Why (And How) I Became a Runner

Eighth grade in Jr. High and the sadistic gym teacher with the Napoleon complex was describing our running route. “I missed that,” I said to the boy next to me. “Where do we turn left?”

The boy sneered. “Do you actually think you’re going to be out in front?”

Oh, right.

I was always at the back of the pack. I had no natural athletic ability. Although I was lean as a teenager, running was torture. I had no cardiovascular capacity and moved like I had a tarantula in my underpants.

A dozen years later, I was fat.

Then I started working out. On a stairclimber. I’d rather be Dick Cheney’s manservant than ever step on one of those things again. Nevertheless, it did kick-start me in the right direction, and my loathing for the iron-stair-maiden-torture-climber made lifting weights seem delightful by comparison. That settled it. I was done with the cardio machines. For the first time in my life, I had a passion for physical activity. Weights became my thing.

During this time I also changed my diet, and lost around 30 pounds of fat and put on about 20 pounds of muscle. Then I stayed the same for about 10 years.

At the age of 35 I was ready to up my game, and despite my Jr. high experiences, I came to the conclusion that running was the logical choice. There were a number of things I knew about running that made me realize this was a smart habit for me to adopt:

  • Very high calorie-per-hour burn rate. No matter what some brainless and barely bipedal T-Nation author tells you, cardio does not kill or crash metabolism or cause global warming.
  • Practical, because you can just go out the door and do it.
  • Improves health.
  • Improves endurance, which in turn could benefit weightlifting sessions.
  • I had friends who were runners I could join and benefit from the social aspect.

Regarding caloric burn, I suppose I could have leaned out further simply by making more changes to my diet, but I have this problem called STUFF FOOD IN FACE HOLE! Even eating a mostly healthy diet I’ve always had difficulty dealing with hunger. Plus, beer. So the logical decision was to keep calories steady and increase daily burn.

So that’s what I did, and it sucked.

Because I’d been training hard with weights I had a modest cardiovascular capacity – far better than my teen years, at least – and during the lunch break at work one day I went for a 5K run at a relatively slow 6min/km pace. I felt ready to barf up alveoli afterwards and it took forever to be able to cool down and stop sweating so the shower would be worthwhile.

The next day everything hurt from the eyebrows down.

My ankles were especially in agony, and I’d broken both of them (at separate times, thankfully) as a teen, so I thought I probably had some arthritis that meant I’d never be able to run. My knees and shins and back and ribs all ached like I’d been pushed down a flight of stairs, beaten with wolverines, then shoved in front of a speeding armored car. It took a full week for the pain to go away.

So much for that idea.

But humans have a short memory for failure. A few months later I tried again. Same distance. Same pace. Same result.

And a third time, because I’m an idiot, I tried the same methods. Definition of insanity or something.

Then I switched jobs and the new gym I ended up training at had a running track. One day I decided that perhaps I could become a runner if I didn’t try to become a runner on Day Freaking One. You know, tortoise vs. hare and all that.

So I went to the gym, did my usual weights work out, then ran one kilometer around the track. Just one. Four 250m laps. That’s it.

The next day I did the same thing. Lift weights, followed by hitting the track, except I added a lap. I ran 1.25km. Day 3 was six laps. And so on, five days a week, until I was getting up to a 4km distance.

Then I started going outside and joining other runners. Then I started running from home and on weekends. Then I got faster and went further and, most importantly, was never in pain.

Then I began to lose weight. Eventually, because of running, I was able to see my abs.

Then, goddamn winter.

For 36 years I’d lived in Canada and always dreaded winter, because this is Canada we’re talking about here. When it comes to winter, we don’t mess around. I didn’t have the best gear for winter running, but I cobbled some stuff together and gave it a try, setting a limit of -10C (14F) before I’d go inside and hit the dreadmill. See? It’s funny because I mixed the word “dread” with “treadmill.” I’m almost positive no one has ever done that before.

So, yeah, winter sucked. Running in cold. Running on a treadmill when it was too cold. Once again, I was one of those Canadians who couldn’t wait for spring.

Then one day I was on the treadmill next to a friend from work, and this woman was hardcore: a Boston qualifier and sub 12-hour Iron(woman) triathlete. I’d never seen her on a treadmill before, but it was minus infinity outside, and I realized that even she had a limit to what was tolerable and what was dumbassery.

“Minus 25 is my limit,” she said. “Colder than that and I go inside.”

“I don’t know how you run in that kind of cold,” I said, gasping because I’d set the pace faster on my treadmill because I was trying to impress her. Because people do stupid things like that. Male people, mostly.

“It’s just a gear issue,” she replied. “Invest in some good winter running clothes and it’s not so bad.”

I’d come to prefer being outside (science explains why), so I did as she advised, and over the years pushed my limits into what I could tolerate. By the age of 40 I’d decided that if she had a limit of -25C, wouldn’t it make me more badass if I had no limit?

At the age of 40, when the ambient was -30 and the windchill -40, I went for a 10K run and promptly froze my penis in the hideous-below-zero temperatures. That tale of woe became my first published work, which says something about my writing career.

It was apparent I still had a thing or two to learn about proper winter running gear.

But learn I did, and now I have no limit. Except for smoke from forest fires. That’s the only time I hit a treadmill, because cancer.

Over the years I learned many other benefits from running, such as how it enables creative thought. In fact, just last week I wrote this entire piece in my head during a 10K run. Typing it up while in a post-run sweat took only 20 minutes. There are also a lot of other health benefits that I’d never considered when I first began running. Even more benefits are how it allows me to test my limits in competition as well as see the sights when traveling.

I also learned to not hate winter. To my fellow Canadians: Dreading the weather is a horrible way to spend half your life. If you hate winter, you live in the wrong country. Find a way to embrace it.

Running toughened me up, not just physiologically, but psychologically. Running improves endurance, and it taught me how to endure. I learned how to endure cold and rain and pain and pain in the rain and tiredness and I-just-don’t-friggin’-wanna, and these benefits have spilled over into the rest of my life.

As this tale describes, it was not easy to become a runner, but my logical examination of the benefits made it a no-brainer, so I kept trying until I persevered. Along the way I realized just how many other benefits it came with that I had not even considered.

Had I known all that, I might have become a runner even sooner.

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James S. Fell is an internationally syndicated fitness columnist for the Chicago Tribune and author of Lose it Right: A Brutally Honest 3-Stage Program to Help You Get Fit and Lose Weight Without Losing Your Mind, published by Random House Canada. He also interviews celebrities about their fitness stories for the Los Angeles Times, and is head fitness columnist for AskMen.com and a regular contributor to Men’s Health.



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