Sunday, March 29, 2009

The 2004 Changling

By 2004, I needed to get healthy. Never mind that 287 pounds on my 6'3" frame was not helping my re-entry into running with any grace of movement. 287 pounds just wasn't healthy at all. It wasn't muscle: it was 32 percent body fat. Double shifts and last call, with 3 hours of sleep before repeating the process -- yeah, I reaped what I sowed.

John Belushi: "I logged a lot of miles training for that day. And I downed a lot of doughnuts. Little Chocolate Donuts. They taste good, and they've got the sugar I need to get me going in the morning. That's why Little Chocolate Donuts have been on my training table since I was a kid."

So, on Friday, the 13th of February, I resolved to get back into shape once and for all. Or, at least for now. I was living with my girlfriend, and I knew that marriage and family were on our horizon. (It was, thankfully, and we have a three year old son now!) The way I looked at it, if I didn't give myself this year to turn my physique around, it was only going to get more challenging in subsequent years when I was would happily choose to place myself away from the center of my own world. 'If I couldn't balance my fitness into my life now, I might not ever get it right', I feared.

Indeed, I committed to this year as a last chance.

Barbara, who became my wife, saw from my early attempts at running through this New England winter out of shape, and frustrated with the impossible task of trying to run alongside my ghost of fitness past, that I needed a seismic shift to my training's focus.

"You can't run until you lose some weight (she is a nurse practitioner). You're going to get hurt again unless you cross train."

"But ... I'm a runner and"

"You're overweight. C'mon, join the gym with me?"

So, realizing the validity of her suggestion sometime after the initially succumbing to the thriving treatise of whatever she wants, we joined our local gym. As a result of being just smart enough to listen to her further, I also saw a nutritionist, who got me to restrict my calorie intake to 1800 calories for the day initially, and got me to rediscover the joys of grapefruit, oatmeal, and really, that whole fruit and vegetable category at large. I began eating six times a day, but I ate smaller, more balanced meals, and I found my body adjusting to this culinary revolution quite nicely. Just as I began to get a bit hungry -- it was time to eat again: cool!

... and did I mention the "cheat days"? Once every month, it was a wonderful, one day digression back into all things involving a greasy Italian pizza! The trouble was, once I started gaining fitness, I didn't want to break my momentum, so even the cheat days became more moderated ... y'know, with veggies on the pizza! (insert wink here)

What I began to discover for myself was what I came to refer to as my triangle of fitness: running, weight training, and responsible eating . I won't call it dieting, because that term infers a short term regimen. We're talking lifestyle changes in how we choose food, here!

My laymen motivation for weight training stands as follows: for every year we age over the age of 30, we humans lose approximately one pound to one percent of our body's muscle mass each year, which is oftentimes replaced by fat on our frames. (see Sherri MacMillan, owner of Northwest Personal Training in Portland, Oregon, and author of Fit Over Forty: The Winning Way To Lifetime Fitness.) At age 38 in 2004, I deduced that maintaining some regimen of weight training was the closest thing I was going to find to my personal Fountain of Youth. If I could gain a bit of lean muscle back onto my frame, I hoped that I would have more muscle available to burn fat from my midsection and beyond.

I had seen a certain 'fit but fat' phenomenon in myself over the years, and among many other runners I saw through the Bill Rodgers Running Center and at local road races. Aging runners who could put up some impressive performances on the roads, who physically looked strong in the legs, but a bit rotund around the middle. These runners, some of whom are friends of mine, (that's Henry Rono, former world record holder in the steeplechase, 3k, 5k, and 10k ... all done over 80 days in 1978) could still run well on the roads, but it seemed that they were, nonetheless, slowly losing the lean tone that defined their physiques just a few years before. These are often gloriously trained runners, running year after year without major injury, so it seemed increasingly peculiar to me that these same athletes of such merit could, after all of those miles, still be getting somewhat thicker through the middle, while simultaneously losing their former muscle definition throughout their bodies. Sometimes, I saw an increase in bad knees and sore Achilles tendons in formerly Teflon-like trainers. Other times, I'd see a former speed demon not gain fat around the middle, but lose so much lean muscle tone that they became brittle with age, even suffering from osteoporosis.

Consequently, I felt that if I could get lean and stronger, that I could then maximize my running towards a place I hadn't seen in years. I didn't have a racing goal in mind at this point. I didn't even know if I could race anymore. I just wanted to feel like I was flying on the roads again. I wanted to float through some miles with a sensation involving not always involving maximal effort, but absolutely involving that quiet harmony of fluid movement and ease of pace that felt just occasionally like ... flying, where one feels totally in control of an act that, by virtue of its pace, was essentially out of control.

That's fun! I wanted that feeling again.

It came slowly, but I began to see some small changes, changes which motivated me to stay consistent through the inevitable challenges of time management. After two months of my triangle training program, I had lost thirty pounds and had simultaneously felt systemically changed. I became a vigorous human, and it was a welcome return.

At about this time, I ran in a 5 mile road race that I ran in every year, regardless of fitness, because it was a charitable run that drew many entrants from my workplace along for the run and subsequent post race festivities. I ran 41:10 that day, and it was a hard effort. However, it was fun, too, in that a scant 8 weeks earlier, I could barely cover 5 miles without stopping for a portion of humility. It was a pace that would become a bookend for me in this year ....

I trained very consistently, with some small amounts of variety to my workouts, but more consistency than works of whim. The following was a sample week from May 10 -16th:

M: 5 miles easy, plus 2x circuit training routine (total body weight training)

T: 6 miles easy over hills.

W: same as Monday.

Th: 7 miles on the Charles River (from work) out to River St. Bridge tempo (8:19 pace for 3.4 miles in 28:19)

F: same as Monday.

S: 3 miles (bonked out after work from a longer run -- nothing in the tank!)

S: 7.5 miles over hills.

Tot: 37.5 miles.

That was pretty typical for that period, though during most weeks I had a day off in there from running. I do clearly remember having a handful of bonked runs during that period, though. They were much more rare in my 20's! A concession to age and recovery.

By mid June I had lost over 60 pounds, down to 224, on a morning I was off from work. On a cable TV program called "Cold Pizza", I perked my ears when I heard the tease for an interview with American distance running legend Bob Kennedy. I was in the Olympic Stadium in Atlanta in 1996 when Kennedy made a bold move with several laps to go in the 5000 meters, gallantly finishing in sixth less than 5 seconds behind VĂ©nuste Niyongabo of Burundi. I admired Kennedy so much for his bold efforts that warm and muggy evening, even if a medal was not in the offing for his decisive run. He made that race exciting. Now he was on TV, announcing his intent at running that fall's ING New York City Marathon, his first marathon. I think everyone likes to root for the home team, and Kennedy is an American running a race more recently dominated by foreign champions. As a fan of professional racing, I was excited at Kennedy's prospects. However, I became intrigued when the talking head opposite Kennedy mentioned something about the lottery still being open online for random entry into this race!

I felt more energized than I had in years, and my legs were responding well to the increased training. A marathon, though? That represented a leap into the blind. I had not run a marathon in 21 years, and though that one yielded a 2:46, my current condition had nothing to do with that runner! I couldn't run five miles in early February!

I received an email from the New York Road Runners Club a few weeks later.

I was accepted. I was in. Running the same race as Bob Kennedy. The same race my some time employer, Bill Rodgers, won four times. The same race my former boss in my time in New York City working at Super Runners Shop, Gary Muhrcke, won in its inaugural year of 1970.

I would be running the New York City Marathon.

Now what do I do?!

NEXT TIME: Running towards New York


  1. John, can't wait to read your next entry. I'm totally hooked!

  2. Hiya Bellaluna Lucie!

    thanks very much for the kind words. I will do my beat to not keep you waiting long!

    -- John E.

  3. This is very captivating, John!

  4. Thanks, Susan!

    my wife was such a tremendous help to me -- I can never thank her enough!

    -- John

  5. Completely engrossing - waiting for your next installment!