And So I Ran

I find it difficult to consider myself a runner.

I used my legs in my youth to walk to school, play ‘real’ sports like basketball and football, and race other kids on the playground or at home. For much of my life, as the great philosopher Ron Burgundy once said, jogging or ‘yogging’ was something you did for no apparent reason. I agreed.

My first foray into running for sport was in 7th grade when I briefly joined the cross-country team. The first race was probably no more than a 5K, and I took 6th place among the boys, but I felt terrible at the end of the race. Sports are supposed to be fun. So, I quit. Naturally. I continued other sports throughout middle school and high school. Running, was simply a stupid endeavor.

My high school was large, so there were two lunch periods, and I had gym class during one of the lunch periods. When our hairy chested, creeper of a gym coach (he had many relations with high school girls throughout his career) forced us to run the mile around Washington Park my friends would pick me up after a quarter mile in their car and drop me off at the finish line.

Later that year in an act of youthful stupidity, I challenged a Marine recruiter on campus thinking my faux-masculinity and wit would woo my girlfriend. He smiled the smile of man who knew he could crush my soul and body. Grinning, he asked me to participate in a recruiting event with ‘poolies,’ young adults who had already signed the dotted line and awaited boot camp. For reasons I’m still unsure, I accepted his challenge. Perhaps I wanted to save face in front of my girlfriend.

So, on a Saturday morning I showed up at the Marine recruiting office in the once prosperous Metrocenter Mall and joined a group of enthusiastic juniors, seniors and recent high school graduates. We lined up outside the mall and ran to Cortez Park to begin our morning exercises. It was a mile away, and I collapsed at the end of the run trying to catch my breath while my head pounded unbelievably. Staff Sgt. Wilson stood over me, grinned, and said, “so, you want to join the Marine Corps.” I did. Shortly thereafter, on the advice of my high school English teacher (rest your soul Ms. Halbach), I signed to become a combat correspondent – glorified military journalist. A week after that that the Twin Towers fell, but that’s another story.

I ran fine in boot camp, and finished the mandatory 3-mile run in 19 minutes. My time would fluctuate throughout my 8-year career in the Marine Corps, only failing once to meet the 28-minute minimum standard after a heavy night of drinking in Carlsbad, California. But, for a brief 6-month period in Hawaii, I never liked to run. I was naturally athletic and thin, so at the end of my Marine Corps career I only weighed 155 lbs. However, that changed shortly after moving back to Phoenix to begin school at Arizona State University.

I was always small, but it never bothered me in the Marine Corps because many Marines are thin. It’s part of the job description. However, when I returned home after eight years I grew self-conscious about being a half-foot shorter and, often, hundreds of pounds lighter than most people I knew. Granted, it wasn’t a differential in muscle mass – they were fat – but I still felt small. So, naturally, I spent the next four years ingesting multiple weight gainer shakes a day and lifting five or six times a week. Slowly, I put on muscle and made it my goal to reach 200 lbs. In retrospect, I was an idiot. Through hard work in the gym and by not particularly paying attention to my eating habits, in fact trying to eat a lot, I eventually grew to 220 lbs. by 2014.

But, I was still unhappy with my body. I could bench press a house, and my muscles bulged out of every shirt. I would have to buy XXXL shirts and tailor them so my neck could fit the collar. But, I also had a bit of a gut and my bones ached. After years of hard work, I still looked in the mirror and was upset by what was looking back.

I deployed to Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2014. It wasn’t a dangerous deployment, but it was mentally stressful. However, as any deployed service member knows, deployment is the best time to get in shape. I began running and lifting every day. I also attempted to watch what I ate. Despite alcohol, yes it was that kind of deployment, I dropped to 180 lbs. by the time I returned home. I ran three miles a day and lifted six times a week. Forty pounds came off quite easily, almost as though my body was telling me ‘hey dude, you’re supposed to be this size.’

I kept my running up for a bit when I returned, but slowly I began to transition back into weight lifting mode, and before too long I was back up to 200 lbs. While on deployment, I ran my fastest 2-mile run for the Army at 13:13. But, a few short years later I was struggling to run in the mid 15-minute range. I was 33 years old and incredibly unhappy with how I looked and how my body performed. Despite everyone I knew telling me I was crazy because I looked fit, I couldn’t help but brush off the comments. I felt like crap, and I felt I looked like crap.

Fortunately, I’ve always been a mass consumer of knowledge. I believe I’ve always compensated, especially as I grow older, for my lack of innate intelligence by reading voraciously and trying to consume any useful bit of information available: science, technology, current affairs, but mostly health and nutrition. I’ve benefited from this quark, but I also find it difficult to remember important memories from the past because my brain is like a conveyor belt that unloads old information to make room for new stuff. Anyway, all that is to say I’ve become increasingly more fascinated with longevity, nutrition and living optimally. So, I had an epiphany. I’m naturally a small guy, and the longer I pretend I’m not the more damage my body will accumulate holding onto so much weight, even if it’s muscle.

Forever a procrastinator, I signed up for a half marathon knowing it was the only way to get me running. So, naturally, I didn’t run much until about a month out. It was December 2017 and the farthest I had ever run was 11 miles, roughly 10 years ago. The half marathon was the first weekend of January. The Wednesday before the race I dumbly went for a 13.1-mile run along the Arizona Canal, just to see if I could. I could, but I was so sore and two days from the race. Told you I’m dumb.

I must have been nervous because I showed up to the Phoenix Rock N Roll half marathon a day early. Confusedly I walked around Tempe in the early morning hours as scores of runners went the opposite direction from me. Finally, a woman asked me where the start of the 5K was located. I then realized the run was on Sunday. It was nerve racking but fun. I stood at the start line in my corral hoping I would run the half marathon in less than 2 hours. I stared at the snipers on the rooftops and was reminded sometimes people suck. A woman next to me asked me if this was my first race. I must have been easy to spot. I ran the race in 1:43:00. I came in roughly 500 out of many thousands of people, and though I could barely walk I was ecstatic. It was then amongst the crowed of people ambling about waiting for Everclear to perform that I decided running was for me.

I finished my next half marathon a month later 7 minutes faster. Since the first race I began to take the venture more seriously, though I know I have much more to do. I told my wife after running a 7:20 pace for 13.1 miles ‘Imagine how fast I would be if I actually trained and wasn’t fat.” Of course, I’m 180 lbs. now, and even though my clothes hang off me and my skinny jeans have turned baggy, I still can’t keep from cringing when I stare in the mirror. I’ve since singed up for two more half marathons, the Pat Tillman Run, and, excitingly, my first full marathon in June.

Finally, I believe, after many fits and starts, I’ve become a runner. I’ll never be an Olympian, though even at this moment I think ‘what if,’ but my body feels fitter, thinner and my mind clearer. I still force myself to the gym once a week to lift heavy stuff – it’d be pointless to let all my years of effort deteriorate, plus runners who only run look sickly. I eat healthier, and I no longer drink. My urge to run supersedes my urge to drink – the two don’t go well together. My miles continue to increase – it takes three miles just to get my legs warmed up now – along with my happiness. I’ve taken up yoga. And yes, I realize many of my friends and former colleagues are probably pondering if a sex change is next – no. I’m 34 and feel about as healthy as I ever have.

So, my few readers. I decided why not combine two things I enjoy. My life long joy of reading and writing with my new fondness of running. My posts will be shorter, I felt it was necessary to explain myself in this post, but I find running gives me plenty of inspiration. Seems odd I’m sure to those of you who don’t run. But, for instance, on a run a few days ago a pack of six coyotes ran alongside me for a few minutes. I don’t see a lot of wild life in the middle of the city. It was beautiful seeing these creatures as I ran underneath the moonlight. My running journey has just begun, and I hope as the medals on my wall accumulates more that you’ll take a few minutes and enjoy this journey along with me. Also, though the solitary nature of running is one of its main attractions, I invite you to run with me. It has already provided me so much, and I feel greedy if I didn’t share it with you .

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