Here is the story of how I became a runner, four times! I tell about both my formative experiences, and the thoughts I had about running at the time. Hopefully, my experience may offer some insight and inspiration (both of what to do, and what not to do) for any budding runners out there.
In my early years, I remember running in a kids race (a mile?) in upstate New York. That day we also cheered my grandpa at the finish of his marathon. My grandpa and my mom are the only members of my (genetic) family that I ever knew were into running at any level. My mom trained for and ran a 10 K in Lexington, KY. I remember jogging a bit with her when she was training for that. This is about the extent of my running before age 10.
In about 4th grade, I had to run a mile for the Presidential Fitness program. I about gagged from the exertion, and finished in about 7:07. This was not the best way to be introduced to running, and I didn't do any more for several years. During recess, I really enjoyed the games that involved running, like Dare Base. I was moderately fast, but my sister really had the speed back then!
One day at about age 12, I decided to go out for a long run. I had done no training prior, and ended up running for about an hour and half (with a few walking breaks). I'm not really sure how far I went, but it was probably in the range of 8-10 miles. I'm not sure what possessed me to try this, but the experience turned out okay. I don't remember doing any more long runs other than this.
I made my first real stint into running when I attended Little Creek Academy around 1992. I started running laps on a 2000-ft air strip as well as a few dirt roads and trails in the back part of the 600-acre campus. Occasionally skipping meals to run, I worked on both speed and endurance. It was there that I set my 5:38 PR for the 1 mile (estimated distance, may have been a bit short), and also ran 7 miles in 63 minutes, if I remember correctly. Then for some reason (probably lack of time, given that I was taking a demanding class schedule, working part-time, and taking part in numerous other extracurricular activities such as choir and bell-choir), I stopped running. Since the school is located near the Great Smoky Mountains, I also had the privilege of going on some run/hikes in some of the best mountain terrain in the Southeast -- it was probably on these excursions that I first earned a reputation as a crazy downhill runner.
My next foray into running came when I attended college at Southern Adventist University in 1996 and took a conditioning class. One of the class requirements was to exercise 3 times a week for at least 30 minutes. Most of my runs were on the Biology Trail system that is behind the main campus. With hills up to 400 feet, it was a great place to do hill training, both on the uphills and the downhills. This experience cemented my love for running steep downhills (often off-trail, dodging trees, and sliding on leaves). This was also the first time I actually had a running partner, my roommate, Travis Dean -- this helped my training consistency. Another requirement of the class was to complete a cardiorespiratory endurance test (a 1.5 mile run) at the beginning and end of the semester. I can't remember what my exact times were, but I think at the beginning of the semester, I did the test in about 11 or 12 minutes, and by the end of the semester, I think it was about 9:30 to 10 min. This gives an estimated VO2max value of about 51-55 ml/kg/min, which, if accurate, would put me in the good to excellent categories. (An extrapolation from my 2 mile PR gives 9:00, corresponding to a VO2max value of 58 ml/kg/min.) In contrast, many elite athletes have a VO2max of between 60 and 80 ml/kg/min (although it should be pointed out that world records have been set by people with a VO2max of 60 ml/kg/min, so VO2max is not the end-all predictor of performance).
I learned a lot from the class, and continued running recreationally on the trails until I left for Chuuk, a small island in the Pacific, where I taught high school math and science for a year. While it was a tremendous experience, there were not many places to run, and I had very little time to spend doing any type of exercise (I did a little cycling and quite a bit of snorkeling). When I participated with my students in our school's track and field day, I discovered that I had grown sorely out of shape during the year (not to mention that I collided with and tripped over another runner on the 100-yard dash -- we both ended up falling and one of his teeth got knocked out). During the year of good eating and little exercise, I gained an estimated 25 pounds and had rather poor cardiorespiratory endurance -- I was out of shape! This is not a good condition to be in for running, as it places greater stress on the joints and heart. My second running stint was definitely over.
When I returned from Chuuk, I attended Penn State University. The campus parking situation, and a desire to get back into shape, prompted me to start cycling to school nearly every day. Sometimes I cycled the five-mile round-trip twice a day, through rain, ice, or shine. I also spent the summer of 1999 in Boulder, CO working at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. When I wasn't working on my research project, I was taking lots of hikes, climbing 14'ers, and cycling. That summer, I met Mark Werner, one of Boulder's many great runners -- it was my first time meeting a 'hard-core' runner. I didn't spend too much time with him, since he was often out running races, but I can say that he planted a seed of inspiration in me. His love of running is infectious, and his level of physical fitness was remarkable (we hiked Longs Peak together -- when my pulse was shooting up towards 160 during the ascent, his pulse was only 60!). It opened my eyes to what is possible if you're willing to do the training -- he was (and still is) in great shape and has achieved much in the sphere of running, yet is humble about his achievements.
After spending a summer in motivational setting of Boulder, I went back to Penn State. I had another physical education class requirement, so in Fall 1999 I signed up for another conditioning class aimed specifically towards jogging. The required 30 minutes/3 times a week regiment of exercise was a great way to start running consistently again. The teacher was was more like a coach to us, motivating us and making sure that we were equipped with proper running shoes. After a few weeks of regular running, my speed and endurance started improving by leaps and bounds (literally :), but towards the middle of the semester, I experienced my first running injury -- shin splits. These were quite painful and reduced my running rate to a jog. I guess I had increased my mileage too fast, and since I was a bit overweight, the pounding of pavement was too much for my legs. As is typical for beginner runners, my cardiorespiratory endurance increased much faster than my musculature. I started running almost exclusively on soft dirt paths (one of my favorite courses was around the huge 36-hole golf course on the west side of campus -- with the proper routing, one could put together some excellent 4 or 5-mile runs). I eased off on my pace, but kept running, and by the end of the semester, I was in decent running shape. For the third time in my life, I could consider myself a runner. My time for the 5 miles was probably on the order of 40 min, although the course was not measured. I also had to do another cardiorespiratory test towards the end of the semester: my time was 9:46 for the 1.5 miles, giving an estimated VO2max value of 52.0 ml/kg/min.
After the semester ended, I wanted to continue running, but the vagaries of Pennsylvania winter took their toll, and I resorted back to my usual daily cycling (through wind, rain, and snow), and I probably only continued this because I didn't like riding the bus and I was too cheap to pay $45/month (or whatever the amount was) for a parking permit. I conducted another stress test on myself towards the end of the spring semester of 2000, and got a time of about 10:30, or an estimated VO2max value of 48.6 ml/kg/min -- this shows how fast you can lose cardio capacity if you stop a given level of training (and remember, I was still cycling nearly every day and hiking occasionally on the weekends). Cardio capacity doesn't really drop over a few weeks, but you definitely lose signficantly when you stop exercising for several months.
I spent another summer working at NCAR in Boulder, and there I met another great friend, who has also been an inspiration to me: Eric Sigler (who at the time was focused mainly on cycling). We met at church one Saturday and decided to climb Longs Peak the next day. This lead to other 14'er trips, and by the end of the summer, I was hooked on doing the many crazy hikes and climbs necessary to reach the tops of Colorado's 54 14,000 foot mountains. At the end of the summer, we climbed Pikes Peak, a 24 mile hike, with 7400 feet of climb -- at the end of our 10 hour hike, I was exhausted and could not even imagine the thought of running up and down the mountain in a race! Colorado seemed to be a land of giants, not in physical stature, but in their feats of accomplishment in the realm of outdoor sport. Just breathing the same air as people like Matt Carpenter was inspirational to mere mortals like me. Needless to say, by then I was hooked on exercise. That Fall, I moved to Fort Collins and started my graduate school experience at Colorado State University.
The first year in Fort Collins, I focused again on cycling (partly due to parking expenses, but also because I really enjoy it) and hiking. I did virtually no running apart from an occasional downhill run at the end of a hike. But in Fort Collins, I came into contact with some more inspirational friends, who turned out to be runners: Dan Turk and Phil Klotzbach. Dan, who has been running for years, is another one of those people that I considered to be more on the 'hard-core' end of the spectrum (anyone who runs Pikes Peak and other marathons is 'hard-core' in my book). Phil Klotzbach, one of my fellow classmates, was another one of those hard-core people (who runs 8 miles to work most days, has run marathons, and hiked the Appalachian Trail). At this point in my life, I was happy with the amount of cycling (1200 miles in 2001), hiking (343 miles in 2001), and skiing that I was doing. By this time, I was a bit cynical of running, having tried it 3 times, but never succeeding in making it a permanent habit. My level of fitness, while probably better than the average Colorado resident, was also a restraint, as I was still about 15-20 pounds over my ideal weight.
The second year of life in Fort Collins brought people like Todd Rivas, Allison Ordelheide, and Sara Ridgway into my life. Todd, another runner in amazing shape, had been a cross-country runner in high school (a pretty fast one, I hear) and could be described as hard-core as well, but for different reasons -- his trail running abilities. He runs for fun these days (not doesn't race anymore), mostly up steep trails that most people have trouble walking without taking breaks. Allison could best be characterized as a recreational runner (someone who runs regularly, for fitness and because they enjoy it). She inspired me because of the fact that she doesn't run for the challenge of breaking PR's, but simply because she loves running. I think sometimes, I focus too much on getting fast and not enough on just enjoying the thrill of the experience. Sara Ridgway has been another inspiration -- like Todd, she used to run competitive cross-country in high school but was not big on the competitive aspects. Instead, she runs primarily trails simply for the sheer joy of running. Needless to say, I was being surrounded by runners of all types and abilities -- my circle of friends consisted of more people who run than not! I suppose it was only a matter of time until I got sucked into their lunacy :) I spent a lot of time hiking with this group, and often our 'hikes' turned into runs on the downhills. I was impressed with how much running adds endurance and speed! By 2002, I was practically the slowest one on our various hiking adventures, although most people would probably characterize me as 'being in good shape'. The thing which finally pushed me back into running for the fourth period of my life was when Dan Turk invited me to run the Fort Collins Turkey Trot that Thanksgiving. Another of my friends at CSU, Jotham Matabi was also going through this same process, and also decided to run the race. I had always been resistant to racing, partly because I didn't feel comfortable with the idea of hanging out with thousands of people in much better shape than me, and perhaps partly due to the fear that it would suck me into something that I didn't want -- being addicted to running. But the friendly competition and excuse to get back into running shape was too much -- I succumbed to the excitement, registered for the race, and started training a couple months before Thanksgiving.
Once again, I made drastic improvements, then started suffering with shin splits (probably because I was running on the concrete recreational trails around Fort Collins). The race was lots of fun and went fairly well. But with winter approaching, I slacked off a bit after breaking some more intermediate distance PR's. My total mileage for 2002 was 59 miles (compared to 11 for all of 2000). To put this into perspective, my 2001 mileage for cycling dropped to 665 miles, while my hiking remained fairly steady at 327 miles. In Spring of 2003, my friend Jotham Matabi, who had been similarly addicted, ran the Fort Collins Old Town Marathon. He finished his first marathon with a time of 3:44 -- this was inspiring to me as well, although I still have a deep-seated suspicion of long-distance runners, especially after my grandpa had to have his knees replaced after years of running. Yet, there was a race coming up which combined the best of 14'ers and running: the Pikes Peak Marathon. I signed for the race, along with Jotham, Eric, and Dan, and some other friends that I have, but don't run with. This has motivated me to do plenty of running this summer. In the process, I've discovered the social aspects of running, as I did many trail runs with Phil, Dan, and Jotham. Through their encouragement and motivation, I have started to achieve heights (literally) that I never thought I would, yet still feel like I'm just at the beginning of what is possible.
So where do I go from here? Will I once again slip back into being a non-runner and become cynical? It is hard to say, given the many time constraints I am under as a grad student, being active in my local church, and still heavily involved in other sports such as hiking, cycling, and skiing. But I can definitely say that trail running has become one of my true passions in life. Flat running is fun too, but mainly just for the challenges of setting goals and training for races. Now (August 2003), I'm a week away from my first marathon, which I am hoping will be a great experience. I appear to be rather smitten with the running bug -- it has now become central enough to my life and fitness goals, that I doubt I will quit running anytime soon. Will I ever train at the elite level? It's doubtful, but if I did, I would definitely focus on hill running and trails in general. For now, I'll stay away from road races and long distance races. Racing is lots of fun, but I think I need to avoid the trap of just focusing in on my times and setting PR's -- I feel that the real reason to run is for the simple pleasure of running. This is not to say that one should not set goals -- I'm a firm believer in setting goals -- and in setting the bar high. If you set a goal that you're sure you can achieve, with not much effort, then what is the point? That's why I have gone ahead and set some goals that I think I should be able to achieve, but am not sure -- it will depend on how hard I train.
Some unimportant stuff that I haven't found time to put anywhere else (you can safely ignore this, like most everything else on my web page :) This was a simulated VO2Max test I conducted on myself during a jogging class at Penn State in 1999.
1.5 miles in 10:30 May 20, 1999 Heart rate: 192, after 2 min: 138 Weight: 185 lbs estimated VO2max: 48.6 ml/kg/min
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