Friday, August 9, 2013

My Journey from Couch to Duathlon

It was a dark and cold February evening....somewhere a dog howled....and I was attending the Couch to 5K program at the Rockcastle Regional Hospital. In the years since I finished pharmacy school I had let my weight inch up to well over 200 pounds and I had decided to try to do something to turn that trend around. The program was well attended as a standing room only crowd filled the new presentation room on the third floor of the hospital. We heard from physical therapists, dietitians and many other knowledgeable people on what it would take for each of us to extract our butts from the living room couch and complete our first 5K run (3.1 miles for those of you metrically challenged). We were given printouts, planning schedules, diet tips, and other very useful information to help us complete this challenge. It must have worked quite well, as the Rockcastle County Wide Stride races had banner years in 2012 and 2013.
As for me, I had good intentions but the Wendys on the second Richmond exit always called my name as I made my way home. I could put away a Crispy Chicken Sandwich from the dollar menu as a pre-dinner snack in the last 5 miles to home and no one would be the wiser. Also, more than one large chocolate Frosty made its way home to my freezer for a post dinner treat. The weeks turned into months and before long I had managed to boost my fighting weight up to the heavyweight division at about 212 pounds and my blood pressure had officially reached the pre-hypertensive level. The information from the February program was still sitting on my filing cabinet and with summer vacation just around the corner I decided it was time to make a change. Little did I know it would be a life altering change for me.

My first step was to find out my baseline fitness level. I remembered my glory days (25+ years ago) as a cadet at the Virginia Military Institute, running a few 6-minute miles before heading to the gym for an hour of full-court basketball. Surely I could manage at least one mile at, say, an 8-minute pace. It was not to be, as my first few runs all clocked in at well over a 9-minute pace. With my baseline set, I decided that my first priority would be to drop a few pounds. The laws of physics (and common sense for that matter) told me that it takes more effort to move a heavier weight, hence every pound I lost was one less pound of fat to drag around the track or down the road. Using skills from my former profession, I set up a spreadsheet on my computer that charted my weight. The spreadsheet also served as a place to keep all my training times as well as notes on how I felt after each run. An uptick on the weight chart would tell me it was time to stop “treating myself” with fat and sugar and get back on track. 
I have always been one who needs a goal to shoot for. I took a look at the Rockcastle Strides race schedule and since many of the races fell on the Saturdays I had to work in the pharmacy, the first race I could expect to compete in was also one of the toughest on the schedule - the duathlon race at the Rockcastle Run, Bike or Hike. This race consisted of a 5K run, a 16-mile bike ride, and then a 2-mile run. I could have opted for just the 5K race but I figured that a little fear would motivate me to get out of bed in the morning and go running. I did have one little bitty problem with the biking portion of the race.....I didn’t have a bike. A trip to the local bike store in Richmond solved that problem and I was off to the races (both literally and figuratively). My newly created spreadsheet listed every day for the next three months and the date of August 25, 2012 was highlighted in big red letters at the bottom of the sheet. Three months of training, dieting, and apprehension passed by quickly. My weight had dropped off quickly with both the training and dieting and I was now at a comfortable 188 on race day - a full 20+ pounds lower than where I had started. I had read everything I could find on the Internet about running and cycling over the past few months and fitness had become my new best friend. I’m not one to brag but there is nothing quite like the feeling of cutting new holes in your favorite leather belt where no holes had ever existed before.

The morning of the race was beautiful with blue skies and fairly cool temps for August. My goal was just to finish but my competitive side took over and I pushed a little harder than I should have. Needless to say I went through some ibuprofen over the next couple days but I also felt a great sense of pride and accomplishment. After tasting “the human drama of athletic competition” (older readers will understand this reference–youngins’ can Google it) I didn’t want the feeling to end. I signed up for several more Rockcastle races over the next year. Needing a new and bigger challenge to keep me motivated I signed up for the Iron Horse Half Marathon in Midway in October - a 13 mile jaunt through the rolling heart of the bluegrass.

At this point I was hooked on fitness – it was like a self-fulfilling prophecy – the more I did the more I wanted to do. I felt better than I had in decades and my blood pressure had dropped back into the normal range. I don’t think I’ve taken an elevator in over a year (I’m always looking for the stairs) and I’m always amazed at the people at Wal-mart who drive around and around for 8 minutes to get a parking spot 25 feet closer to the door. I also read books such as Born to Run by Christopher McDougall about a tribe of Indians in Mexico’s Copper Canyon who are born runners. They can run 100 miles through scorching canyons, sleep a couple hours, then do it all over again. If they can do that then surely I can run a few laps around the neighborhood. I joined both the Bluegrass Cycling Club in Lexington and the Madison County Cycling Club and have made many new friends during their group rides, which are planned for people of all ages and abilities.

Exercise is probably the most under-utilized medication known to man. It is absolutely free, lowers cholesterol, burns fat, lowers your risk of all cancers, practically cures Type II diabetes, improves your mood and self-esteem, helps you sleep better, boosts your energy levels, puts a spark back in the sex life, and improves your looks as well as your outlook on life. If I could make a pill that could do 10% of what exercise does I would be a billionaire. And all it takes is a willingness to start. The human body is a marvelous self-healing machine - all it takes is the proper fuel and a test drive now and then.

This year I’m looking to take a few minutes off last year’s time and set a new PR (personal record). This will be a new experience for me as it will be the first race that I’ve ever run more than once.

My decision to compete in that first race at the Rockcastle Run, Bike, or Hike has changed my life. It doesn’t matter if you walk the 2-mile course or compete in the duathlon - the most important, and arguably the hardest thing, to do is to start.