Learning To Run Again

Hello world. I’m a lapsed runner aiming to make a comeback.

Note: I originally wrote this the week of April 5th. I debated for a few weeks before finally publishing it.

Note: Not my photo. Visit UnSplash.com for free, awesome pics.

This week I started running again (the week of 4/3/17). Running with a purpose. See, while I like to think of myself as a runner, the truth is that I haven’t earned that moniker in years.

I started running in 2006 (I think?). I was single, living on the cheap in New York City, and packing a few extra pounds that I figured neither myself nor any potential female companion would hold an appreciation for. So I went for a run.

Sidebar: Actually, it went more like this…
Friend: Hey Danny, want to go run the loop in Central Park this weekend?
Danny: Uhhhh, sure. But I’m not much of a runner.
We proceed to run the 6+ mile loop of Central Park on a whim.
I experience a sensation that feels like death for roughly 4 of those miles.
I spend the next week in pain.
I come to the distinct realization that I am out of shape.

So I went for a run. And then another. And another. I started out running 20-ish minutes at a time. I was convinced that I had to be covering a respectable 2 miles as I whipped myself into shape. (Yep, it was about 1.25 miles.)

I never intended to become a runner. I just wanted to get in shape and lose some weight. Running was easy to manage. I could do it anytime, anywhere with just a pair of shoes and some workout clothes. Over time, that 1.25 miles became 5k. That became 10k. Somewhere in there I ran my first half marathon. And more importantly, I started to care. (I also started to see muscles in places that never used have muscles!)

I was hooked.
Leading a hike somewhere in Bear Mountain State Park

I spent the summer of 2008, while training for my first marathon, as a backpacking and hiking guide. A friend launched a company designed to help busy urbanites commune with nature via day hikes and overnight backpacking trips. In a past life, I’ve been both a backpacking and climbing guide, so I agreed to help her lead the first summer of trips. A normal week for me during this time looked something like this:

  • Work 50–60 hours at my not 9–5 job. (I was one of the leads at an innovation and technology consultancy.)
  • Run 5x per week — usually M-Th mornings as my commute to work, with a long run on Friday evening to commute home.
  • Prep for that weekend’s trip after my long run on Friday night. We’d usually finish up somewhere around midnight.
  • Spend the weekend hiking either 1x overnight or 2x day trips in the parks near NYC.
  • Lather, rinse, repeat. During this period I was running 40–ish miles a week and hiking another 10–15 on weekends.

And during Thanksgiving week of 2008, I ran my first full marathon.

The Northern Central Rail Trail Marathon is an out-and-back race along a hard pack trail in Maryland. It’s well supported, offers a relay, and is a beautiful course. I finished in a respectably unimpressive first marathon time of 4:22:42. (Sorry, did I give you some impression that I was fast?)

Crossing the finish line of the Northern Central Rail Trail Marathon in 4:22:42

And it hurt. (In case you couldn’t tell from the picture.)

I don’t recall “hitting the wall” in my first marathon. I remember what felt like an interminably long slog. I remember the slight uphill section in the last mile of the race. I remember early in the race dropping my half dozen Gu packets on the trail and having to stop and pick them all up. (Seriously — I have no idea why I thought I needed so many.) And I remember the guy who ran the entire second half of the race with me, cheering me on. (Unfortunately, I don’t remember his name!)

2009 would go on to become the pinnacle of my running career. It culminated with me crawling through a muddy pit while wearing a red, lace dress.

2009 was quite a year. Sometime after the pain of that first marathon was finally forgotten, I decided that it just wasn’t enough. Everyone has run a marathon these days. Why not an ultra? And just like that, I signed up for the North Face Endurance Challenge 50k in Washington DC.

(For those who are keeping track, I lived in New York City but have family in the DC area and coincidentally did most of my long races in that area.)

Most of my year was pretty straightforward. I worked. I trained. I was no longer guiding outdoors trips, but I spent a lot of weekends heading up to Harriman and Bear Mountain State Parks for long trail runs. I had my eye on the prize.

In late August, I ran the New York City Half Marathon. I was about 1 month out from my 50k starting line, and I figured this would be a great shakedown race to see how things were going. I ran the first 10 miles conservatively, planning to put whatever was left in the tank into the last few miles. Apparently, training was going well. I finished the race at 1:49:12 at a pace of 8:20; solidly my best race result ever.

One month later, I headed down to D.C. for some Thanksgiving chow and my first ultramarathon. My post-half-marathon high had dwindled over the last few weeks, and I went into this race feeling somewhat overtrained. For the last few weeks, I’d struggled to get into a groove on my training runs and was feeling generally worn down.

I looked pretty relaxed…at the beginning.

But you don’t finish what you don’t start...

I knew within the first few miles that my race wasn’t going to go the way I wanted. Somewhere along the way, I’d set a mental goal for myself of finishing in five hours.

WTF was I thinking??

In hindsight, I approached this race entirely ass-backwards. I have a ton of experience on trails, and was feeling solid as a runner. But I’d never combined the two (outside of training). I’d never run this particular trail before. And it was my first ultra. I should have approached it as a fun run with a goal of finishing and a chance to learn about myself, racing on trails and the culture that comes with trail/ultra racing. (If you’ve never run a trail race, they’re laid back, more personal, and a TON of fun.)

Instead, I approached the day as I would a road race, and I ended up paying for it. After getting lost and running a extra mile, a bit of knee pain and one solid tumble later, I finished my day in 6:43:38. Obviously a long way off from the mental goal I’d set for myself.

Joy? Happiness? Pain.

In spite of my best intentions, coming off this race I had trouble finding the motivation to get out an run some more. I didn’t have another race planned. And it took a little while for my race-induced knee pain to subside.

I ended up finding a little bit of my lost motivation in the form of a red, lacy dress. I got a last-minute invite to join Team Ladies Who Lunch for the Run-a-Muck mud run. Of course, I did not know that this invitation came with a dress until we got to the starting line. How could I refuse?

What more needs to be said?

In January 2010, I ran the Bermuda half marathon with my father. He’d been running for years and completed more marathon and half marathon events than I can remember, although he was never competitive with anyone other than himself. The Bermuda Race Weekend (we actually ran the 1-mile race on Friday, the 10k on Saturday, and the 1/2 marathon on Sunday) was a rare chance for us to share running since I’d taken it on.

Over the next couple of years, I went through a lot of changes in my career. I met the woman I would eventually marry, and the only I races I ran were in support of this lovely lady as she completed her first four half marathons. Outside of that, I had trouble finding motivation to train, and races just didn’t hold much allure…

Until I got my lottery entry into the 2012 New York City Marathon.

Let me preface this by mentioning that I am not a fan of the New York Road Runners. Over the years, I ran a number of their races, and I always found them to be severely over-crowded, not particularly well run, and expensive to boot. Thank you Mary Wittenberg.

That said, as a runner, I couldn’t resist the allure of the New York Marathon. I never bothered to go through the guaranteed entry process (for the reasons described above), and in 2012 my “I haven’t gotten a lottery slot for the last 5 years so I get in this year” entry kicked in.

I was finally stoked to run a race again. I trained appropriately. I ran the second half of the course so I’d be familiar with what to expect in the later miles. I felt prepared.

And then this happened…

Hurricane Sandy hit the East Coast just days before the start of the 2012 NYC Marathon leaving New Yorkers across the city flooded and without power. While people across the Eastern Seaboard struggled to put their lives back together, a battle began to rage around New York City: Would the 2012 NYC Marathon go on as scheduled in roughly one week?

Two factions quickly emerged around the issue:

  • Those (including many runners) who wanted to see the race go on, either as a sign of strength and resilience or simply because they’d spent months training. Mayor Bloomberg backed this group, declaring that New Yorkers wouldn’t be deterred by adversity. He cited the running of the 2001 Marathon (held ~2 months after 9/11) as a precedent.
  • Those who believed that the resources and manpower set aside for the marathon would be better off dedicated to those in need following the devastation of Sandy.

While we were lucky to live in an area of Brooklyn that escaped Sandy unscathed (we didn’t even lose power), I had friends whose homes were flooded. A run across the Williamsburg Bridge in daylight revealed the severity of the flooding across lower Manhattan. Ultimately, that clinched my decision. I would not be running the 2012 NYC Marathon. I couldn’t in good conscience see how the starting line tents, the massive generators, and the abundance of water set aside for runners wouldn’t better serve those who needed shelter, warmth, and clean drinking water to move their lives forward.

A couple of days later, Mayor Bloomberg and Mary Wittenberg of the NYRR managed to realize the same and officially cancel the race. While I obviously supported that decision, it came across as too little, too late. Their continued deliberation allowed time for the issue to fester, angering people across the city and runners from around the world—many of whom might have had time to cancel their travel arrangements had the decision to cancel been made sooner.

Over the months that would follow, the New York Road Runners further exacerbated the situation by taking an inordinate amount of time to inform runners of how they would be handling entry fees and future marathon slots. Eventually they shared their plan. Runners could either:

  • Opt for a full refund.
  • Receive NO refund for 2012 in exchange for a guaranteed slot in an upcoming NYC Marathon for which they would have to pay the standard entry fee.

Yep. We could get our money back with a healthy dose of middle finger. Or we could bend over and pay twice to run the NYC Marathon once.

This announcement would mark the end of my relationship with the New York Road Runners.

Okay, unfortunately, that’s a bit of a lie. Or a fib. Let’s call it a fib. In 2014 I was asked by one of my closest friends to join a team running the NYC Half Marathon on a charity platform for the American Cancer Society.

I hate charity runs. I hate going to friends with “Oh hey, I’m going to run a race and I want you to give me money for it.” I run for my own reasons and don’t particularly enjoy dragging other people into it. But both my father had recently died of cancer, making this a timely request. So I relented. (Just that once; the experience solidified my distaste for charity runs.)

The folks who I ran the 2014 NYC Half with would go on to found Still Kickin—a fantastic organization run by people who have amazing stories, for people who have amazing stories. Check them out.

This was the last race that I’ve run…

In the 3 years that have passed since that race, somehow I lost my mojo. My personal reserve of willpower or gusto or whatever it was that would get me up at odd hours and push me through mile after mile had run out. I can’t put my finger on any one thing that broke me, but I knew something had changed.

Actually, a lot had changed. I’d switched jobs and could no longer run my morning commute—something that really kept me going while I was training and getting in shape. I started dealing with an issue that might be hyponatremia which occasionally leaves me suffering a migraine-like headache a few hours after a run. (But only occasionally. It’s like running roulette). And remember Ms. Half-Marathons above? Yeah, we got married. And we got a dog.

Meet Ernest

So life went on. I got busy. I ran here and there to keep “in shape” (particularly in the few months before our wedding—gotta make that suit look good, right?). But I wasn’t training for anything and wasn’t particularly committed to my runs.

And then, after a combined 22 years in the Big Apple, on January 2, 2107 we moved across the country to L.A. We’d been talking about leaving NYC for ~3 years and considering L.A. as a destination for the past two. When the opportunity to take on a new job working with a friend and mentor who I respect immensely came to bear, it was too good to pass up.

Sunset from Venice Beach

Fast forward to present day…

One of the things I’m most excited about rediscovering in L.A. is my love for the outdoors. I spent my youth hiking, climbing, backpacking, and mountaineering—none of which is easy to do in New York City. Los Angeles, on the other hand, is chock full of hiking trails and is in (relatively) close proximity to all sorts of outdoor adventures.

Unfortunately, I’m not in great shape for tackling those endeavors.

With that in mind, I started getting out for a run here and there. I was excited about running and getting back in shape, but I was still having trouble translating that into action. Weekends were no problem, but on weekdays the bed would beckon and I would succumb. And running roulette is scary, leaving me unsure of whether it’s safe to run in the morning for fear of being non-functional at work that afternoon.

Then something exciting happened…
I don’t know exactly what led me to them, but I stumbled onto two runners and filmmakers on YouTube: Billy Yang and Ethan Newberry (aka The Ginger Runner). I began consuming their running videos which reignited a hunger that I hadn’t felt in years, each one rekindling a bit of the ambition that had been waning.

Billy’s Life in a Day was the first video that caught my attention
Ethan’s Amongst the Evergreens is one that I keep coming back to.

I’m less enthralled by the particulars of the film production from these two runners (which is excellent on both counts), but rather drawn to the human side of running that they expose through their stories. The friendships they’ve cultivated through their passion for distance running quickly becomes evident as they share their stories, and the lack of attitude and competition that so often comes with running road races is refreshingly absent. In particular, Ethan’s ability to maintain a sense of humor and perspective even as he shares his progress through some phenomenally epic distance runs is enviable to say the least.

And, somehow, delving into the lives of these runners and their circle of friends has left me feeling refreshed. It has left me with a need that I haven’t felt in years—a need to get out and explore this new city. (Ironically, both are LA-based.) And a need to get myself back into the physical shape that makes me feel like my best self.

I love the feeling of being able to step out my door at a moment’s notice and knowing that I can tackle an exciting adventure without worry that my fitness will be the limiting factor. I have no need to become a gym rat or a fitness guru. I have no desire to espouse my lifestyle to others. I simply want to regain the confidence to feel good about myself.

The view from Runyon Canyon where we went for my birthday hike.

So, on the week of my birthday when my own mother declared that I was officially “old,” I have found what I hope to be a recommitment to running. I’ve found it easier to pry myself out of bed in the morning or to throw on my shoes for a post-work jaunt. I have a long road ahead. Gone are the days of marathon-length training runs…for now. And I’m still struggling to nail down management for this phantom running-headache-roulette, but it’s getting better.

I’m also nervous. I haven’t run a race in years, but I feel like I need that goal to help keep my motivation alive. With that in mind, I’ve started a list of possible comeback races for later this year (not until September at the earliest). But I’m struggling to pull the trigger on signing up. Nerves.

Wish me luck.

A couple of quick notes:
I haven’t yet decided whether to make it a regular thing to write about running. Does anyone care? Let me know if you read this and find it interesting, useful, or motivating.

To Billy & Ethan:
Should you happen upon this, it’d be awesome to meet you both. For a run (short, for now). For a beer. For an opportunity to say thank you. Keep inspiring people.