Sometimes being in the right place at the right time is a life-altering event, even if it only plants a seed that takes decades to finally sprout. I experienced one of those time-delayed, life-altering events during the spring of 1988 after finishing my first year of university. This is part of my story about how I came to take up running. I consider this a prologue because it happened a long, long time ago.
I spent my summer toiling behind a computer screen during the day (in 1988, even) and trying to keep myself occupied at night and on the weekends. I was in my local bookstore one day, the late and lamented Owl Book Place, browsing the stock when a book caught my eye, perhaps for the second or third time. Normally I would browse through the limited selection of science-fiction and fantasy books but the colourful book near the front door of the store caught my eye. The book’s front cover featured a bearded running man in shorts and tank top. The book was called Galloway’s Book On Running (1984 edition).
I’m not sure why Galloway’s book caught my eye. It could be because the photo of Jeff Galloway on the book’s cover reminded me of my friend’s father. Joe McGuire was a famous local long-distance runner who won the Master’s category during the 1984 Boston Marathon. He finished with a time just under 2 hrs and 30 minutes which is damned impressive at any age and he was in his mid-40s at the time. Therefore, I knew that marathon running was an important and hard thing, the product of mystical arts and superhuman physique. And here was a book that just might unlock the secrets of running, even for little ol’ me.
Knowing about Joe McGuire’s accomplishment placed enough of a seed in my young head that when I saw Galloway’s book, I bought it. It was the first running book I had ever read. Before this, I always equated running with sprinting over short distances, covered in sweat, aching legs and gasping for breath while invisible knives stabbed into my sides. In other words, elementary school gym class, back when bold old Brent A. could run three circles around our school while I was barely starting my second loop. Running was clearly not my thing at the time.
But Galloway’s book opened my mind to the possibility that running did not need to be torture. Full of illustrations and charts and decades of running wisdom, the book told me about types of running that I’d completely managed to avoid during my first 19 years of life. I learned that there were plenty of different kinds of races between the extremes of the 100 metre dash and the long, grinding marathon. This was the first time that I’d ever heard about 5K and 10K races; about using long, slow runs to build stamina and endurance; form; hill training; and speed work. Seeing these aspects of the art and science of running broken down into pieces like this, long distance running began to seem possible.
At 19 I was still thin and somewhat wiry. I probably weighed about 150 lbs. at a height of 5′ 11″ and at least five pounds of that was hair. I didn’t exercise much at the time but my metabolism was still reasonably fast. The challenge of running finally got the best of me and I hatched a plan to fill my summer – I would run the local 10K road race, named for Joe McGuire himself.
Like many new runners I started off slow. I used a combination of jogging and walking to go down the road and back, about 1.5 KM round trip. I puffed and wheezed my way through that, got a tiny burst of endorphins by the end of it and I decided I didn’t hate the experience, so I tried it again. And again.
One revelation from Galloway’s book was that you could make significant gains in aerobic fitness and endurance simply by running at least 30 minutes, 3 times per week: much better than only running two days per week and pretty close to the overall gains that would come from running four times or more per week. So I stuck with that: three runs per week. By day I toiled with Lotus 1-2-3 spreadsheets and WordPerfect documents on an IBM PC that had no hard drive. And I ran three times per week, usually in the evenings. In retrospect, I’m amazed by some of that running, especially during that hot, humid summer. I don’t know how I avoided cramping from dehydration.
I worked my way up to longer and longer runs. At some point I hit the 10K mark during a training run. I was slow, but I just kept going.
Finally, race day arrived. It was a hot, muggy early August morning. I stretched and walked a bit before the race started. The runners all lined up and streaked away when the siren sounded. Well, all of them except me… I just started running at my running pace (no idea what it was) and stayed there. I was running to finish. To me, finishing was winning.
I shuffle past the first water station, drinking some water and pouring the rest of it over my head – another running tip for Galloway’s book. As I kept running I met other runners who had already hit the turnaround point and were running back in the opposite direction. I felt a bit self-conscious about my slowness, but I decided to give my fellow runners the thumbs-up as they sped by. Most of them gave me a high five in return and the occasional word of encouragement. It felt good to be acknowledged.
I finally hit the turnaround point and watered up again. It was a lot like my regular runs – a bit tough but it certainly wasn’t killing me. During the last few hundred metres I even managed a minor sprint. I crossed the finish line – I did it! I really don’t know what my time was but I didn’t care – I just wanted to finish the race. It felt great. I kept moving a bit to prevent stiffness later on. My foot hurt a bit but not too bad.
Later in the week I tried another run. My foot wasn’t feeling much better so I called it quits after a short jog. No point in injuring myself, right? So I decided to take a few days off from running. I kept finding excuses to not run and, well, I didn’t. Life got busier and more complex. Things happened. And so the days without running stretched into weeks, months, and then years… about 26 of them.
Now, if this were the end of the story, I wouldn’t have much more to say. Fortunately the story does resume, just a lot later. But, to be honest, the next stage of the story deals with how I got bigger and heavier – multiple times – and what came after that.
To be continued…