere near the end of mile two I realized that I was running too fast and could not keep up the pace I had been running. Mile three was one of the most unpleasant eight-minute experiences of my life. Out of breath and running down the long half-mile straightaway before the finish line, my lungs were screaming for relief. I wanted to stop, but could not bring myself to quit. I could see the banner over the finish line far ahead of me and hear the shouts, cheers and clapping of those watching, but in my agony, I seemed to be getting no closer to the end I so earnestly desired. Other runners were passing on both sides of me. I wondered if my nightmare scenario would come true – finishing last place. Then, with just a block or two to go, everyone running with me seemed to pick up the pace. And strangely, even though I was sure I could go no faster, I increased my speed a micro mile per hour also.

I crossed the finish line of the Big Spring Jam 5K in less than 26 minutes. I was breathing so hard that I could barely see. And so exhausted that I could barely tear off the tab on my race number. In spite of my uneven performance, I had finished in the top third of my age group. As I walked through the chute, gasping for air, I was very pleased and surprised. The idea of running non-stop for three miles was amazing to me. Three miles! Almost without realizing it, this runner had become a racer.

A few days after the Pill Hill race, I remember sitting on my bed one afternoon after work, pondering what to do. It was the time I usually went out to do a practice run. But I had satisfied all running commitments to Anne and Maria. I could go out and do another practice run, as I had been doing, or I could hang up my running shoes and go back to only lifting weights. I was comfortable with the weight routine and did not think of myself as a “runner”. I was just a middle-aged weight lifter who had run in a couple of races. But the running had been fun. What to do?

I thought it over. If I was going to be serious about running, I would have to go about it just like I had done with my weight workouts. Commit to a regular program of training sessions. No skips, no misses. No excuses. I would have to make the commitment to practice in the heat, in the cold, summer, winter, snow, rain. Whatever. And I was going to do it until I was physically unable to continue. Hopefully, that would be around age 80. If I was going to do it, I was going to do it right. I sat on the bed and thought about it for several minutes. Did I really want to commit to this? I ran the costs and benefits through my mind several times. Then did it again. Was I sure? Then I laced on my running shoes and went out the door.

More to come.......

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