1 – The Running Life

The experiences of a regular guy who’s been captivated by this strange healthy addiction.

Waking Up Is Hard To Do

As an active distance runner and triathlete, I work out five or six days a week, usually in the morning. People who know this often say something like “You’re amazing. It’s great that you can do that.” Please allow me to set the record straight – I’m NOT amazing. In fact I hate leaving my bed. And crawling out from under the covers is not great … It’s horrible almost every time.

After more than a decade of consistent early sessions on the run, on the bike, or in the pool, those first few moments of consciousness are not any easier than they were the first time. I’m not singing the Hallelujah Chorus when the alarm goes off. I’m hearing dirges in my head about then.

So why do it? Because of a saying I picked up many years back: “You never regret the workouts you do. You always regret the workouts you skip.” Deciding whether to go from idle to active will set the tone for the whole day. I can either be energized or feel like a slug for the next 24 hours.

So to anyone who sees that runner / triathlete / yoga practitioner / spin class enthusiast / etc. as some sort of superhuman, I’ll bet money on the contrary. Most likely he or she faces the same struggles, but has learned that although waking up is difficult, breaking up with this lifestyle is even more hard to do.


Will Run For Food

“As much as you run, you can eat anything you want.” I wish I had a celery stick for every time someone’s told me that. In truth, this assumption is only partially accurate.

Sure, runners burn a lot of calories. In theory, they can put back a lot. But this formula overlooks a much bigger reality that has to do with the running community’s very view of caloric consumption.

Food can be many things: A friend … a means of comfort … an indulgence … a reward. Most athletes, however, don’t think of it this way. Instead, it’s primarily nutrition. AKA “Fuel”.

In practicality, the scene plays out like this. The runner might want the cheeseburger and fries, but there’s an eight-mile tempo workout on the calendar tomorrow morning. Heavy, greasy stuff will lead to all kinds of complications, some of which are unmentionable, while others include normal consequences like feeling sluggish and the self-loathing that comes from lack of discipline. So it’s grilled chicken breast, a dry sweet potato, and broccoli. No butter please.

After a while, the body stops craving the tasty – I mean horrible – stuff. Clean eating becomes preferable. Mostly.

Granted, this formula doesn’t hold up 100% of the time. Now and then caution is tossed to the wind. Pizza, chicken wings, Philly steak sandwich, ice cream, and whatever make it to the table. But that’s OK. After all, as much as we run, we can eat anything we want.

How Long Is A Marathon?

As someone who runs a fair amount, I’m often asked “How long is a marathon?” Here are three answers to that question.

First, the strictly factual. A marathon is 26.2 miles. That’s 26 miles plus 385 yards, or just over 42 kilometers. And to dispel a couple misunderstandings …

— If it’s not called a marathon, aka “full marathon”, it’s not one. People sometimes say things like “My cousin ran a 5K marathon.” Nope. A 5K is 3.1 miles; a 10K, 6.2; half marathon, 13.1. While those are all respectable events, they’re not marathons.

— All official full marathons are the same length. Whether it’s world-famous Boston or one raising money for a local charity, they’re equal in mileage: 26.2.

A less literal reply to the question “How long is a marathon?”, is what I’ll call Response Two: A marathon is far. Really, really far. In fact it might be best not to think about it.

Out of curiosity, I once decided to clock the distance in my car. I reset the trip odometer and took off. The results haunt me to this day. Whether you’re prone to marathon running, or don’t think you ever will be, you might try this just for kicks. It will surely bring perspective to the sport.

(For those familiar with south Florida – Starting on Hollywood Boulevard, two blocks west of Dixie Highway, I went west on Hollywood Boulevard to I-95. North to 595. West to State Road 27. Then 3.1 miles further north before the odometer hit 26.2. Yikes!)

The third response is philosophical. How long is a marathon? It’s the figurative space between two intangible points: The degree to which a person is living life now; and the realization of that person’s potential. Let me explain:

To complete a full marathon, you must first sign up. That takes courage. Next come several months of discipline, usually involving getting out of bed way before you want to. Pre-dawn workouts, some glorious, others torturous. Denial of comfort foods. Sore muscles. Oh, and the actual act of running for quite some time – close to five hours for a mere mortal like me.

Crossing the finish line is euphoric. It’s also transformative, because according to statisticbrain.com, you’re now in the one half of one percent – that’s .005 – of the U.S. population who’ve ever done so. You feel like you can achieve anything to which you commit. And maybe you can. (This of course isn’t the only human feat with the same outcome. Many other pursuits will get you there as well.)

How long is a marathon? It’s 26.2 miles. It so far that it might be best not to think about it. And it’s a journey from mediocrity to a life without limits. That makes it long enough for me.


A Fisherman And A Runner Walk Into A Bar

Fishermen have a long reputation for being stretchers of the truth. They’ve been known to exaggerate the size of the epic catch years ago, or – even better – the one that got away. But here’s something that hasn’t made it to mainstream common knowledge: Runners lie as badly or worse than any angler in history.

When a running buddy asks you to join him or her for five miles at a 10-minute pace, be prepared for six and a half at 9:30. This principle applies across all levels of the athletic spectrum, from the super fast to the casual run / walker. Scientifically speaking, I’ve noticed a fib factor of around 20%, though it can certainly go higher.

I confess that I’m an offender myself. A few days ago, a friend and I set out for what I said would be six by 800-meter repeats. Finishing the fifth one, I announced “only two more.” She wasn’t even surprised. And just this morning I told my wife I was going out for six or seven miles. The final tally? 8.2.

Unlike fishermen, whose tales exceed reality, runners misrepresent themselves in the opposite direction. I’d like to believe that’s because we’re people of such high integrity. More probable it has to do with the ease in which our exploits can be fact checked. Apps like Strava, Garmin Connect, and Nike Fit keep us honest, and race results are posted online for anyone to see. Saying you ran a four-hour marathon doesn’t hold up to scrutiny when the official event website shows 4:35:19. Internet-connected surveillance cameras on deep sea charter boats might have the same effect.

The big question is “Why do runners say they’ll do less and then do more?” Perhaps because actually running is way more fun than thinking about running – at least up to a point. Six miles might sound daunting when you’re pondering it, but when you get to four, and your breathing is rhythmic, your legs are moving like a fluid machine, and you’re enjoying the scenery … well, heck, it’s just a little farther.

So if you’re ever in a bar and a fisherman and a runner walk in, there will no doubt be interesting conversations all around. But don’t believe a word either of them say.


Relatively Accepting

Runners come in all varieties. Some love the 5K, others the marathon, or even the Ultra, which can be 100 miles and more. Many take to the water and hop on a bike as well, tackling different lengths of triathlon. I met a guy recently who’s preparing for a Double Ironman – 4.8 mile swim, 224 miles cycling, then a 52.4 mile run. Yeah, that’s nuts.

People new to the sport might succumb to comparisons, which can be discouraging. But those emotions are unfounded. I speak from experience: Being a little older and slower than most of my buddies, I feel no judgment – just mutual respect. We wave, smile, and utter encouragements as we pass by.

The spectrum of ability and experience is broad. Athlete A’s distance workout is Athlete B’s warmup. Recovery day for this person is that one’s speed training. We’re all OK with that, understanding that we share the same road, the same groan when the alarm clock rings, and the same elation at the finish line.

So if you’re contemplating that first trip to the local store for a pair of real running shoes, stand tall. Be proud. Then join a club and you’ll soon be in good company.

Sure, you’ll meet a few true warriors who will leave you in their dust. And once you get past the initial fitness curve there will be folk who can only dream of staying on your shoulder. None of that will matter, though, because we’re just a big community.

Runners accept each other right where they are. We know it’s all relative.


Mile Zero

It’s been said that the hardest challenge a runner faces comes somewhere around mile 20 of a marathon. There’s truth to that. But in my experience, an equally tough spot is what I call Mile Zero. And even worse, the latter pops up several grueling times a week.

Mile Zero begins when the alarm goes off, usually between 4:30 and 5:00am. Various activities follow – Select clothes and shoes that match the outside conditions … Apply Body Glide … Choke down that banana, half a bagel and sport drink. Each action carries with it a decision: “Do I really want to do this, or can I go back to bed?”

Next comes the defining moment, the start of the actual run. Those first few stiff steps are going to hurt. Ugh.

Transitioning from half asleep stupor to fully alert athlete occurs gradually. Before long, mercifully, the good stuff kicks in. Like the familiar stride, the regular breathing, friendly conversation if the workout is being shared with others, and that wonderful euphoria that you just have to feel to understand.

Mile Zero was brutal, but worth it. I’ll try to remember that tomorrow.

Say What, Body?

Runners have a phrase they quote for a number of different situations. It goes like this: “Listen to your body.”

“Listen to your body” is supposedly a guiding principle that helps us know when to push, when to hold back, when to go a few extra miles or end the session early, etc. I’ve noticed, however, a deep flaw in that advice.

Living in south Florida, there are many days when temperatures are in the 80s with 90 percent humidity and higher – and that’s at 6:00am or earlier, before sunrise. Maybe it’s just me, but this body isn’t exactly sending messages like “Let’s go out and suffer for a couple hours. It’ll be fun.” Instead, I hear “Hit the snooze button,” and “Crossword puzzles might be a really nice alternative hobby.”

What’s a runner to do? In those situations, most of the athletes I know simply ignore the old adage and pay no attention to what the flesh is saying, at least the stuff that would have them pack it in. He or she hits the streets anyway. The sweat pours out in rivers. The body temperature and heart rate soar, even at moderate paces. There are moments of misery.

Then comes the end of the workout and the incredible feeling of accomplishment. Euphoria. The runner’s entire being is high-fiving itself with shouts of “That was great!”

And now we’re listening.


“Good Night. Gotta Run.”

Being a runner can take a toll on a person. The physical exertion, mental challenges, and financial costs are notable. But an element that might not be so obvious is what running does to someone’s social life.

Those who’ve trained for a marathon know the scene well. The movie to which everyone’s going starts at 8:30pm. A quick calculation reveals that this will put you in bed around 11:30, allowing less than six hours sleep before tomorrow’s scheduled 16-miler. Sadly, you decline.

More often than not, the runner’s night is winding down just as the party is winding up. There’s not much there he or she could eat anyway. Sour cream onion dip doesn’t mix well with a monster track workout the next day before sun up.

After a few years of one’s schedule zigging while most others’ zag, the invitations dwindle. Active relationships turn into an occasional touch base. A few of the old gang might make adjustments to accommodate their aerobically-obsessed companion. (Such efforts are much appreciated, and reciprocated whenever possible.) More often, however, the bigger crowd goes out, while the lone athlete goes to bed.

On the other hand, deep bonds form with a new group. These people truly understand and become close friends. They talk about everything, including this very topic, during glorious conversations along dark streets while they’re running together.


Finding The Time

Disclaimer: Running is not for everyone. This article is not meant to imply otherwise. The principles here go for any hobby or pursuit, so no offense meant to non-runners, and – I hope – none taken. Deal?

As I began a run one night, I waved to two of my neighbors having friendly discussion in one of their front lawns. Five miles and a little less than an hour later, I returned. The neighbors were still there so I walked over to say “Hi.”

“You must really enjoy running,” one of them said. “Yes,” I replied, “It’s great in so many ways.” And then he asked “How do you find the time?”

At this point a pause to reflect is in order. I had just logged five miles while this gentleman stood near the sidewalk and talked, then wondered how I found time to run. Do you catch the irony?

“How do you find the time?” is a question all runners hear on a regular basis. I’ve gotten it from people who follow three or four night-time dramas, from a man who told me he sits on his patio and smokes a cigar every evening, from guys who never miss a televised game of the hometown sports teams, etc.

Runners know that it’s not about finding the time. That’s just as difficult for us as for anyone. It’s about how we use the time we have. I’ve left the party way before I wanted to on many occasions because I had to get up at 4:30am the next day. I’ve been sorely out of the loop re: who’s trending on American Idol and the latest viral video. I’ve taken an extra long lunch break to cross train at the gym and had to catch up on e-mail after dinner. It’s part of the lifestyle.

My running buddies are CEOs, single moms, surgeons, blue collar workers, attorneys, college students, and more. And there we all are several times a week, at the track or the park or the streets. A CPA friend trained for a marathon during tax season. That’s dedication.

Once in awhile even the most hardcore have to skip a workout. When the child is sick, the friend is in need, the work deadlines loom, or the laundry pile gets too high, we might have to adjust. But we get back to it just as soon as possible, realizing that “I don’t have time” is a slippery slope.

Time alone isn’t the issue. Making running, or anything considered important, a priority and sacrificing to accomplish it is. Of course the benefits outweigh whatever we have to give up, so on the grander scale there’s joy rather than just a burden.

Everyone gets the same number of hours each week. I have no quarrel at all with people who use them differently than I use mine. But at least now you know how runners find the time. We find it because it’s there.


Runner’s Hi

Running is a social sport, believe it or not. This plays out on many levels.

It starts with warm greetings as runners pass each other on the roads. These range from an enthusiastic “Good morning! Isn’t it beautiful today?” in the early miles to a withered smile and a grunt as fatigue sets in. All are equally sincere and understood.

At most every organized race, participants are given a commemorative t-shirt. Wearing one anywhere in public almost always prompts a conversation. “I see you ran the Bay To Breakers Marathon in 2012,” some random stranger in a restaurant will say. “I did it last year. It’s an amazing course.” And the spirited dialogue begins.

Several kinds of more subtle communication also exist. Certain jackets, shoes, bracelets (like the popular Road ID), and other forms of runners’ secret handshakes abound. I once had a bonding experience with a woman while we were waiting in line to use the lavatory on an airplane. It started when I saw her 140.6 pendant, indicating that she had completed an Ironman Triathlon. We do spot each other from across the room.

Perhaps the pinnacle of social engagement is the running club. Most cities have them, usually sponsored by a local running store. They are inexpensive to join and have group runs throughout the week accommodating all levels from beginners to speed demons. Even if you take part only now and then, they’re well worth it and add a dimension of community.

My running friends are a significant part of my life. A few of us have formed deep relationships. Rubbing shoulders for ten to 20 miles on a Saturday morning will do that. We talk about everything as we run. Parenting rebellious kids, workplace challenges, marriages (present and past), even politics, religion, and sex. Nothing is off limits when you’re sweating and trying to divert your mind from the difficulty of the effort. And where else could a guy my age hang out with so many lean females!

So to anyone looking for a great group of peeps, my advice is simple. Head out to the nearest retailer of running shoes. Get the pair that suits you, ask about a running club, and by all means hit the streets. Soon you’ll experience the many variations of the runner’s “Hi.”

(P.S. – Of course running alone brings its own benefits as well. Those are explored in my article “On The Road To Peace.”)