When I was in 5th grade I started to run. I ran with a friend named Richie and we would circle the play ground of our Manhattan Beach grammar school 20 or 30 times per recess. I was never interested in running as a competition, just as something to do. Living in a small house full of two punk rock sisters, a twin brother, and parents on the verge of nervous breakdowns, running was my way of forgetting everything else and just letting my brain relax and be free. I didn’t compete in many organized running competitions until I was in high school where I chose cross country and track mostly because it was a way to both get out of regular “geek PE” and to hang out with lots of cute girls in shorts
It also turned out that I wasn’t half bad at it. My twin brother, Steve, and I both did pretty well in both track and cross country competitions (not great, but pretty good) up until our junior year when we decided to that being punk rock (what ever the late 80’s version of punk rock was) was clearly more fun than running around a track or up too many hills. During our two “competition” years, I never really fully committed to the sport. I never ate right, never trained too hard, and never really studied the science of hard core running. I just did it and didn’t think too much about it. One day in 1986, a guy on the football team asked me a question that I just could not answer. He asked, “What the hell are you running from?”.
That question stuck with me because I didn’t have an answer. In Junior year, both Steve and I got caught up what amounted to 80’s counter culture (music, computers, amateur film making, etc) and stopped running and competing altogether. As we amassed new friends and girl friends, soaked up new ideas and pursued new interests, running just became something that I used to do. My guess is that at 16 I had figured out what my 16 year old self wanted to be and do and I had nothing to run away from.
It would not be until 2003 until I started running again. In 2001, I was married and had a great job and had nothing to run away from. But, in January of that year our first son was born early and died the same day. I was broken. After a few months I started working out at the gym and feverishly. I gained 20 pounds of muscle in a year, but was not doing any running workouts (I was playing soccer regularly though). I took on a personal trainer who gave me a great set of core/weight exercises, but also told me that I needed to add some good cardio into routine. I felt great that I had been able to gain a lot of muscle mass, I just didn’t get any sort of “high” or relief from my inner most pressures and thoughts doing just weights. So, I started running again. For the first time since I was 16, I was running like a mad man. It’s not like I had done no cardio exercise as I was playing in a soccer league at this time, but even moderate success at the “beautiful game” was not enough to get me out of my “funk” (as my dad would have called it). This was 2003 and as I started running again I started to feel all of the pressures lift off my shoulders and float above me while I was on the road. This “high” was so intense that I did it as often and for as long as I could.
I was certainly running away from something – my job, the pressure of trying to become a father, etc. I needed my brain to be completely clear and running gave me that chance. I bought my first heart rate monitor and started to really chart my running progress. Competing completely against myself and not entering into any competitions I would run 8 to 10 miles at a time 5 or 6 days a week. My mile splits were getting lower and lower and by the time my current 6 year old was born in 2005 I was able to run at a 7:15 mile pace for 8 miles. My heart rate would “red-line” for much of this running time, and I had no idea what kind of damage this was doing to my entire body.
I would do some weight workouts, but mostly I would just put on the shoes, the HRM, throw on the latest Green Day or Foo Fighters album (into my pre-iPod MP3 player) and just GO!
It turned out that this type of training was doing wonders for my resting heart rate and blood pressure (a nurse once took my pulse during this period and asked me if I was actually alive because my resting HRM was under 50, with a 110/60 BP). The problem was, I was damaging my ankles, knees, and lungs in ways I never imagined. A visit to the doctor for a bad cough turned out to be a revelation. She said that I had damaged my lungs by running at too fast of a pace for too long (and too many days in a row) and had classic runner’s musculature (not good) in my legs. What she was trying to tell me was that all of the running and no cross style training was actually doing damage to my entire body. She asked me “Why do you run so much?”. She might as well have been asking “what the hell are you running from?”
Wow, that question again. I was prescribed a series of drugs and treatments for exercise induced asthma and told not to exercise my heart rate above 155 for 6 months. This made running (to get to the high especially) almost impossible. Along with the birth of my second son in 2008, I basically had lowered my mileage from 40+ miles a week to less than 10. It took a toll on my body as well and even though I continued to work out with weights and do lower impact cardio I was gaining weight and not feeling satisfied with my workouts at all. The damage to my lungs started to show in ways that I never imagined. In 2008 I got pneumonia for the first time in 32 years. I had not had any sort of lung infection since I was 6 years old. The interesting thing was that the damage I did to my lungs helped allow the bacterial infection to take hold, but the expanded lung capacity I had gained from years of running allowed me to pass breathing test after breathing test. It also turned what the doctors called “a very serious lung infection that normally would result in hospitalization” into a case of walking pneumonia. I was told to not do anything strenuous with my lungs for 3 months and to get a lot of rest (not easy with a second baby on the way and a wife on bed rest, while taking care of a 3 year old and a shitty job with a maniacal boss)
I was caught in a catch 22. Running, which had helped me get away from my internal problems was also the cause of my health decline. I actually had to run away from running to get healthy again.
I never fully stopped running or training, but my heart (and lungs) just wasn’t in it. I would only train a couple times a week at most and could tell that my entire body was suffering because of it. My corporate slave job was making me eat worse and fall into a depressive state. Slowly, over time, my lungs started to improve, my breathing got better and my constant coughing was replaced with slight wheeze. I knew that I had to get back to being healthy and happy the right way because I now had a growing family to protect and provide for.
When I finally quit that corporate job in 2010 and took a physical for private life insurance I got some bad news. While my 2005 physical and blood came back excellent (save the lung problems), my 2010 blood work showed elevated cholesterol levels. I consulted a doctor who took some tests and said that while I might have damaged my lungs years earlier, my actual breathing and lung capacity was “off the charts” for a 40 year old and said that running again, along with a set of cross training would be the best option for me. I started both and was doing pretty well until early in 2011 when I began my “hell job” that took me to San Francisco and back for weeks at at time and had me working 80 hour weeks minimum. My work outs declined and so did my health. I had to get back to my target physical activity (and weight – 190lbs), but I needed to do it the right way. I researched cross training as a way to prepare for running races and found that there was some evidence to prove that just like with Tri-athletes, various types of physical activity can have positive effects on one another.
June 1 of this year my dad passed away after having been very healthy just 6 month before. He had been a runner when I was younger and when he stopped his daily jogs in about 2006, his heath started to deteriorate rapidly. His passing hit me really hard. I had not had time to spend with him before he died because of the hours I was working, and I had become more angry with my two sons, and was not able to spend much time with them. I decided that everything in my life had to change for the better. I quit my shit job, started up a new business with a friend, and began to create a new work out routine that would not result in damaging my body more than it helped it. This included only 2 runs a week, but added in circuit training, bike/spin training, a heavy weight workout at least once per week. I started out by running a few miles at a time (3-5) 2 times a week, then searched out classes at the gym to fulfill my other training needs. Finally, 5 weeks ago, I was able to start my 5 day a week training regime:
Day 1: 8 mile run
Day 2: Rest
Day 3: Circuit training + cycle
Day 4: Heavy Weights
Day 5: Circuit training + cycle
Day 6: 8 mile run
Day 7: Rest
The cross training between runs keeps my endurance up and creates a more rhobust musculature that is NOT like the classic runner (bad knees, crumpled ankles, etc). This enables me to keep my running to two days a week and not over train in any one area. Then, I do two 8 mile runs, separated by a single day. The second run is always the best and my body responds by letting me go faster but keeps my heart rate at a decent pace. Even with the cross training, the two runs are the real highlight of my week (exercise wise). I throw on the iPod, put on the Garmin GPS HRM and get lost in my run (highs and lows) for about 1:30 and it feels awesome!
I have already dropped 7 pounds (but added needed leg muscle) and am starting to get my mile split times below 9 minutes average for an 8 mile run. People always ask me if I am training to compete in something, and really I have no idea how to answer. I might start running races to see how I do. Unlike in times passed when I ran to get away from things, I don’t have anything to really run away from these days. Yes, there are pressures running your own business, etc, but I don’t feel the weight of an entire 17 floor corporate building on my shoulders any more and that goes along way to keeping me at peace (for the most part). That is why I feel so much more fulfilled and satisfied when I run now. So maybe, in time, I will feel like entering some competitions, who knows?
“What the hell am I running from?”
The answer is not profound, but simple. I am not running from anything. I am running (and training in general) for myself. I run to prove that I can do it and to hopefully live a longer and happier life than the path I was on. I do it for the high that comes with the run, for the pain that comes afterward, but especially to keep my self healthy so I can enjoy my young boys and see them grow up to be men. Hopefully they will want to run with their dad some day, but if not, I hope they find what ever it is they need to do to relieve the pressures of their lives in a healthy, happy way.