Couch — The Beginning
May 21st, 2012 my wife “innocently” asked me if I wanted to run The Westside YMCA 5k with the boys in a couple of weeks. The boys were aged 10 and 12 at the time and the trash talking started immediately. They were both full of confidence about how badly they were going to beat Dad, and why not? I was ~265 pounds and had easily gained 50 pounds in the previous 15 months. For about 15 years or so I had a habit of following the same cycle:
- Gain Weight
- Start Major Home Renovation
- Lose Weight
- Finish Major Home Renovation
- Repeat…but gain more weight next time
15 months earlier I had finished one of our biggest projects yet. I was also working a gazillion hours at “the day job”. The net result was that I became the lightest I had been in many years. I then “rewarded” myself with lots of sedentary time and junk food. Before I knew it I was easily 15-20 pounds heavier than I had ever been in my life.
Earlier in the Spring of 2012, our oldest son decided to run a local 5k with a friend of his. I was drafted to chaperon. The morning of the race was stressful. My job at the time included providing 24/7 support and I had a regular Saturday morning routine that needed to be performed. Of course, this would be a Saturday where everything was running late which just added more stress to the day. I got some help from a backup, but would be on the hook to provide phone support throughout the morning. I did my best to hide the stress from the kids and off we went.
Jacob and his friend had a great time at the race, and so did I. I ran Cross Country in High School and had run a 5k or two early in my adult life. I had forgotten what a wonderful atmosphere these events have. Everyone rooting for each other as every runner tries to reach their individual best for the day is inspiring to say the least. I was very glad that I had the good fortune to be their chaperon for the day.
So, six weeks later when my wife asked if we would like to run a race together it wasn't exactly a surprise, but that doesn't mean I was prepared either. The next evening I started the process of running as hard as I could for as long as I could. I don’t remember how far that was, but I know it wasn't far at all. I would guess it was a half mile or maybe a mile at the most. I’m lucky in that we live next to the towpath for the Erie Canal so there was an easily accessible location to stretch my legs.
I didn't have a specific plan. I went up to the towpath as frequently as I could muster and I ran as hard and as long as I could. I remember seeing other runners at the time. They would frequently encourage me and find something supportive to say. I would smile and welcome the comments, but inside I was upset at just how far I had let things go this time. Since I was running the towpath, the turnaround point was always an important landmark. The turnaround point was when I could cheat and add in a few extra walk steps because they were a natural part of changing directions. It wasn't that I didn't have to walk from time to time anymore, just that the turnaround was a walk that “didn't count”.
A few days before the race I finally managed to go the full 5k on the towpath. I wasn't really ready, but it was the most progress that I could have hoped for. I then took a couple of days off to recover from the aches and pains that were everywhere. While I rested I started the new tradition of obsessing over course elevations and the weather. I drove the course to see it first hand. I wasn't sure I could handle the hills. The second mile had a very slight uphill, maybe a 20 foot elevation change over a half mile. But the third mile, that was going to kill me. The third mile had a 50 foot climb that went on over the entire mile! Yes, I know that isn't a big hill but at the time it felt like it was going to be my own personal mountain.
The evening of the race I showed up early so that I could drive the course a couple more times. After all of the mental preparation was done I sat and waited. This was an unusual race because it was in the evening during the week. As such, Amanda (the wife) met me there with Jacob (the oldest son) and Nathan (the youngest son). We went ahead and retrieved our timing chips and started a pre-race warm up with stretching. The kids wanted nothing to do with warming up or stretching. I think they secretly thought that I was trying to wear them out before the race as some form of sabotage. Afterwards, I did my best to give them some fatherly advice about race manners and tactics. A few minutes later with a shout from the starter, off we went.
Nathan sprinted ahead as expected and then quickly started to fade. I did my best to hold a strong pace. Jacob was doing his best to hide right behind me, but I could tell he was near. I was doing better than I had expected based on the number of people in front/behind me so I tried to draw strength from my position. I also secretly liked the fact that, despite the huge amount of jiggle when I ran, I seemed to be keeping up with some people that looked like they were regulars at a gym. Maybe I hadn't lost my running ability after all.
Then I walked.
I did my best to pace and stay strong, but the agony was overwhelming. After walking for a hundred feet or so, I started running again. I walked a total of three times that day. My time was 26:39. Jacob’s time was 35:17. Nathan ran in 37:23.
At the finish, the knee pain started immediately. I could bear it, but it was bad. There was a nice sense of accomplishment. The trash talking had ended. It was a good day. A painful day, but a good day.
The next morning, I could barely get out of bed. My knees felt like they had been seriously damaged. The race was stressful on my body so some time for recovery rest seemed prudent. The pain was bad enough that it was obvious it wouldn't get better quickly. I spent the entire week avoiding stairs as much as possible. I set a goal to be back running within the week. The following week I tried to run a little on the treadmill. After a half mile, I gave up. My knees were now destroyed for sure. I had to sit/slide down the stairs. I had spent time on Google trying to self diagnose myself throughout the week but I had no idea what was going on. All I knew was that I could barely walk.
Then I got really lucky.
Running, especially at my weight, causes a lot of pounding. The pounding must be why I’m hurting. What could I do that would be like running, but would not cause so much impact? I “discovered” the Elliptical. Now, in retrospect I think my line of thinking was probably all wrong. Looking back on the situation from what I have learned since, I’m pretty sure that the problem was my IT Band. If I had known what it was, or how to make it relax I probably could have kept running all along. However, the miracle for me was when I first jumped on an elliptical for 90 seconds and worked up a small sweat, the knee pain went away immediately. After that initial, brief encounter, I was 80% healed.
Within a couple of days the elliptical was in my garage and I was able to start a program where I could use the machine for conditioning and still get out for real running at an occasional race. I had no idea just how far all of this was going to go. One year later I BQ’d at the Buffalo Marathon and earned the right to register for Boston.