Back in July, as I hit a milestone birthday (the dirty thirty), I was inspired to sign up for my first ever 5K race. I am NOT a newbie to sports. I played every sport I could when I was a kid, earned two varsity letters before graduating the 10th grade and played Division III baseball for two seasons. Training was easy when I was young. We trained by doing. Fall was soccer, winter was basketball and or wrestling, spring and summer were baseball. Specialization was just starting to become a trend amongst young athletes and their moronic parents. The idea that a child should focus on one sport in hopes of landing a lucrative college scholarship, a slot on an Olympic team, or a trip to prime time in pro-sports was a foolish dream that took hold somewhere around the time cable TV went mainstream and has not gone away.
It is hogwash. Kids should play sports to be active and to build their bodies. If they are good enough athletes, they will get a shot at the monetary rewards that sports offer (which are few).
That is another subject though. So how did a man who weighed 220 pounds and had only exercised “just enough” since leaving organized sports get back into good enough shape to run his first official 5K race? Well, having the goal of a specific date helped. I have known this for a long time and have applied goal setting to other aspects of my life. When one plays sports, there is accountability. If you’re not pulling your weight in practice and games, a coach or a teammate will notice. In good organizations, you will be called out if you are dragging. When I left sports, the accountability motivator was gone. I would go to the gym, throw some weights around, scream a few times, jump on the treadmill run for a mile or two, and then I’d head to the bar and do 12 ounce reducing curls for the next two hours. Somehow I never became obese and while my fitness level waned in comparison to my peak levels, it never totally went away. I am forever thankful for that trait, be it grace, genetic, pure luck, or my inability to sit still even while doing sedentary tasks, somehow I managed to only balloon to a strong 220 and not a heart attack at thirty 300. However, while other areas in my life were beginning to flourish thanks to goal setting, accountability, and diligence, my overall fitness was deteriorating. Having a goal, telling people my goal, and then following through with the goal were critical.
So what was your goal Hank? Well, on July 12, 2011 when I registered for the Baltimore Running Festival at the urging of a friend, LeAnn Winebrenner, my goal was to be able to run 3.1 miles without dying. I started running again on July 13th with the help of http://www.halhigdon.com and his 5K novice program.. I had been on the treadmill a few times (as in once or twice…maybe) at the gym in the spring and early summer, but everyone who has ever trained for anything knows the road is different. While the treadmill is more monotonous, the road is less forgiving. The first morning out I started out down my street, reached the end of it, turned back, and was huffing and puffing back at my steps after about 10 minutes.
“Phew, quarter miles don’t feel that long when you’re driving!”
I clearly had some rust to knock off.
After a few weeks of forcing myself to go really really slow, I found my pace. I ran two and a half miles one night without stopping in 90 degree heat! A friend saw me on the road, saw me later, and said, “you were really gettin’ it Hank!” I said, “Still got a lot of work to do.” In mid-August, while visiting family in Delaware, I kicked out a flat track 3.5 miles a block from the ocean. The flat ground and sea level air were a nice change of pace from my home in Brunswick, MD where the unofficial town slogan is, “Hills, Whores, and Liquor Stores”. I figured Baltimore would be in between the two in terms of difficulty. At this point, I was proud of myself. I had not run a distance this great since I was in high school wrestling. Wrestling requires sadistic levels of training. The first two weeks are hell between cardio, pushups, and situps. Most rosters are trimmed 50% in those weeks, and the coach doesn’t even have to cut anyone. I was proud of myself back then for toughing it out and staying on the team and I was proud of myself in August when I officially “found my legs” again and was able to surpass the distance I intended to run….WITHOUT DYING!
I had to reset my goal. I told myself I wanted to finish without dying and in under forty minutes. That’s 3.1 miles all averaging under 13 minutes….or something like that. I was confident I could do this. October rolled around and I found myself sick with strep (thank you Jenn…I still love you) two weeks prior to the race. I rarely get sick. I couldn’t run that entire week and feared whatever was ailing me would move into my chest, but it didn’t. By the end of the week, without the help of antibiotics, I was over it, but had the damage been done? Could an athlete who was only just getting his feet back under him expect to bounce back quick enough? I told Jenn I would play it by ear but that I didn’t think I would run the race. Then, on the 10th I felt good, went out for a jog, and kicked three miles with fuel in the tank at the finish. I booked our hotel room for Baltimore.
It should be noted that I love Baltimore. That city is one of the reasons I took my current job in Western, MD. Charm City has always been good to me and I have met many life time friends there through my old band and wanderings. I’ve also had my tires slashed in Baltimore, but the good outweighs the bad. I know of no major metro that still has small town “neighborhood” feel in so many different spots (Fells, Hamden, Federal Hill, etc). I was excited to be attempting my first official run in a city that has been such a great stomping grounds for me.
Jenn and I got done work and rode to town. We hustled down to the expo center to get my packet and browse some exhibits. After that we shot over to Sliders, a bar I have never gotten close too when on that side of town due to stadium crowds. We got great service in there while having a traditional “bar food” meal and knocking back a few brews (hey, I was only running the 5K). We considered heading to The Pie Shop (Hamden) to see our friend and my musical running buddy, Sean K. Preston, but I decided that being around live music, more beer, old friends, and the best freaking pie in the entire world would be a bad idea. Back to the hotel we went.
I woke up at 3AM and couldn’t get back to sleep. I couldn’t believe I was actually excited about running. Finally six rolled around and I couldn’t take it anymore. I got dressed and set out to find safety pins (first newbie mistake: put four safety pins in every suitcase, every car ashtray, and in your wallet). I strolled over to the starting line just as the early birds were rolling in. Runners are a goofy lot. I saw just as much diversity in about ten minutes as I did running around in the music scene for the last ten years. The difference is, music scene people TRY to be unique and diverse only to find themselves in a cluster-duck of commonality. Runners on the other hand ARE different. You have to be different to willingly go out and do what most people avoid from the first time Coach Pain says, “OK KIDS, TODAY WE RUN THE MILE!” in gym class. The strangest things I saw were bare feet, one guy literally in homemade Jesus style sandals (balsa wood and baler twine maybe?), people with tin foil wrapped around them, and a guy in a tuxedo and running shoes to name a few.
After an hour or so the street and sidewalk near the start/finish were packed! 25,000 people for the marathon alone! 25,000 people who were running 26.2 miles willingly and without coercion. Insanity! Only doing the 5K made me the sanest person on the street short of the people that only showed up to watch. As the marathon took off I thought, “who does this?” Answer? All kinds.
At 8:30 my 5K race began. 15 years ago I would have jumped up front. Instead I walked to the middle, slightly closer to the back and positioned myself near the edge so as to avoid being trampled. How would I respond to running in a group this large? Would I come out too fast? Would others trip me up? Was I even ready?
I shut it down.
The race began and the pack began to move. I walked to the start finish and broke into my stride.
The first mile was up hill, but it was hardly a Brunswick hill. The early burn in my legs was there, but I found myself able to ignore it due to the scenery and the presence of other runners.
“Was I on my pace?” I had no way of knowing.
Just run. Go Slow.
I found a friend. I have never spoken a word to this friend and chances are I will never see him again. He was my height, about 50 pounds lighter, was running at what I thought was my pace, and didn’t have the look of exhaustion that others already had. We stayed together without ever verbally acknowledging this. The first two miles came and went. We crested what I believed to be the final hill and I could see stadium in the distance. I glanced over my shoulder, my friend was fading, but I had fuel in the tank. Time to part ways. I upped my pace. We came down the hill and I heard a father yelling to his daughter, “Run SMART, we’re on the downhill now.” I agreed with him. I found another notch in my transmission.
As we came down the hill an overweight teenager said, “Sir, how much fuh-thur?” I said, “You are ALMOST there, see the stadium? That is where we are going! Hang in there.”
EPHIPHANY! What the HELL was I doing encouraging people when my goal was not to die just a few months earlier? I grinned. I had just held normal conversation and smiled. I found another gear.
We came through the stadium gates and across the alley between the warehouse and the outfield. I remembered walking through there with my Dad when the park first opened. We had driven down from Pennsylvania to see the new/old style stadium. My buddy Rewster and I had drank beer and ate at Boogs there just a summer or two earlier. My mind came back. I was starting to labor a little bit in my breathing but my legs yelled up,
“Yo, dude, we got this!”
I saw the finish line and made a nice burst to the end. People were cheering for us even though they didn’t know us! Then people started handing us Gatorade like we had just run in the Olympics. I glanced at the clock as I crossed and noticed only an hour or so had passed since the marathon had began a half hour before the 5K.
“No, that’s not possible. That can’t be right. I didn’t finish 8 or 9 minutes faster than my goal. No way. Something is wrong. All of my sweat and my heart beating out of my chest must have made my timing chip go haywire.”
Then I got my official time 00:31:47. I had accomplished all my goals!
Something strange happened though. I went from a guy who just wanted to finish to a guy who within a week following the race went out and bought better shoes and socks, signed up for another race, and is already back to training. I actually WANT to run. So crazy, but I can think of worse things to find yourself hooked on….like cough syrup and Tums.
I must say that the Baltimore Running Fest was a great experience. I enjoyed my complimentary free Phillips crab soup (Oh LAWD!) and my two free beers (and four that I paid for). People watching is my thing so I kinda hung out and walked around, mingling with those that wanted to mingle, and just taking it all in. I was proud of myself and can’t wait to do it again. Generally, I have found that when you stick with a project for more than ninety days, you stick with it for the long term. One hundred and some days later, I’m looking forward to my SECOND 5K and maybe upping the mileage ante at Baltimore next year. Thanks to all who made it happen!
It feels good to have new challenges!