The Joy of Running?

I left the Army in 1996. One of the many things I loved about hanging up the uniform was that I’d no longer have to run. To say I hated running would be downplaying the disdain I had for it. I hated waking up at Oh darkthirty to stand in a PT formation as the sun would rise and go off on a 3-4 mile run. No more 2 mile runs for a PT test. No more running!

I held fast to my anti-running position for almost a decade when my wife Ellen suggested we join a gym in 2004. She’s always the smart one when it comes to health. She knew, despite the fact I’d lost quite a bit of weight due to a change in diet, that I wasn’t getting any cardiovascular training and conditioning. She suggested we begin playing racquetball so could actually get a little exercise. She jokes that she wants to keep me around longer, but I’ve wondered over the years if she just isn’t trying to induce an early heart attack…

One day, I can’t remember why, but I got on a treadmill. I had no idea how to operate it – so I began pushing programming buttons and found an option for APFT (Army Physical Fitness Test). Out of morbid curiosity, I decided to see just how far I’d fallen. Not that I was a decent runner to begin with, but struggling to cover 2 miles on the treadmill in under 20 minutes (a far cry from passing by the way) was an ego bruiser. When I finished, panting, sweating, wheezing, I found an inner determination to improve on that time. Of course, this meant I needed to actually start running again. Was I losing my mind? I was pushing 40 – was this what a mid-life crisis looked like? Why couldn’t I just be content to buy a corvette like regular guys? Why did it have to be running?

Slowly but surely, I began to improve on times and distance – which really wasn’t that difficult considering just about any time or distance was going to be an improvement.

Over the next several months I realized I needed motivation to continue pursuing my new found hobby. I needed to put event runs on my calendar to give me a reason to train. Otherwise, I was just running to run and why on earth would I run to run? Remember, I hate running! Even as I was lowering my times, increasing my distance, and gaining a certain level of satisfaction from the result – I still was a far cry from liking what I was doing.

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Crossing the finish line at the Army 10 Miler

I can’t remember the first event I ran in – it was probably the Crofton 10K – but I began running a number of 5Ks and before taking the next leap to the Annapolis 10 Miler, then my first Half Marathon in Washington DC. This led to more 10 Milers, more Half Marathons, and ultimately my first (and only) full Marathon in Phoenix in January 2008.

All through this period, I was consistently focused on lowering my times, increasing my distance. Come race day, I would be disappointed if my result didn’t match my expectation that I had trained for. Some runs were perfect, others, not what I wanted. Often this fueled harder training to get it right the next time.

Unfortunately, following my marathon, I never felt like I was improving. I ran a few 5Ks and had good times, but I began struggling with longer distances. I found that longer runs led to a series of mental negotiations and compromises, and copping out.

When I took a new job in 2009, it signaled the end of my endurance running. While I occasionally donned my Asics and hit the road or the treadmill, it was without purpose. Lacking a goal, those runs became fewer and farther in between.

By the beginning of 2014, I had not run in nearly a year. Not that I’m big in to New Year’s resolutions, but adding running to my list of to dos in the coming year never even crossed my mind. It wasn’t until March that I decided I needed to begin working out again. [Again, this was largely due to Ellen’s motivation and her desire to keep me at least semi-fit].

Unfortunately for me, I’d put on quite a bit of weight, so running wasn’t immediately in the cards – I needed to build my cardio, strengthen my legs, and shed some pounds before logging some miles. The first step was to hit the elliptical machine. I approached it the same way I did to my earlier regimen – longer, harder, faster than the day or the week before. By April, I could start putting in some miles on the treadmill.

But I still needed additional motivation. My local 10K was a couple months away – coinciding with my 48th birthday. I had run it several times before, so I joined up giving purpose to my conditioning.

When I ran previously, I think my best time in the Crofton 10K was right around 48 minutes – right about an 8 minute mile pace. When I ran it this past June, I finished about 10 minutes slower. Seven years ago, I would’ve been disgusted with that time. But the older version of me left the course very content – I’d set out to complete the course, not to set a new PR. I ran the entire time, albeit slowly, and that’s all I wanted to do.

The next event run I would enter was the Rock and Roll Half Marathon in Philadelphia. From 10K to Half Marathon in three months seemed reasonable. I began training with that in mind, running 4-5 days a week, with a long run every Sunday. I did the majority of the runs on a treadmill – primarily due to the fact that there is less wear and tear on my joints and my bounce back recovery is significantly minimized. I focused on the cardio aspect and while my pace on the treadmill was pretty good, I knew that it would not translate to asphalt. But adding incline and elevation was a must. Nearly every run I took on the treadmill incorporated an ascent.

When the Half Marathon came around, I knew I wasn’t going to be fast, or set a PR. Just like the Cofton 10K, my goal was to run the whole thing and finish. With the exception of stops – one to kiss Ellen on the course, the other to avoid a collision at the last water stop – I hit both goals.

My first Half was in 2007. I finished in 2 hours 7 minutes. I walked the majority of the last 3 miles – all uphill up Minnesota Avenue back to RFK Stadium. I left the race pretty disappointed – I thought I had trained well in advance and my result challenged that assumption. My next Half would be 6 months later in Virginia Beach. Again, I trained to finish at 1:45, and I came in at 1:51 (six minutes off my desired pace – but an improvement). I should note that Ellen ran this Half as well – her first – and she finished, although not a runner, because she’s a little studette!

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Moving in to give Ellen a smooch

So my time in Philly, 2:12, was the worst 13.1 miles time I’ve ever had – yet it turned out to be the best race I’ve ever run. There was no expectation for a personal best – only to finish and to run the whole course. That’s all I had set out to accomplish and I met that goal.

I’ve discovered along the way that I still don’t love running. And while it’s hard to escape the fact that I am indeed a runner – I’ve made my peace with running and I can grudgingly acknowledge that I kind of like it now. Distance running becomes a series of negotiations, bargains, and understanding – but the compromises are no longer part of the equation. Every run has a purpose and a goal to achieve. If it’s a 5 mile hill run, a 6 mile interval run, or just a 4 mile speed run, there is no room for compromise along the way. The longer the run, the more my brain likes to insert itself in the conversation, playing the part of Satan, offering tempting rewards for cutting it shorter. That must be Freud’s id in full force – yet the ego fights back with the superego in tow. All I know is that I need to keep moving.

I doubt that I’ll ever find the motivation to run another marathon along the way – possibly due to the fear that by doing so will eliminate whatever passion I seem to have for running. Been there, done that. But running 13.1 is well within the bounds of my possible. Maybe I’ll try to improve on my times in races to come, but for now, just lumbering through the course at a comfortably slow pace is just fine – it’s not like I was in a position to win it anyway…

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One Response to The Joy of Running?

  1. Frank S. says:

    You’re always welcome to join me on one of my Disney races, Sean. You know I only run them for the finisher’s medal anyway!

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