Regaining My Stride: From Couch to Race Course

Part 1: Commit to Fit (January through April)

This is a story with a happy ending.

Or rather, it’s a story with a happy present. And I write a new page every day.

The TL:DR (too long, didn’t read) version is this:

Around Christmastime 2020 I was pushing 245 lbs. on the scale, and had gone a good two years since my last attempt at getting back in running shape. Starting Dec. 28, I vowed to work out every day for a year, and starting around New Year’s Day I began tracking all my meals and absorbing the daily lessons of the Noom fitness app. By Dec. 27, 2021 I had lost almost 90 lbs., logged nearly 1,600 miles — including 10 races — and am cruising along at 40 miles per week with a long run for the year of 13.1.

How I got here is a journey worth reflecting on. While fortifying myself to answer that incessant question: what’s next?

It’s been almost two years since I’ve regularly posted in this space — something I aim to change with this year’s slate of resolutions. So in a new 2022 spirit of digging in and just doing the damn thing, I’ll begin by looking back. Maybe some of this will resonate for you, too. Here’s to the journey ahead!

December 2020
October 2021

Journey of 1,600 Miles Begins with One (Slow) Walk

I knew what I needed to do, but kept not doing it.

How often do we end up saying that?

I love running, and I learned it from my dad, a dozen-something-time marathoner. I started by trailing his runs on my bike, then graduated to pacing along with him by seventh grade. I ran cross-country and track in high school, but I enjoyed the mental calculus and physical rewards of training far more than race-day competition, those miles exploring new neighborhoods, dutifully penciling my latest times in a training log, noting PBs, unlocking new potential.

I notched my first 20K at age 17, ran my first marathon at 21. Then… fell off for most of the next 20 years or so.

I had my bouts of coming back from my “softer” self. In 2003, at 27, I followed the old Runners World walk-to-run 10-week program, starting that May, and got myself clocking a 7:15 mile pace over 10+ miles by the following year, culminating in an “easy” second-half of the 2004 Chicago marathon with my brother Dan, though by then my training had already begun to get spotty.

Spotty was the best way to describe my training habits from 2005 through 2020. My particular brand of all-or-nothing neurosis would begin each January 1, ready to train every day. But one way or another, the months unwound without the type of sustained effort that would drive me to my idea of fitness: being able to, anytime I felt like it, spin off an easy 3-mile, or, better yet, a 10K.

I figured: if I wasn’t doing it every day, I wasn’t really doing it. And I kept a kind of daunting tabs on that failure. If January had passed and I hadn’t dug in, well, I had 11/12 months of running left: still 92% of the year to run. February would fall away, then March, April: well, that’s still 7/12 I could hit it: 58%. Soon, May, June, July, and all the rest would pass, and I’d be aiming at the final 45 days of the year, or 21, or 10.

Sigh. Grimace. Repeat.

That I’d made it back to running “all the way through” in 2003, 2006, 2011, 2012, 2014, 2018, made it all the more irksome that I eventually let it go. And even harder, year after year, to dig in and start again. Fearing the inevitable falling apart.

Maybe all-or-nothing — running, or walking, every day — is a bit fanatical. Maybe unnecessary, even, for you, or for most. But for me it meant committing each day to the long game. Something I’m frankly not that great at. In my writing, in my composing or performing music, in my work assignments and household chores and school papers, I tend to be a deadline-driven, seat-of-my-pants, in-at-the-last-minute-and-by-God-still-sparkling sort of unnerving dude. Not someone to sock away a few minutes a day working on the thing, finishing instead in a blaze of by-God glory.

That doesn’t work with running.

And when I seriously sit to untangle the success I’ve been blessed with in my artistic and professional and familial endeavors, the whole blaze of glory theory doesn’t hold up, either. Turns out, the work you put in, over days, months, years, puts you in the kind of shape to generate the glorious blaze when needed.

So, back to the workout-every-day rag. I picked up that cumbersome stick once more Dec. 28, 2020, logging a surprisingly winded and draggy 2-miler on the treadmill downstairs. Shrugged. Logged it. Vowed to get on the damn belt the next day, or else. Managed to. And again Dec. 30, Dec. 31. I had a little 4-day streak headed into New Year’s Day, 2021, if I could only maintain it.

A Plan for Eating: My Missing Ingredient

In the years I was running steadily, I enjoyed a carefree diet: all the pasta and gyros and burgers and fries and steak and beer and scotch and dessert I could desire. I’d just burn it off in the daily caloric fire of my mileage.

But as this lapsed runner passed 20, then 30, then 40, it was undeniable: I was ignoring a vital piece of the formula that would get me running leaner, and meaner, and for longer. As I kept my mini-streak going into January, and felt the burn in my shins, and calves, and thighs that came with hitting the treadmill at 245 lbs., I puzzled at how to finally learn the lessons in nutrition I’d ignored for years.

Happily, serendipitously, Facebook served me up a timely ad as I swiped around on my phone New Year’s Day. Noom posed the question: how much would I be willing to invest in my nutrition each month in 2021? Considering I was rolling the dice on being able to work out 365 days, finally, I played the game and put down a not-unsizable wager.

In the beginning, what appealed to me about Noom — in addition to its humorous but wise tone, and eminent accessibility on my phone — was how it fit my need for a habit to cling to, daily. Each morning, from day one, my routine became: wake up, log weight, read the daily lessons, log meals, log exercise, repeat. That was the type of momentum I was burning to build.

Noom just made sense to me: bite-size lessons, each day, to unlock the psychology behind eating, and body image, and how we push or punish ourselves. No foods are off-limits. Instead, I learned about calorie density — which foods pack on a ton of calories but leave me unsatisfied: things like red meat, and fries, and fatty snacks. Those the Noom app labels as “red” foods, and allots the least amount of daily budget. Green foods, on the other hand, are typically full of water and nutrients and good stuff and fill you up quicker. Yellow is a bit of both, not bad or good, just tipping the calorie meter somewhere in the middle between lean and dense.

Luckily, there were loads of foods I loved in the green category. I’ve always been a voracious, variety eater. An eater of opportunity, be it good or ill.

I found that by surrounding myself with the good stuff, consciously loading the fridge and cupboards at home and work with the building blocks of healthy meals, then logging each bite dutifully in the app to monitor my progress, I’d hit on a new and winning formula. And had one less pitfall to puzzle over each day.

Breakfasts were typically a combo of Greek nonfat plain yogurt plus strawberries, blueberries, raspberries and a sprinkle of multigrain Cheerios. I could switch it up, every once in awhile, with hard-boiled eggs on multigrain toast, with jalapenos and horseradish mustard, maybe some precooked turkey bacon. And sure, there was room for natural crunchy peanut butter (a tablespoon spread thin) on multigrain toast with red raspberry preserves. And my coffee — more often drunk black — netted practically zero calories.

Lunches I leaned into oven-roasted turkey breast (a green food!) instead of my usually favored roast beef or salami. I piled a couple slices onto toasted multigrain bread, with jalapenos and horseradish mustard, hold the cheese. Accompanied with a plate piled high with (my favorites) raw broccoli florets, whole white mushrooms and baby carrots, with just a dollop of Ken’s low-fat Caesar dressing to dip them in.

Pretty good dinner!

Years before, I’d cut out soda, making a swap, first, for diet and then just refilling my water glass repeatedly. The Noom app makes you log your water, as well, and I would typically average about 14 to 18 8-ounce glasses a day. It helped to have a pint glass handy to take down two servings with each visit to the fridge or water cooler.

I found that if I rounded the turn into dinner at around 600 calories between breakfast and lunch, more or less, that left me room for a healthy dinner balancing salad or fruits and veggies with a favorite protein, and a cold beer to boot. But more on that in part 2.

Noom wasn’t just my nutrition-minder. Its program began by taking stock in my big goal, where I wanted to be mentally as physically, and the why behind it all. I noted, a little breathlessly, a little tearfully, that I wanted to get healthy for life, for my kids, to be able to enjoy playing with my grandchildren someday, to be comfortable in my skin and my clothes, to regain a healthy body image and sense of physical self. My initial, hopeful, and more than a bit skeptical goal was to get down to 180 lbs by my 45th birthday.

Home treadmill, ready to roll!
A way to visualize my eventual emergence!

Steady as He Goes: Working the Walk to Run Plan

As I noted at the top of this post, I knew what I had to do to get running again. The hardest part was keeping that going.

I had the tools: running shoes, a treadmill in the basement already preprogrammed with my favorite outdoor courses over the years from Pittsburgh to Sandusky to Hong Kong to Chicago — even the neighborhood right outside my door (currently buried in snow and swirling with subzero temps). What I wanted to avoid doing was overthinking the thing.

I’d been guilty, in the past, of outlining running programs weeks, months, even years in advance. Just out of college, I’d once outlined a multiple-marathons-yearly program with pre-planned “step-back” rest years. Yeesh. I didn’t need to go through that mania again. Just get me through January injury-free and in better shape for February.

So I began by just planning which time I’d hit the treadmill that day, and choose the speed and mileage that fit my comfort level in the moment. Knowing that, sooner or later, my body would respond wanting more, and I’d up the level of effort. I usually climbed aboard right after work — no time to hesitate or miss my moment — and didn’t know what I’d do until I punched the numbers in.

Rounding out December 2020, I logged 2 walks of 2 miles each, then two 3.1-mile walks. I’d long been a “fast” walker, going at a sub-14-minute-per-mile clip. But I wasn’t that sort of walker at the start of this journey. And my burning calves and shins had held me back in previous launch efforts. So I counseled myself: don’t push. This is not the summit, but the first leg. So I contented myself with setting the speed at about 3.5 mph for those first walks, building up to 4.0 if I could, but saving myself for the next day.

January was all walking, save for one day when I felt hippity-hoppity enough to jog a bit on the second half of the workout. I propped my iPhone on the treadmill and binge-streamed while I varied my mileage to include 2-, 3- and 4-mile walks most days, then a long 5.4- and 6-mile walk on Sundays as January drew to a close and my streak continued. I got below the 15-minute mile mark, though that 6-miler took me an hour and a half. Heck: it felt great! Almost like a run.

In February, flush with actual jitters, I started building to running. The way my program works is this:

  • Build walk/run intervals each week.
    • Start at 5 minutes walk, 2 minutes run; repeat for the length of the run.
    • When that feels comfortable, move to the next level in the next week:
    • 5 minutes walk, 3 minutes run
    • 4 minutes walk, 4 minutes run
    • 3 minutes walk, 5 minutes run
    • 3 minutes walk, 6 minutes run
    • 3 minutes walk, 7 minutes run
    • 2 minutes walk, 8 minutes run
    • 3 minutes walk, 10 minutes run
    • 3 minutes walk, 12 minutes run
    • 2 minutes walk, 13 minutes run
    • 1 minute walk, 14 minutes run
    • all running
    • If any week feels uncomfortable, like you’re pushing too much, repeat that week, or go back a week.
  • Hang on to walk days as rest days. Begin building up more consecutive days of running until hitting 1 walk day and 6 run days weekly.
    • Week one: W-R-W-R-W-R-W, then:
    • W-R-R-W-R-R-W
    • W-R-R-R-W-R-R
    • W-R-R-R-R-W-R
    • W-R-R-R-R-R-W
    • W-R-R-R-R-R-R
    • If any week seems too much, or you need to put a walk day in to rest/recover, do it. Continue building consecutive run days as your body allows. Don’t PUSH it.

Working this plan leads to natural personal bests as you increase running intervals and adjust mileage. Through February, March and April, I worked at maintaining a comfortable pace, starting at about 5.2 mph on the treadmill for my beginning jogging pace, gradually increasing the mph throughout my workout, not even messing with hills or elevation — that would come once I got outside in the Spring, and increasing the pace throughout the run was a way of training my body for the eventual short stride up hills.

Toward the end of April, I mixed in 6-mile and 7-mile walk-runs to vary the length and work on my endurance. But the most important thing was keeping going. Every day. Staying injury-free. And watching — quite amazed — as the pounds dropped off and I got more and more comfortable running again.

Part two of my personal journey will trace the big changes that came around in May as I unlocked another level of fitness and worked toward a stage I had only dreamt of since 2014: racing.

Part 1: Let’s Check the Logs!

This is data I captured on Runkeeper for Dec. 28 through April 30: my first 124 straight days of working out.

December Totals4 days10.42:40:5615:30:453.871,377
January Totals31 days107.4726:28:2714:48:154.0615,044
February Totals28 days106.6224:13:4313:39:304.4115,812
March totals31 days118.7824:36:1112:31:244.8419,328
April totals30 days122.9526:47:5212:59:085.0621,566

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