A Year of Running

In summer 2013, I was an obese 39-year-old on the threshold of middle age. Here's an update a year later.

By Ryan McGreal

Posted July 28, 2014 in Blog (Last Updated July 28, 2014)

Contents

1Introduction
2Born To Run
3Getting Help
4Starting Out
5Progress and Setbacks
6Winter
7Long Runs
8Summer Running
9Today and Tomorrow

1 Introduction

A year ago, I was an obese 39-year-old on the threshold of middle age. I could no longer freeload on good genes or youth to keep me free of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, asthma and the other chronic diseases that accompany excess weight and poor fitness.

My lower back hurt, my knees hurt, and I would get winded climbing a few flights of stairs (and my right knee would click on every step).

I was reasonably active - several kilometres of daily walking, plus regular bike rides - but years of enjoying food a little too much and gaining a few pounds a year had accumulated into a significant problem. I needed something more intense than my daily walking and biking commutes.

West Hamilton Rail Trail
West Hamilton Rail Trail

2 Born To Run

I had read the book Born To Run by Christopher McDougall and was inspired to take up the practice again, more than two decades after I had run as a teenager.

I was intrigued by his hypotheses about endurance running and curious about his theories on running shoes and midfoot strikes, which were in sharp contrast with the long-stride-and-heel-strike I had practised as a teenager.

The running injuries McDougall wrote about - the reason he started exploring his thesis in the first place - reminded me of the reason I stopped running: heels, knees and hips so painful I gave up before I turned 18.

Perhaps more importantly, I was inspired by the joy, elation and peacefulness that ran through the book. The idea of running as a blissful activity rather than a painful grind resonated strongly.

But it's hard to create new habits. It's hard to find time for an additional activity in an already overstuffed daily schedule. I knew that if I was going to succeed at this, I couldn't just hope for the best - I needed to make time for running, to build it into the structure of my day.

An opening appeared when my younger son started middle school. He no longer needed me to meet him after school and walk home with him, so I could start taking an hour for lunch instead of a half-hour. That hour became my running time.

Running on the Escarpment Trail, Hamilton
Running on the Escarpment Trail, Hamilton

3 Getting Help

I also needed someone to help me get started on the right foot, so to speak. I had tried to start running a few times over the previous couple of years, and quickly gave up every time because I didn't know what I was doing.

It seems ludicrous to think anyone needs someone to teach them how to run. After all, we start running as toddlers. But years upon years of bad habits, poor fitness, inelegant form and straight-up insecurity get in the way.

My wife signed me up for a six-week learn to run workshop with trainer Dave Harrison of Coach House Fitness, an exemplary coach and straight-up awesome guy whose philosophy of running matched what McDougall espouses in Born To Run.

Of all the things I learned during that course (I wrote a little bit about it last November), the one thing that keeps returning to me was Dave's admonition to relax your face when running. A scrunched-up face leads to a tense neck, tense shoulders, stiff arms, balled fists and all-around misery.

A relaxed face, on the other hand, brings relaxation all the way down: loose shoulders, relaxed arms, an easy gait and a joyful experience. I see it on the faces of runners I encounter on the trails: the blissed-out look that proves a hard endurance activity can also be a tranquil meditation.

I don't mean the so-called "runner's high" release of beta-endorphins and endocannabinoids, either. I've experienced that particular burst of euphoria late in the occasional hard run, but the entire experience is joyful. But I'm getting ahead of myself.

Running on the Spring Creek Trail, Dundas Valley Conservation Area
Running on the Spring Creek Trail, Dundas Valley Conservation Area

4 Starting Out

I took my first run on July 27, 2013, and it was a humiliating reality-check. I ran 2.7 km - by which I mean I alternated between running (slowly) and walking - in around 21 minutes.

All of my early runs were like this, for the simple reason that I couldn't run more than a short distance before I was too winded to continue. Here's a chart (from RunKeeper) of an early run. You can see my speed go up and down like a sine wave.

RunKeeper chart: elevation and speed, July 31, 2013
RunKeeper chart: elevation and speed, July 31, 2013

I ran two or three times a week, giving my sad middle-aged body at least day or two between runs to recover. I generally followed the Ten Percent Rule and built up my distance slowly while at the same time increasing the ratio of time I spent running relative to walking.

I knew that I had to keep the chain going. The first time I gave myself an excuse not to run, it would get progressively easier and easier to beg off doing it until I would eventually just give up again.

5 Progress and Setbacks

That determination not to break the chain is a big part of why I didn't fail this time. After each run, all I had to muster was enough drive to start the next one so it never felt overwhelming.

I still remember the profound feeling the first time I ran the entire distance. It happened nearly a month after my first run. I kept waiting to get too out of breath to keep running but it didn't happen. I got to the end of the run and celebrated an important milestone.

Soon after, I reached 5 km for the first time. Things seemed to zoom along from that point. I passed 8 km in October and felt that 10 km wasn't far off.

Then, in late November, a problem that had dogged me intermittently since early September bit down hard: medial tibial stress syndrome, the dreaded shin splints.

Shin splints are inflammation of the connective tissues along the shinbone, and they're common among new runners who increase the intensity of their exercise too quickly. They hurt like hell and make running almost impossible.

On Dave's advice, I cut my distance back to 5.5 km per run. I started icing my shins after every run and several other times a day, incorporated a number of strengthening exercises (like calf raises on a stair), and tried not to be too disappointed that I had lost so much ground.

My shins got much better over the next couple of months. Eventually I stopped icing my shins throughout the day, but I still ice them faithfully after a run as a wonderful-feeling preventive measure.

By mid-January I was back up to 8 km a run again, and my pace was slowly but steadily getting better. From an 8-minute kilometre (7.5 km/h) in August, I was up to around 6:45/km (9.5 km/h). Still slow, but a significant personal improvement.

Deer on the trail
Deer on the trail

6 Winter

I ran outside right through the winter - and a bloody brutal winter it was, too. I still remember my run on January 13: It was so cold out that I ran almost 7 km and never even broke a sweat.

The trails were often impassible with ice, so I switched to running on the streets: out along Cumberland to Gage Park and back along Main; or down Wellington to the Waterfront and back up along James North.

A forward-leaning foot-strike really helped with the ice. My centre of gravity was always under my feet and half the time I was almost tip-toeing along treacherous paths. The slippery, uneven terrain really strengthened my stabilizing muscles.

That said, my feet got wet and I did a lot of sliding around - and my feet did a lot of sliding around inside my wet shoes. I got some nasty blisters that almost sidelined me at one point. I bandaged my blisters, switched my socks from cotton to doubled-up synthetics, tightened my laces a bit and kept at it.

There's something indescribably cool about standing outside in the bitter cold after a run, steam pouring not just out of your mouth but also off your exposed skin. As one friend put it, "I feel like a wizard!"

Icy winter streets
Icy winter streets

7 Long Runs

Heading into February, Dave recommended that I should make one run a week a "long run" - a slower, more long-distance run to build strength and endurance and, of particular appeal to me, burn more fat.

So I started doing a long run on Saturdays. It took a while to find a routine that didn't eat into my family time, but I eventually settled on a run starting between 6:00 and 6:30 AM (I normally get up at 4:45 for work, so this is sleeping in).

I noticed that my pace on my shorter weekday runs smoothed out and got faster after I started doing long runs. Because I only have an hour for lunch, the distance I can cover is a function of how fast I run. By around mid-March I was running over 9 km for each weekday run and 12 km on my Saturday run.

By April I was running a a pace of around six minutes per km (10 km/h) and my weekday runs were up to around 9.5 km distance.

In mid-April I made a big jump in long-run distance from 12 to 15 km. It violates the Ten Percent Rule but I felt ready and the long runs really started to feel great.

I also experienced my first bonk: that moment when your glycogen stores run out and you start to feel like crap. That was the last time I went out on an empty stomach. Now I have a big glass of water and some fruit (or leftover salad from Friday night's dinner) before starting.

I look forward to my long run all week. It's quiet, cool and peaceful in the morning. There's no rush to get back to the office, so I can take my time and just enjoy the trail.

I enjoy the lush greenery and admire the local wildlife. If I feel like it, I stop and eat wild mulberries or blackberries on the way.

Mulberries for breakfast
Mulberries for breakfast

8 Summer Running

Then summer came and I started running in hot weather. Last summer was brutally hot but my distances in August and September were so short - and my pace so slow - that heat and humidity weren't really limiting factors.

This summer has been much milder overall, but hot and humid is hot and humid.

The first run I did on a humid day this summer left me feeling weak and nauseated. Another runner who was passing me slowed down to see if I was okay and suggested that I start bringing water with me.

Even with water (and a sports drink on my long runs) my pace suffered, but I slowly acclimatized to the summer conditions and my pace drifted back down to around 6:00/km (10 km/h).

I should note that I haven't specifically focused on improving my pace. I'm not interested in winning any medals, and I don't want to push too hard and seriously injure something. Nevertheless, my pace has tended to improve over time through the simple act of getting progressively fitter and pushing a bit on each run.

I always feel a nice sense of accomplishment when I complete a run at an average speed faster than 10 km/h.

Dappled shade on the Escarpment Trail
Dappled shade on the Escarpment Trail

9 Today and Tomorrow

So here we are, a year after I took that first humbling half-shamble. In the past year, I have:

  • Run a total distance of 1,325 km;
  • Burned 155,468 calories;
  • Dropped 50 lbs and four pant sizes;
  • Increased my long run distance to 22+ km;
  • Increased my weekly total distance to around 41 km; and
  • Improved my average pace from 8:15/km to around 6:00/km.

Here is a snapshot chart of every run I've gone on in the past year, tracking my distance and pace:

Distance and Pace, July 27, 2013 to July 27, 2014
Distance and Pace, July 27, 2013 to July 27, 2014

The live chart is updated regularly.

You can see the overall upward trend in distance and downward trend in pace over the long haul.

You can also note the drop in distance in late November when I got shin splints, the introduction of long runs in mid-February (where the distance line starts to zig-zag), and the increasing volatility in my pace once the weather got hot.

I find it has really helped to see the larger context of my running history, especially after a particularly slow effort. It has been a bit of a juggling act to alternate between focusing on the immediate next step while still keeping an eye on the bigger picture.

A year on, I enormously enjoy the many benefits of running - both the ones I expected and the ones I didn't expect. I can no longer quite remember how I was able to function day-to-day before I started running.

My deepest regret is that I didn't start sooner - I missed out on years of this!

If you are considering taking up running, I would suggest the following:

  • Get a trainer: Find someone whose running philosophy feels comfortable to you and give yourself a good start. I highly recommend Dave Harrison of Coach House Fitness if you're in the vicinity of southwest Hamilton.

  • Take it slow: Your body is amazingly adaptive but it responds best to gradual change. If you try to rush things, your connective tissues will object furiously.

  • It's not supposed to hurt: sore, achy muscles are a normal part of exercising, but you should not be in actual pain during or after your run. Treat pain with rest and ice, and listen to your body.

  • Allow yourself to be inept: Don't be embarrassed to suck at running when you start out. More experienced runners will blow past you on the trail, but remember that they started out the exact same way you did and they got where they are by not giving up.

  • Small changes add up: When I started out a year ago, I would have thought you were nuts if you said I'd be running over 40 km a week a year later.

  • Do your warmups and cooldowns: I start every run with an ABC drill and end every run with a cooling walk, calf raises and stretches, followed by ice on my shins.

  • Remember to enjoy yourself: Running is supposed to feel good. Think about it as a reward, not a punishment. Allow yourself to feel embodied and connected through running. You are tapping into a profoundly human legacy that goes back millions of years, so don't be surprised to experience a sense of wonder and even reverence.

So far, I haven't run with specific goals in mind - other than the obvious one, which is to keep at it. That said, I've got my eye on next year's Around The Bay Road Race, a 30 km run around Hamilton Harbour.

Around The Bay is the oldest road race in North America and a proud Hamilton tradition, and it would be a huge honour for me to participate.