In middle school, we had field day once a year, usually in May, when students and teachers alike had pretty much wrapped the pretense of real work for the school year. When my eighth grade year rolled around, I was deep in puberty. My body was awkward and didn’t always respond the way I wanted to. Luckily, that was wrapping up toward the end of the year. When field day finally got here, I had mastered the use of my longer arms and legs. We did the normal decathalon(ish) things we had never tried before…shot put…javelin (not the best of ideas). At the end of the day, they grouped the boys together in pods for racing heats, 1/4 mile (1 lap) each. They took the top boy, regardless of grade, from each heat, and moved him to the next round. With over 1000 boys in my middle school, there were quite a few rounds. I easily won my first two heats, but struggled with less than a 1 second win in the third.
In the final heat, to determine the winner, I found myself as the only white kid in the pack. I got some ribbing by a couple of the other runners, but we had all grown up together, so it was all good natured. We lined up and Coach Morgan blew his whistle and off we went. Michael J. burst off the line and was 25 yards ahead of everyone before we hit the first turn. So at this point, it was a race to 2nd. Carl and I ran neck and neck through the final turn and he pulled a step ahead. There was a well of strength I didn’t know existed, and I tapped into it and passed the finish line a fraction of a second before him. Coach Morgan declared it a 0.1 second difference between us, but I think it was closer. I was the 2nd fastest kid in my middle school. Woohoo! (I’m sure I’m the ONLY person that still remembers that)
Fast forward 32 years. I’m 290, 75 pounds overweight, or more depending on which chart you use. I started learning to run again a few months ago. I fought multiple injuries because of my weight and non-use of any muscles not required for general living. I was within a day of hanging up my shoes and going back to the couch, when I read Ben Dempsey’s story. It inspired me to push through the frustration and pain.
I had registered for a 5K back in July when I started running and before all the injuries. Saturday was the KALB Duck and Run 5K in Athens, Alabama, the first of my career. The race was aptly named because it was POURING rain. I run in Vibram Five Finger Bikila’s so I didn’t have to worry about soggy socks or blisters, thankfully.
I drove up feeling somewhat lost. I had intentionally asked my wife not to go because I was afraid I wouldn’t make it and I didn’t want her to be there if I failed. I walked to the pavilion where several people were already gathered. Everyone was doing these strange moves. I thought I had walked into a free style yoga class for a minute. Apparently, I never learned how to stretch properly because these folks were in the most contorted positions I had ever seen. I wasn’t aware a leg could maneuver behind someone’s head while standing on their tip toes.
The second thing I noticed right away was everyone was extremely thin, anorexic almost. This tall guy walked by and I’m thinking one of my thighs is bigger than his waist. Somebody get this dude a milkshake.
I felt very out of place. What was I doing here? Really, who did I think I was? I’m at least 50 pounds heavier than the 2nd largest guy. At 45 years old, I’m too old to start something new. I tried to tune out the voices that were starting to amp up my fear.
Because of the rain, I decided to run in my Columbia rain jacket, more to protect my phone and wireless headset from getting wet. I always run listening to something upbeat and didn’t want to change that during my first run. Time was creeping closer and I zipped up my jacket. The director made the announcements and herded everyone to the start line.
Everyone packed in relatively tight and the director “quacked” his toy duck (sounds kind of dirty doesn’t it?) and everyone took off…in a big hurry. Where’s the fire? What’s the rush? The space in front of me cleared and I took off. Pace pace… what’s my pace? Because of the rain, I didn’t have my phone in my hand where I use an app to track my pace, distance, calories burned, etc. I let the crowd rush by and found something that felt somewhat comfortable.
I reached in my pocket and started my music and tried to settle in. The first turn was coming up and I glanced into the window of a parked car and luckily saw there were still people behind me. Not that I planned on winning, but I just didn’t want to be last. I passed someone walking…whew…good sign. There were police at each turn in the race and I wondered if I cut any corners would I be shot in the back? Crazy things go through your mind too, right?
About a minute after the turn a volunteer at the cross street keeping traffic blocked started clapping each time someone ran past. I hope there’s a special place in Heaven for that lady because she has no clue what that small gesture meant to me because even though I had only gone half a mile, I was starting to feel the first of many walls.
I completed 95% of my training and running on a track around the soccer fields in the community I live…a FLAT track. I had not prepared for the upcoming small hill and suddenly a little voice started whispering to me…”You’re not ready for this.” I started up the hill, shortening my already short stride, something that I had read in a book. I’m quite sure I looked ridiculous, but I didn’t get up at 4:45 AM and drive more than an hour to walk the race. I pushed up the hill. The next turn was at the top where a police officer stood, arms crossed. I kept looking at him to give me some encouragement. I just needed a little smile…SOMETHING. I might as well have been looking at his car. Nothing…he never met my gaze.
The music I normally let fuel my enthusiasm and energize my run was nothing but background noise. My self-talk was like walking into a football stadium and trying to isolate individual conversations. Where was my focus?
As I was coming down the hill, I crossed the one mile mark. Several people passed me around this time because I refused to open up going down. I had heard that a lot of injuries happen on downhills. As inexperienced as I am, someone could tell me most running injuries occur when putting on running shoes and I probably would believe it.
Things leveled out for the next portion of the run and I noticed the heat. Where was it coming from? It wasn’t hot outside, but I was burning up. Oh yes…I have my jacket zipped all the way up. As I pulled the zipper down, vaporized sweat burst out, temporarily blinding me, and frizzing my hair. I had been a moving sauna and didn’t know it. My shirt was completely soaked. The sudden coolness, however, gave me a (VERY) small burst of energy.
As I passed the two mile mark I found myself facing yet another hill. I was able to catch up to a child, about 6 or 7 years old. I couldn’t just pass him without offering him some encouragement. I pulled out my headset and as I pulled even, I told him “Great job big man!” I think there was a gasp between each word and it probably sounded like “Gra…GASP…ja…GASP…bi…GASP….ma…GASP!” He looked over and said “I haven’t stopped. Well, I did stop for a drink, but that’s all. My legs feel heavy. Do your legs feel heavy?”
I smiled and kept going. That voice was back, whispering…”your legs feel heavy, don’t they?”
I came into the town square where a police officer immediately averted my gaze. Dang it! Were they told it was poor etiquette to cheer? I needed something, anything to keep me going. I was fading quickly after that last hill.
After the square, thankfully, there was a nice downhill portion of about 300 yards. I thought to myself…ok…I got this. I saw the same clapping lady from the beginning of the race again and she was smiling big. I read her lips…I think she said… “You can do this.” I love that lady.
Then I turned left. There is was. The longest, steepest hill I had ever seen. I almost stopped right there. More voices joined the chorus… ”You didn’t train for hills” “You can’t do this fat boy” “Give it up old man”. I heard recently if we had coffee with someone that talked to us, like we talk to ourselves, we’d get up and walk out.
Things became very surreal. I can’t ever remember being this tired in my life. The previous hills had taken their toll. I kept moving, but took a moment to shut my eyes and clear the noise. I pulled out my ear-buds. When I opened my eyes, I glanced down at my feet and kept my focus right there. Nowhere else. I leaned into the hill.
I was only living in the moment and for the moment. Not this hill. Not this race. Just this step. Just this step. Just this step. Just this step.
In my head, I heard my late mom saying…”You can be anything.” I heard my wife saying “I’m so proud of you” I heard my supporting friends scattered all over the country “You are AWESOME!” Those voices became louder and louder until I couldn’t hear the other ones that were trying to fuel fear. Each voice gave me the strength for another step.
I crested the hill (felt like a MOUNTAIN) and staggered past the 3 mile mark. I never looked back up until I crossed the line. I glanced up at the clock and saw the time. It was about a minute longer than my practice runs on a flat track. I was in no way disappointed.
There were no ribbons or medals for the fattest guy running, nor was there any recognition for this being my first 5K. I posted a post-race photo on Facebook and I got something much better than any award…awesome words of encouragement from my friends. I wasn’t last. My only regret was that I didn’t turn around and cheer for the 8 people that finished after me. Next time.
By the way, I signed up for a 10K that night. I can’t wait.
Go face your hills.