Monday, May 6, 2013

Sometimes Life Has a Strange Way of Getting Your Attention

Sometimes life has a strange way of getting your attention.  It was mid December and I was waiting to see the doctor.  I had a horrible bug of some sort but that was the least of my concerns.  I had been feeling generally bad for most of the year, my cholesterol was way too high and at the age of 43 I felt like I was 70.  As I stepped on the scale the nurse stated my weight to which I replied “you need to check that again! Without breaking even a hint of a smile she replied “you need to stop eating so much!” 
WOW, I don’t know what was worse; the fact that I had gained over 30 unwanted, donut laden pounds or that someone gave it to me straight!  Merry Christmas I thought to myself on the way to the pharmacy to pick up an assortment of “wonder” drugs and of course a soda, candy bar and box of Mike and Ike’s.
Fast forward to Christmas Day. I have always loved giving at the Holidays and of course receiving gifts is fun as well.  I was laying on our couch thinking about the year and how even though my cold was gone, I still felt absolutely awful.  I realized the best gift I received that Christmas came from my doctor that fateful day as I tipped the scales to new weights.
He simply stated that if I did not make changes to my life, I would end up like my father!  My dad died of a heart attack at age 47 after gaining thirty pounds and letting his cholesterol rage out of control.  I was fast becoming a chip off the old block in ways I certainly didn’t like and I am sure he wouldn’t either.  I was 43, May and I were trying to have a baby and I was a ticking time bomb waiting to explode.  I certainly didn’t want to leave my family early like dad left us.
With stark clarity, I recalled having a decision to make.  I could choose the path my father took and be dead in a few years, or I could take control of my life and make the most of the precious gift God had given me. The decision was made, it was time to get serious and get into shape! Now I just needed to decide how to get into shape. I enjoyed that Christmas Day to its fullest, tomorrow would be a new, and healthy beginning for the rest of my life.
The plan was simple.  First I would implement changes to my diet and second I would run two miles.  This was an interesting choice for me in that I never like to run as child or as a young adult, yet the lure of a marathon was always in the back of my mind. I had run before, but never more than two or three miles at a time and that was mostly as a means to lose weight for wrestling in high school.  I had also dabbled with some running in my twenties but nothing substantial.  Strange bedfellows at that but the lure of running had finally caught up with me and no better time that now to commitment to running as a means to fitness. 
Running two miles would be easy and a great start, or so I thought!  I went to bed that night with a nervous anxiousness that was scary yet exciting.  I thought to myself….”What have I done?  Can, or better yet, will I really do this?  What if the weather is bad? It’s still the holidays, etc.  No, no more excuses, there is no time like the present to start a new beginning.
As sure as I was out of shape, the sun came up the next morning and it was time to face my new beginning.  The choice was made, now I just had to do it. I managed to assemble some workout clothes, a six year old pair or running shoes that were used to mow the yard and headed out the door for my first two mile run in over twenty years.  The day was sunny and cold and I set off on my run with the nervous energy of a child leaving the house for her first day of school. 
I learned quickly just how out of shape I was.  I managed to finish the two miles in just over forty minutes.  It wasn’t fast, it wasn’t pretty, I could hardly breath and my legs felt like overcooked spaghetti but I DID IT!  I ran two miles and the burning in my legs and lungs felt incredible.  Tired, sore and completely energized, I rewarded myself with a healthy bowl of oatmeal and some whole wheat toast….the breakfast of champions.
 As I finished my breakfast I could not help but be proud of what I had just accomplished.  I had not won the Boston Marathon or the Hawaii Ironman, but I felt like I had!  I set a goal and I achieved it.  I had to chuckle out loud when I realized while running I imagined I looked like  Frank Shorter or triathlete Craig Alexander, when in all actuality I  looked like Elmer Fudd wrestling a small raccoon on the side of the road…and I don’t have to tell you who was winning.  
I was a champion none the less and reveled in the moment.  I realized that eating better and running was not the hard part, the hard part happened on Christmas Day when I made the decision to make changes in my life, the rest was a formality.
 I reaffirmed the commitment I had made to myself and could hardly wait for tomorrow to get here so I could do it all over again.  One day a habit does not make, but YOU will never make a habit without day one!  As I continued running that winter, the lure of the marathon kept calling. I decided in February to do the Walt Disney World Half Marathon the following January.  With my training plan in hand, I set off on a quest to do something I had never thought I could do.  Although I would not have to officially start the training plan until late fall, in July I found myself able to run four miles at a time. As an individual driven by challenges and goals, while celebrating the July 4th holiday, I decided to go for it and upgrade my entry to run the Walt Disney World Marathon.  I had no idea if I could do it and was entering uncharted waters.  My legs felt like overcooked spaghetti after that first two miles how was I going to run 26.2? Never the less, I trusted where there is a will there is a way.
As my training journey continued, I remember some key milestones and the overwhelming sense of accomplishment with each. The first memorable mark was my first six miles. Upon completion I was standing in my driveway, bent over in complete exhaustion but reveling in what I had done.  I had just run six miles!  “WOW, that is a long way,” I mused to myself.  I also learned how wonderful and supportive the running community is.  My neighbor was on her way to work and stopped and asked how far I went.  “I just knocked out a very long six miles, man that is a long way” I said to her with proud bravado!  She smiled and said, “Awesome job, keep after it.  You are doing great!” Little did I know at the time she had completed several marathons and three Ironman triathlons so six miles as nothing but a warm up to her. How gracious to let me enjoy my moment.
One other highly memorable milestone was my first 22 mile run.  It was the week of Thanksgiving and we were spending time with family in Durant, Mississippi.  The plan was the Friday after the Thanksgiving feast, to travel to the Natchez Trace Parkway and complete my long run in this very scenic National Park.  As fate would have it, I learned that you can’t run a marathon without at least one long run in miserable weather and miserable it was.  The weather had been in the mid 70’s all week so I was looking forward to a nice and pleasant run.  On Friday I awoke with the same anxious energy I had the day I ran my first two miles and was greeted by rain, 15 mile per hour wind and 35 degrees!  Yuck!  I was not thrilled at the prospect of running in these less than ideal conditions but I had made the commitment and we headed out to tackle the Trace.

The plan was for May to meet me at mile 13 with food and water and then meet me again at the twenty-two mile mark.  As I started that day, of course I chose the wrong direction and was running straight into the wind. Too late to change now as May had left and I forgot to take my phone.  At mile 13, I was met with food and water and decided to just keep moving in the same direction, wind or not. If nothing else it would make for a good story someday, if not a trip to my therapists (massage and psychological) would be in order. 
The last 13 miles seemed to take an eternity.  I was cold and wet.  The music on my iPod was nothing but noise and my legs got ever closer with each step back to over cooked spaghetti. What was also irritating in my pained state is that every mile on the Natchez Trace is marked with a nice wooden mile marker with bold white numbers, a painful reminder every 5,280 feet of just how miserable I was and how far I still had to go.  Not starting at mile one I had some math to do and even that simple task became labor some, well at least it killed a few more seconds or even minutes.  Mile 18, mile 19, mile 20 and finally beautiful mile 21.  “OK, one mile to go. Oh please God let this pain end soon” I said to myself over and over.  All I wanted to see was my beautiful wife May in our nice red, warm and dry Audi waiting for me at mile 22.  Had it been warm and nice I am sure I would have been walking but as nasty as Mother Nature was, I kept running so I could end the pain more quickly. 
As I ran (or something vaguely similar to it at that point) around the sweeping curve of mile 21, there it was my mile marker 22!  “Oh glory, 22 miles completed, but wait, where was May? “ No May, no Audi.  “Crap” I said out loud almost in tears. I could not run another step and there I was cold, wet, tired and spent on the side of the road in nowhere Mississippi. Maybe I would become a Thanksgiving feast for some wild turkeys, after all wouldn’t that be ironic?  Nearly broken and staring straight ahead, the rain let up slightly and I could see May off in the distance about a quarter mile parked in a driveway waiting for me as promised.  I had had enough, the cavalry was near and I sat down on the side of the road resting on that wonderful yet evil mile marker, not willing to take one more step.  As I waited for my ride, I thought to myself “how in the world will I EVER be able to run another four miles?”  But that would have to be answered another day. 
I thought back to that first two mile run and realized I felt the EXACT same way today, but with one difference, I had just run 20 miles further.  Reflecting on what I had accomplished, a non-runner that never like running, just completed a 22 mile run.  As tears of pride and accomplishment filled my eyes, I had all I could do to stand and get in the car.  “Get up” I said to myself. “You just ran your first 22 miles; walking ten more feet won’t kill you.”  May was a beautiful as ever; the car was warm, dry and stocked with food. I really didn’t care where we went or how long it would take to get there, I just wanted to enjoy this moment.  For the first time since I committed to running the Disney World Marathon, I thought maybe, just maybe I could finish the race and if I could do it in four hours and thirty minutes, that would be an added bonus.
Fast forward to January and the marathon.  Thirty pounds lighter, normal cholesterol levels and a much better mental state, I crossed the finish line of the Walt Disney World Marathon in three hours, fifty-nine minutes and thirty-seven seconds, thirty minutes ahead of my goal! Strangely enough, I never looked at my watch until mile 26 and realized I had three minutes to run a sub four hour race.  “Oh man, I just have to beat four hours or I will never be able to live with myself” I said silently between hurried and shallow gasps.
I recall with stark clarity clenching my teeth and running as fast as I could to beat the hallowed four hour mark. I made the last right hand turn and there it was the most beautiful finish line I have ever seen.  Of course I had only seen one but if they had two people holding string and nothing more it would have been just as beautiful.  With thousands of folks cheering and adrenalin rushing through my veins, I felt as though I was Usain Bolt running that last tenth of a mile, head back, knees high, long and graceful strides. Happy to finish and doing so in just under four hours it could not get any better than that!  Today I’m still not for sure what I was happier about, finishing well or just finishing.
Having come in just under four hours, all I could do during the six hour ride back to Columbia was tell my May and my mother in law just how fast I ran that last two tenths of a mile.  “I was flying” I said over and over to my captive audience.  On Monday I received an email from the race with my results and a nice added surprise, a video clip of my running across the finish line.  I shouted for May and Martha Jo to come quickly and share one last time my incredible, sprint filled finish.  With an anxious click of the mouse I started that video with May and my Martha Jo once again a captive audience so they could now see what they had heard for six hours the day before.  As the video started, there I was barely lifting my feet above the ground, my head leaning to my right, arms barely swinging and moving slower than a turtle crossing the road.  With her fun loving wit May simply stated, “You don’t look like you are flying” she said with a loving smile.  “Well it felt like it after 26 miles!” I shouted….and we all sat back and had a good laugh.  Yes I had run a marathon but learned a lesson in humility as well.
I still did not look like Frank Shorter or Craig Alexander but I wasn’t Elmer Fudd either!  I was me, happy to be alive and in the best shape of my life. As I started that race, I thanked God for giving me the ability, discipline and motivation to change my life but I also realized one other very important thing,   enjoy the journey and the process.
The race was merely a formality, the real success came from enduring the process of setting, working towards and reaching a set of goals.  I was hooked and I changed my life for the better. For me, getting in shape took the form of running a marathon and other assorted endurance goals.  But that is me; the beautiful thing about getting into shape is you make it what YOU want it to be and the motivations and direction will be different for everyone.  It’s YOUR life, YOU take control of it.  I can tell you that the running community is incredibly supportive and there is no feeling like running a marathon.  I strong encourage anyone to give it a try.
I have enjoyed sharing my story with you and hope it made you laugh and inspired you at the same time. I am in the best shape of my life at age 47 due to running and you can do the same thing, regardless of where you may find yourself. Since that Marathon I have run countless half marathons and the Goof Challenge at Disney. As of this writing I am preparing to run the Goofy Challenge for the second time and preparing for my first 50 mile ultra-marathon in July and two Ironman 70.3 events in July and August.  Running has given me a new life, confidence, humility and a lot of new friends.  If I can do it, you can too!  Good luck and I hope to see you at the starting line or better yet, the finish line!

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