Saturday, September 12, 2009

Lessons from the Past

Yesterday I resigned from the fitness and wellness committee at work. It's something I've been considering for a while - I have a lot of stuff on my plate, I'm not really a committee person, and it really wasn't a good fit for me.

Don't get me wrong, I've enjoyed working with a dedicated group of people full of good intentions, but while they've created some great programs I don't agree with some of the core ideas like giving people incentives to persuade them to exercise (such as awarding time off for logging a certain amount of exercise time). If someone has health or weight issues because of a sedentary lifestyle, why should they need to be bribed to exercise? If we provide the means and the opportunity that should be enough - why wouldn't you want to do it for yourself or your family? After all, once the incentive is gone so is the motivation. If you want to do it for the right reasons, I'll help you all I can. If not, don't waste my time.

So why did I agree to join the committee in the first place? That's easy - it was because of Henry.

Back in 2002 I was way out of shape. My weight had jumped up to 180lbs (I'm currently 150lbs - my ideal running weight), and I really wasn't happy with myself. But I was lucky to work with a great guy called Henry Gonzales. Henry believed in me and got me into running. So much of the healthy lifestyle my family and I now enjoy we owe to Henry, and I remember thinking about him at mile 98 of my first 100 miler earlier this year and knowing he would be proud of how far I'd come. He had been retired a good three years by then, but I still owed so much of that achievement to him. One of the first things I did when I got home from Huntsville was email him and thank him.

I started out in running with the beginner's program from Bob Glover's "The Runner's Handbook" - the first week I alternated running and walking for a minute apiece. That program culminated in running for 20 minutes nonstop (which was pretty damn cool), and then I worked my way up to 5ks and 10ks. I was very much a "back of the packer", but one day Henry persuaded me to train for a marathon. He made it sound like something I could really do, and I remember him telling me that I had the ideal mindset for a long distance runner.

I think he was right about that.

But I still had doubts. I did the Texas Roundup 10k early in 2004, and running past the UT football stadium at mile 5 I wondered just how in hell I was going to run a marathon (it's funny looking back at that now, having run 50 milers at a much faster pace than I ran those old 5k and 10ks).

But then Nancy and I found out we were expecting, and I suddenly had a whole new source of motivation - I wanted to do something my wife and future son could be proud of.

So I signed up with Round Rock Fit - a local marathon training program. Almost immediately I realized there was so much I had to learn. Every Monday morning that Fall and Winter Henry and I would dissect Saturday's long run. We'd talk about what worked and what didn't, and he'd give me advice on how to fix it.

But I struggled with some of the early long runs, in particular the first time I ran 8 miles. I wondered if I could really do it, so I went back a few days later and ran the 8 miles again by myself. I did so much better, something clicked and from then on it was like I'd broken through an invisible wall.

The first time I really believed I could run a marathon was a cold Saturday morning in December 2004. At mile 4 of a 30k training run (my longest run at that point) I was run off the road by a redneck in a pickup truck and sprained my ankle really badly. I could barely put any weight on it, but stubborn me I decided I would finish the run anyway (that's an attribute I'm glad I've retained from those days). I limped along for a while, and after about half a mile my foot just went numb and I could run freely again. I didn't feel it unless I stopped, when it would stiffen up. So I just didn't stop until the finish line.

I think I broke just about every rule going during that run - my foot swelled up so badly I couldn't fit into any of my shoes for a week, and my toes turned purple. But it was a huge mental breakthrough.

I was so much slower back then, and my whole running form was completely different to what it is today. Those of you that run with me now wouldn't believe it. I ran that marathon in 5 hours and 20 minutes - almost 2 hours slower than what I run today - and really struggled in the last few miles. Maybe that's why I connect so well with the slower runners in our training group now - I know exactly where they are because that used to be me.

They say that when you cross the finish line in your first marathon, choirs of angels break into song and it's a life changing moment. Bullshit - I was just glad to be done. The benefits are far more subtle - I'm so much more assertive and confident now because of my running.

But back at that 2005 finish line I was also disappointed - I knew I could do better. So I came back and ran it again the next year, this time knocking 30 minutes off my time. My time goals kept dropping - from breaking 5 hours to breaking 4:30 to getting under 4 hours to breaking 3:30.

I don't have time goals for marathons anymore - I just enjoy them.

And that brings us back to my point about motivation and personal responsibility in our obesity-prone society. My dad always told me that the world owes me nothing, and that I would have to work for what I wanted. If I wanted it badly enough I'd better make sure I worked hard enough to get it.

That's why I don't believe in bribing someone to improve their life. If you have to provide the incentive, they obviously don't want it enough. We live in a very negative and excuse-ridden society where there's always an easy way out - "I don't have time to exercise" is a popular excuse.

One of my favorite quotes is from the former Arkansas governor and Presidential candidate Mike Huckabee. Whether you agree with his politics or not, you have to admire the fact that he lost over 110lbs through diet and fitness while in office.

When asked how he finds the time to workout, he replies "I don't, I make the time".

If a State governor can make the time, what excuse do the rest of us have?


Celeste Domsch said...

Excellent post! Well said. My worst run with RR Fit that first year was the 6 miler. I think I was literally the last person back to the pavilion and that was no fun. So the next week I started earlier than the rest of my group! Worked like a charm. :)

My current struggle is between seriously trying to improve and just holding my own. I want so much to get better, and I think I could, but it would take more time and mental energy than I have left after family and work.

So I am working on holding my distance steady, not PRing, but having fun, and biding my time until I can really focus. And being tremendously thankful for the fact that I can run at all, when so many folks who wish they could are just not able to.

Shelly Florence-Glover, co author The Runner's Handbook said...

Good luck on your marathon. Love of running and hard work will take you the distance.

Marcia said...

What a great post Mark! Thanks for sharing your own personal journey ... it's always good to remember where we started, how we got to where we are, and what keep us out there.

DavidH said...

Hey Mark - Thanks for sharing your "moment" that started your endurance sports journey.

This is actually quite an interesting subject to me.

My story:
After college, I worked a lot and did virtually no exercise. Well I did consider moving my apartment's universal weight station around for 15 minutes a good workout once or twice a week.

Then one day at work (in 2000), one co-worker asked me if I wanted to go mountain biking with him. I said yes. This is that unsuspecting moment in time that changed my life forever.

From that moment on I was hooked on endurance sports.

The power of a simple "reach-out" to someone can change a life forever. When I reflect on it, I am still amazed and grateful.

Happy Training!