From My Couch to 13.1: How I Became a Runner
I always hated running. Detested it. Couldn’t stand even the thought of huffing and puffing my way step after step, mile after mile. Up until around February of 2019, I hadn’t run as much as a 5k, and had barely run a mile since high school. Cut to April 2020 and I’ve got a finisher medal from The North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon and a hunger to run more races.
How did I get here you ask? Well, thanks to my job at Sports Basement, I am surrounded by triathletes, endurance runners, cyclists, mountain bikers, rock climbers and everything in between on a regular basis. I work side-by-side with someone on the USA tri team (shoutout to Yuta Sano). Working beside them left me incredibly inspired. Having very active coworkers every single day on the job has a way of amping you up to try something again and I was now armed with expertise on terrain, shoes, proper gait and all that knowledge I had previously lacked.
I am a big boy, no way around it! I'm 6’4”, around 220 lbs on a good day. Needless to say, running takes a toll on my knees. In the past I had tried once or twice to get into running but I kept to the pavement and inevitably would get sore, swollen knees after a few days. Not to mention, I found the routes and runs boring.
I’ve always loved backpacking and hiking. Something about conquering a mountain is so rewarding. So, after a number of conversations with my incredibly knowledgable peers, it sounded like trail running might be a good fit for me.
Trail running requires constant surveying and locating where your feet are going to go, which isn't as necessary in regular road running. The constant terrain change and natural obstacles (roots, rocks, etc.) forces you to keep a steady pace and stay light on your feet which would substantially save my knees. I even went so far as to buy some trail running shoes - step one complete!
And step one is where I remained for a few months - those sparking clean trail runners sat there in my closet just begging to be taken out to stomp around in dirt and grit. All that changed when l had the “great idea” to tell my boss, our marketing director, about my super secret desire to start trail running but that I “was having some trouble finding motivation.”
Next thing I know he has informed me I will be running The North Face Endurance Challenge Half Marathon in about nine months. “There’s your motivation” he said, and went so far as to tell me it was now part of my job description.
So I had nine months to prepare for 13.1 miles of mostly trails with around 2,400 feet of total elevation gain. I had better get started training. But where to begin?
For any undertaking or training it is vitally important to set goals to work towards. My goal at first was simple - finish the half marathon. That was it! Just prove to myself I could consistently run and complete 13.1 miles in a single go, no matter how long it took.
That first hurdle, and possibly the largest, is just starting - getting off the couch and going. I had apprehension and considerable anxiety leading into that first run. Where do I start? How do I start? Do I have the right clothing? (The answer was no I did not have the right clothing but shortly after my first chafing experience you better believe I purchased some). Luckily, I had possibly the most important tool to take that first step - an enthusiastic roommate that was happy to train with me.
Having someone to run with makes it so much easier. It eases your fears of running alone and having to figure things out on the fly, and doesn’t let you slack off on your pace. Whether you have a friend, a meetup group or even just a dog to run with it will make all the difference, I promise you.
I still remember the first trail run: a completely flat 2 mile out and 2 mile back run in Fairfax in mid February in the rain. The only proper running gear I had on were my shoes, everything else was heavy, cumbersome and unnecessary (sweatpants, a rain cotton hoodie, a CamelBak…seriously) but we finished the run nonetheless. 4 miles total (with a considerable amount of walking) and with a 11 minute plus clip and, most importantly, no knee pain! I got just what I needed - a starting point to build on. I was 4 miles into becoming a runner.
I developed a training plan to get my physical and mental states strong enough to persevere for such a distance. I covered all my bases here - asked every runner I knew, researched all the programs online and reviewed The North Face’s own recommended program for the race and, while I didn't strictly follow all of them, I did incorporate many of their recommendations into my own program.
I think it is important to remember that everyone progresses differently. Our body types are different, our levels of fitness are different and our goals are different. Many of these programs are designed by experts who know what they are talking about and their expertise should absolutely be taken into consideration but when all is said and done, create a program that works for you and that you can follow.
My program looked something like this:
- Wednesday - Short run around 3.2 miles to 5 miles with little to moderate elevation (0-750)
- Friday - Medium run around 5-7 miles with some elevation (500-1k)
- Sunday - Long distance around 7-10 miles with significant elevation (1000 feet minimum)
When I first started this system you better believe there was some significant walking, particularly on steep uphills. In fact, it was absolutely necessary to work walking intervals into these runs - there was just no possible way I could nonstop run these distances. At first this bothered me - I was under the impression that everyone who participated in a race literally ran the entirety of the race. That's actually far from the truth, and interval training became key to my success.
I soon noticed that my overall mileage averages were actually faster when I worked in walking intervals than if I tried to power through and just keep running. My plan quickly began to take shape - I would use steep uphills to walk for short distances when needed, as that minimized the loss in speed since I couldn’t run up these sections quickly anyway. Thus I would save energy, and lose a minimal amount of time on my overall run.
After about a month of following this program, it started to get really fun. I started to run longer and faster, and my breathing strengthened and was less of a strain. My knees and legs felt less exhausted after long runs and I was conquering long distances.
I discovered my new favorite trails to train on and was consistently challenging myself to try new ones. As time went on my goals developed. I not only wanted to finish, I wanted to set my sights higher. I decided I'd break a 10 minute per mile average and finish the whole thing in under 131.1 minutes or 2 hours 11 minutes.
As the date grew closer, I decided to scope the route a little bit more. Luckily, The North Face Endurance Challenge was taking place right here in the Marin Headlands. I began working my long distance runs there, following the trails we would be using on race day.
Wow, we were in for some brutal climbs - sustained uphills followed by long downhills on seriously exposed fire roads. If you have a chance to train on the actual race course, I highly recommend it. You can plan out your pacing, breaks, where to drink water, all that stuff, and you'll feel far more prepared come race day.
One thing I kept reading about was nutrition and to train like you race, meaning figure out what works for you and what does not and stick with that regardless if the race is giving out something free. For me, I drank minimal water even on long runs (about 8-12 oz. for double digit mileage) and stuck with Honey Stinger gummy chews for electrolytes (cherry cola, delicious). Anything more and I realized early on my stomach would quickly become upset… not the business.
At long last the day came: November 17, 2019. I had not yet run more than 11 miles in a single outing but I knew I was ready to push myself. The night before the race I was positively giddy and nervous. At multiple points I felt like I might throw up (I didn’t) and I couldn’t sleep for the life of me. All I could do was think about that 5:30am bus that would take me to the starting line.
One thing I had not counted on was all the standing around that takes place at the beginning of a big race. I just wanted to go, get the butterflies out and take off but we arrived at the misty, frost covered staging field in Marin City around 6am and quickly posted up under heat lamps for what would seem like an eternity.
There is really no way to convey how nervous I was. I had played competitive sports my whole life and thought I knew nerves but here I was, no team, by myself in my own head, me against the miles. I knew the course, I knew my plan, I just wanted to go!
I was in the last heat to be released that morning and boy, I did not feel like I belonged with all these runners (who actually looked like runners). The intimidation factor really hit me hard then, the anxiety exploding in a pressure packed lightheadedness. Then my heat came. I was close to the back of my heat, the last heat, the very rear of the whole pack.
We were released, I crossed the starting line and very quickly I was passing people. My adrenaline was surging and I knew right then, twenty yards into the race, that I was going to finish. Now was the time to push myself and see what I was made of.
The race flew by! I was passing people left and right, on the uphill, on the downhill, on the flats. My preparation had paid off: I knew what the trail had in store for me and knew where I could really turn on the burners. It didn’t matter that I had started at the very back of all the runners. In fact, I could use those in front of me as mini-challenges to pass during the race and keep my stoke up!
That being said, I was also feeling the burn. I was walking far less than I had on any training runs and was minimizing down time. It was around mile 10 that I really started to lose steam. At this point the far majority of the elevation was done but as we dropped down out of the Headlands I found myself staring up at the Golden Gate Bridge, and I mean “up.”
I had lived in the Bay for more than 25 years and had never once crossed the Golden Gate Bridge other than in a car. Here I was, about to do it for the first time during a half marathon after having just run ten miles and I will tell you, that concrete climb in front of me looked daunting.
As the climb up the bridge began I got a glimpse of Crissy Field, the finish line, almost within grasp! Now was not the time to let up. This was where all my mental training came into play - it was no longer a physical challenge but one of mental fortitude. Could I truly give it all I got? Yes.
Circling under the Golden Gate Bridge and seeing nothing but flat path ahead until the finish line and the ensuing post-race party was just the surge I needed. I crossed under the inflatable finish arch, massive smile plastered on my face, legs trembling but with an undeniable feeling of accomplishment and pride.
I cannot explain how it feels to achieve something I never in a million years would have expected to do. I had overcome my own perceived limitations both physically and mentally and had actually enjoyed it. I went to the results tent just to check it out - even a slow pace wasn’t going to detract from the feat I had just accomplished! Then I saw the results.
2:04:43 completion time, average pace of 9:23 official! I was over the moon. I had smashed my own goal by 37 seconds per mile. The elation I felt at that moment is indescribable. I was so thrilled and satisfied I didn’t even take part in the afterparty, didn’t get my free beer, I just strutted over to the bus like I was friggin’ George Jefferson and took the shuttle back to my car, on cloud 9 the entire time.
My overall place was 240 out of 503 or 187 out of 327 male runners, numbers which mean nothing to me. I was competing against myself and my own perceived limitations. Against those competitors, my personal doubt, the detractors of the mind telling you “you can’t do it”, I had come in first. So often during training and during the actual race, my mind was telling me I had to stop or slow down, but my legs and my body said otherwise and could continue to push. After a number of miles I hit my groove physically and my mind became my biggest adversary - overcoming that was one of my finest achievements.
I have continued running since then and have never enjoyed it more. While I have lapsed on my three-runs-a-week program, I make sure that I still make time to get a few runs in per week.
Additionally, I am very hungry to run an organized race again. I was signed up for a 10k in Auburn and the Yosemite Half Marathon before COVID-19 hit but you better believe I will absolutely be running again when races begin again - just maybe not with so much elevation.
I hope to see you on the trails!