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Matt’s Story: “Running: From My Couch to My First Half Marathon”
On January 1, 2011, I weighed 218 pounds. I was sick and completely out of shape. My feet and legs hurt all the time and I never had any energy. I did not exercise and I ate a poor diet. On the first of the year, I was sitting at a hockey game eating a pulled-pork sandwich and drinking beer, even though I had been getting over an illness for the past few days. Each time I went to get another beer or snack, I had to climb a flight of stairs to the food court. After each trip, I was winded. That was the moment I realized how fed up I was with the way I felt and looked. And so I said to myself, “Starting tomorrow morning, I’m changing my habits for good.” I had said that numerous times in the past three or four years since I’d started letting myself go, but I always fell back into my old ways. My plan was simple in theory, but having the mental power to pull it off was another thing. This time I knew I had hit my breaking point.
My plan was to start by dieting, only allowing myself to consume a certain number of calories a day. I weighed 218 pounds. After I got down to 200 pounds I would start walking, and then I would start to run. After doing some research, I decided I would go a bit extreme by eating only 1,750 calories a day no matter what. I was bound and determined to get results, and I did. When eating a limited number of calories, you have a tendency to make healthier food choices. You can eat all day long on 1,750 calories if you’re eating healthful, low-calorie food. One of my favorite foods was celery and another was a slice of lean deli meat. Because it’s important to not drink your calories, I replaced all drinks with plain water or Crystal Light. By mid-February, I had lost the 18 pounds I’d set out to lose.
Part two of my plan was to start walking and running. I allowed myself to eat up to 2,000 calories a day now that I was exercising. To ensure that I would not back out of the running if it got a little tough, I convinced my brother Shawn to sign up for a 5K road race with me. He agreed. It was February. The race date was March 26. And so the running began.
I started by walking my dog on the streets near my house. I would get in my car after we got home and drive the route we’d walked so I could track how far we’d gone. At first we were only walking between a half mile and a mile. This made me tired, believe it or not. Soon I was leaving the dog home and attempting to jog a little. I was working little bursts of running into my walks. Before I knew it, I was running a mile. It was not an easy mile, but it was a complete mile without stopping. My plan to prep for my upcoming 5K (which was 3.1 miles), was to go out each day and try to cover 3.1 miles, whether it be by walking, running, or crawling.
Soon enough, it got easier. By mid-March I’d lost another five pounds and I was able to run 3.1 miles. I was ready for the big day. I knew I would be able to finish the race and I set a goal of completing it in thirty minutes. I did finish the race, and I did it in 26:06, but not before I made one big mistake: In the last quarter mile or so, I decided to kick it up a notch and sprint to the finish line. The only problem was that I was not an experienced runner. I started running faster by extending my stride. Next thing I knew, I felt a sharp burning and a pop in my left hamstring. Yep, right at the end of the race I tore my hamstring. All I could remember thinking was that I had to finish this thing I’d started, so I lightly jogged and hopped across the finish line. My brother smoked his first race in twenty-three minutes and change, without any injuries. I was proud to complete the race even after hurting myself. But now I was worried that the hamstring injury meant my new exercise routine was over.
I took this as an opportunity to do a little research and learn how I had ended up with the injury. What I learned was that when you want to run faster, you shouldn’t extend your legs or stride; you need to increase your leg turnover rate while keeping your stride the same. I took a few days off from running and iced the injured leg. It helped, but my leg still hurt pretty badly. Everything I read told me a trip to the ER would be a waste of time.
After a few days I decided to wrap the injured leg and start walking my miles while being careful to not step the wrong way. I was not going to let the injury keep me from my newfound love of running.
I know this sounds crazy but it’s true: two weeks after completing our first race, Sean and I signed up for another 5K. The race was scheduled for April 9, the day before my birthday. My leg still hurt when I tried to run, but the injury had taught me to control my stride. Anytime I stepped out a little too far, I felt pain right away and I shortened my stride. In the race on April 9, even with my bad leg, I still ran a better time than I had two weeks earlier, coming in at 25:48. I know these times are not particularly fast, but for a new runner I was doing quite well.
That night I went on the Internet to start looking for our next race, hoping to find one that was about two weeks away. Instead, I found another 5K race that was scheduled for the next morning. I asked Shawn whether he was up for a double header. “What do you think?” he asked. That meant yes. I went off to bed so I could wake up bright and early on my birthday and run another race.
I don’t know how, but I ended up besting my time from the day before, finishing the race in 24:40. In two weeks I ran three 5Ks, tore a hamstring, and somehow improved my time in each race. If you haven’t guessed by now, I was hooked! Now I was ready to challenge myself even more. I needed to up the ante. So I chose a 10K for my next race, which would take place in about a month. I found that if I kept committing to new races, I would continue to run. So far it was working.
During this time, I had settled on my goal weight. My new goal was 185 pounds. To get there, I’d have to lose 33 pounds. My first 10K was set for May 7. By the time that date rolled around my hamstring felt better and I had reached my goal of 185 pounds. My approach to this 10K was to take it easy and make it to the finish line in one piece. Sean and I both completed the race and we both did well for our first ever 10K. My brother won in his age group (35–39) and, in the same age group, I finished fifth out of forty-four runners, with a time of 50:36. I was very happy with the result, especially because I was running these races only as a personal challenge and as a way to get and stay fit. I could not stop now. I was running at least two road races a month and I was feeling great. I was rewarding myself after each race by purchasing a new running shirt or pair of shorts. Each time I got a new shirt, I would enter another race so I could have a reason to wear the shirt. By mid-May, my 5K time had improved to 22:34. And then something happened that I was not prepared for: SUMMER.
I live in North Carolina. The summers here are HOT and very humid. As a new runner, I was not prepared to see my times get worse rather than better. After a little more research, I found out that on average your time will increase by 10 to 15 percent when running in high heat and humidity. I continued to run races and my times continued to suffer. I felt like I was putting in triple the work and getting less reward. So to keep myself focused I went big. I signed up for a half marathon. On November 6, I would run my first 13.1-mile race.
My commitment to this big race (a race that I’d never even considered running, by the way) would keep me going through the unbearable North Carolina heat. I now had a reason for my suffering. As the summer went on, I continued to run. There were days when I planned to run five to six miles only to fall apart after three miles in the extreme heat. I tried running early or late in the day, with only a slightly better result. Most mornings and evenings the temperature was still in the 80s or 90s. The summer of 2011 was breaking heat records left and right. On August 6, in 85-degree heat and 100 percent humidity, I ran a 10K in Fayetteville, on a course that was murderous to boot. The course was hill. After hill. After hill. At the finish line, I watched people pass out; I even threw up. In the end, I had added seven minutes to my average 10K time. I was starting to wonder whether I would make it to my November date with the half marathon.
Then, out of left field, Shawn signed me up for the Virginia Beach Half Marathon set for September 4. That gave me five weeks to prepare. Of course, my main problem was the heat. Would it cool down by September and, if it didn’t, could I run this race?
Since my first race on March 26, I had completed seven 5Ks, two 10Ks, one 8K, and a four-mile race I’d run on the Fourth of July. That was eleven races in less than five months. I had done far more than I ever thought I was capable of doing and now I had to do something that most people would not even consider doing: run my first half marathon, in the summer, after only eight months of running.
In those eight months I had learned so much about running and about myself. It’s amazing what the human body can endure if you can get past the mental blocks. It’s so easy to say, “I quit,” but it’s so hard to say, “I can keep going. I’m able to finish.” The mind is the part of the body that needs the most training when it comes to running and doing so many other things. The body will do what the mind tells it to do, one way or another.
The other thing about running that I learned along the way involved running gear and preparation. This included things like what to eat and what not to eat, how to hydrate, how and when to use energy gels and recovery powders, and what kind of sneakers to wear and how to size them. I also learned that keeping a running journal is a must for charting your progress and sustaining your motivation.
I have dealt with black toes, bruised feet, a torn hamstring, and pain in my knees and shins from overrunning and not resting enough. I have read a stack of books and an even bigger stack of running magazines, and I still have a lot to learn. My diet has been the hardest part. Ever since I hit my goal weight of 185 pounds, I have been stuck there. If I eat fewer calories, I start to lose weight but I don’t have the energy I need to get me through my longer runs. If I eat more calories I tend to gain a couple pounds. I’m still working on this issue. This has been a great journey, going from my couch to 13.1-mile races. I’ve learned about the running world as a whole and that every runner wants every other runner to succeed. It doesn’t matter whether you jog a mile every day or run a marathon every month. We are all runners. Cheer for and support every person who laces up and puts in the effort to hit the pavement and go. It’s go time!