January 15, 2019
In high school gym class we had to run a mile every year, I assume as part of some fitness evaluation. I have vague recollections of doing it in around 7 minutes, because I mainly didn’t give a shit back then. I wasn’t the fastest by a long shot, nor was I competitive about it. But, I do remember another kid, Shua, who was real damn fast. Like, he ran the mile in 4 or 5 minutes. It impressed me, but surly teenagers don’t admit to being impressed so I never brought it up, or really tried to pursue running.
I tried a variety of sports as a kid (soccer, basketball, tennis, etc.). At some point (and I have no memory as to why) I ended up enrolled in a summer track program at Smith College. One of my parents would bring me over. I’d do some sprinting. No long distance. It was enjoyable. I wish I could remember if this was something I had instigated, or if it was something random my parents had thought up for me. Either way, I enjoyed it. I went for a few weeks, but eventually I’d have these terrible pains in my knees after sprinting. Like, I couldn’t walk. All I could do is lay on the couch in pain with ice on my knees. A visit to the doctor later, we discovered that I had Osgood-Schlatter disease. No more running. Clearly this case was due to adolescent growth spurts (I was in my early teens after all) and would not last forever, but somehow I lived under the assumption that I just shouldn’t run, like, ever. For years.
Fast forward to my 20’s, I became a software developer and sat in front of the computer most of the time. I was even in descent physical shape still, somehow. I’d go hike now and then, and do other outdoors activities. But sports were long behind me. At 25 I rediscovered the joy of paintball with some friends. I started playing a lot, met other local players, joined a team, played tournaments. We won some. Competing. Winning. Playing a form of paintball where you’re running around on turf/grass, sliding into inflatable bunkers, having to move fast and think faster. Hey, wait, this is a sport! I wasn’t getting hurt, so I just kept on playing. I got really into it. Focused a lot of my energy on it in my late 20s.
Then one day, one of my paintball buddies said “Hey, I’m doing Tough Mudder, wanna do it with me?” What the hell is “Tough Mudder”? This was 2011. Obstacle Course Races were still nascent. TM had just been introduced to the world. It was the brainchild of some kids at Harvard. The idea was simple: take Warrior Dash / Spartan Race and replace the competitive aspects with cooperative ones. Run an obstacle course with your friends, and everyone else, and work together to beat the challenges. I’d been absorbed entirely in the teamwork aspect of tournament paintball for years, so of course I was in!
The first Tough Mudder in New England was at Mt. Snow in Vermont in May, 2011. I watched videos about it. I read about it. Started getting active to prepare for it. I went to the park down the street and did the monkey bars. I ran up hills. I took baths in freezing water (ok, I did that ONCE). My buddy and I bought bug zappers to practice shocking each other (parts of the Tough Mudder course have electrified dangling wires). I started doing a little running too.
I knew I’d need some shoes for running. I went to my local sporting goods store, grabbed a cheap pair of shoes and went home to run. I had done zero investigation about running. I just popped on the shoes and went. I ran over to a local park, and then… OUCH! When I got there my shins were hurting my so badly that I collapsed on a bench and lay there for a half an hour, mulling over whether I needed to call a friend to come pick me up and bring me home. But I was determined to do it right. So, when I finally did manage to drag myself home I did some research.
I found a local running store and went in to have a gait analysis done and get a good pair of running shoes. I was probably there for an hour the first time. The fellow who helped me out talked to me a bit, checked my feet, then he picked out a pair of shoes (Asics Cumulus, I believe) and had me go for a jog in them in front of the store while he assessed my gait. He then had me try on about 6 or 7 other pairs of shoes. When it was all done, I picked the first ones. “Yep. I thought those would be best. But I just wanted to be sure.” And that’s how it’s been since then. I’ve always had the most enthusiastic and thorough help from the employees at NE Running Co. They’re runners. They love running. They want you to love it also, so of course they’re going to take the time and make sure you get what you need so that you love it as much as they do.
Gabe’s Running Rule 1: If you’re going to start running, the very first thing you should do is visit your local running store. Not a general sports store. A running store. Do it right the first time!
In my experience, this happens with every sport, hobby, activity. You start getting interested, then you realize how much everything you need to do it costs! Holy smokes! These shoes I want cost a hundred and twenty dollars!!? Yes, they do, and they’re 100% worth it. If you want to run for free, you can get into barefoot running and go find a place with a lot of grass and run in circles, or maybe up and down a beach, OR I guess you could run on pavement if you want to destroy your feet.
I’ve never done barefoot running. It intimidates the hell out of me. From what I understand it takes a fair amount of time to build up to it, and you risk a lot of injuries. But, it’s what we are naturally designed to do.
So, no, good running shoes are not cheap, but they are 100% worth the investment. They should last you about 500 miles before needing to be replaced, which is a lot when you’re starting out.
Yes. Running shoes wear out over time. Eventually they won’t support and protect your feet like they used to. You’ll want to keep track of your mileage so you know when to replace them. Note: they’ll still be useful as sneakers or kick-around shoes after that.
There wasn’t a lot of running, as it turns out. It was about 31°F on the day of the event. It had been a snowy winter, and with the event being on a ski mountain, there was still a lot of snow on the trails, even in May. The water obstacles were frigid. We could barely run. We were trudging up and down the mountain the whole time. It was a hell of a lot of fun, though, and I kept doing Tough Mudder with my friends for years after.
The best part of the day came after we reached the summit of the mountain. I was frozen and exhausted, but then I turned around and saw the view and the cold and tired immediately left me. It was so damn beautiful up there. I could see mountains and valleys all over Vermont. We made it to the top! The elation was one of the most powerful feelings I’ve had. That feeling made me want more! I resolved to keep running after that. Not just as preparation for TM, but just in general.
After TM (and cleaning out my running shoes - side note: get trail shoes or cleats if you’re gonna do OCR) I tried to get into a regular rhythm of running. I still didn’t realize I should have been doing some more research about it and not just jumping in. I got real running shoes, what else did I need to know? It turns out: a lot.
There are so many neat gadgets for running. (I love gadgets!) I bought a Garmin Forerunner GPS watch (and heart-rate strap) to track my progress. This was long before the simplicity of the Apple Watch, Fitbit, or modern Garmin watches that are, you know, the size of a watch instead of a large box. You had to strap on an HR band around your chest, and wait a few minutes for GPS signal to lock in. Then, when you finished your run, you had to physically plug the watch into your computer and run Garmin Connect so it would download the data. There was no cloud support. Your data was only on your computer and that was the only way to access it. But hey, it had maps, it had stats, it broke things down by lap. It was still great information to have. It helped me to know how much I was doing. The problem was that I was trying to do too much.
Rule #2: Don’t rush into it. There’s a general rule of not increasing your distance/speed more than 10% per week. I didn’t know that at first. Even when I did finally learn it, I applied it to each run instead of cumulatively (how it should be) so I was still trying to do too much, and I kept wondering why I was getting shin splints.
Oh my goodness, do they suck. Nothing like being all pumped up to do a run, getting a mile (or even a half mile) in and then your legs are just done. You have to limp home with your shins on fire. That sucked. It kept happening. I didn’t know why. I did realize I was overdoing it somehow, but it still took me years before I bothered to start reading and looking into it. So, for a long time I just ran short distances. I still remmeber when a 2 mile run felt like an eternity to me. Now it’s something I can do in the span of a few songs, but it’s taken years to get there.
It’s ok to make mistakes, so long as you learn from them. I wasted a lot of time not bothering to learn from mine. That’s why I’m writing this down. For you. Learn from my mistakes. Read, research, talk to professionals. Do it right.
Eventually you’re going to enter a race. I’d done Tough Mudder, but that’s not a race, per se. But, a friend of mine (who had run cross country in high school) knew I was getting into running, and after we ran together a few times, asked me if I wanted to do a 5K.
A 5K? That’s like real running. I was intimidated as hell, but I signed up. It was just a small local race to benefit the high school. There weren’t a ton of people. Thankfully my friend ran with me, as slow as I was, the whole race. I even had to stop for a breather after like 2.5 miles. I managed to finish it, though! It felt like a huge accomplishment.
And then I didn’t run another race for four years. I mean, I did more OCR events: Tough Mudder, Warrior Dash & Run For Your Lives.
Side note: Run For Your Lives was the hardest event I’ve ever done. It was a 5K obstacle course race where you’re being chased by other runners dressed up as zombies. It was intense and fun as hell. I don’t understand why they went out of business. RIP.
At some point over the years since my first Tough Mudder, I had realized “Hey, a half marathon is 13.1 miles… If I can run/jog/climb/crawl 10-12 miles up and down a mountain, I can probably run 13.1 miles on flat ground.” and a seed was planted.
I met my wife in 2012. She had been a runner for a long, long time and had done it all: 5Ks, 10Ks, half marathons, marathons. Plural! It was a great motivator for me to work on my running. But, I was still making bad mistakes and hurting myself. I was also more focused on paintball until 2013/2014. Having a kid changed that. Priorities change, and you change with them. We talked about running, races, etc. a fair amount. She knows a lot about running, and was teaching me. I started thinking about that half marathon more and more.
In 2015 she was back to running regularly, and so was I. We decided to enter a half marathon together. Working up to it, we ran a 5K together in the summer. Then I slowly worked up from there over the summer and fall, sticking to the 10% rule. I finally was able to do a 9 mile run two weeks before the half marathon. That year I ran my first half marathon in Newburyport, MA. I actually did ok, too. It was a great half, and I’d like to run it again some day.
Over the next few years I ran some 5Ks, 10Ks, 5 mile runs, etc. I signed up for several other half marathons, but I kept doing things incorrectly and hurting myself. “Cumulative.” That word kept eluding me. I’d run a few times during the week and increase my weekend long run 10% and be running too much in total.
In April of 2016, my mother passed away. It wasn’t unexpected, as her health had been going downhill for some time, but it hit me hard nonethless. I was depressed. I stopped caring about running. I spent the better part of that year getting overweight and out of practice. At some point I said enough is enough and got myself back in gear, to a degree and was inspired by an interesting race weekend.
At some point my right ankle started giving me trouble. I had gone to PT once years before for an injury (IT band) related to sliding on the turf in paintball (without stretching properly). I went to the doc, got a prescription, and spent a few weeks going to PT towards the end of 2016. I learned a lot about the functioning of my legs. E.g., that a lot of leg problems actually are caused by weak hips. I learned a whole routine for strengthening my hips, ankles, etc. and I still do it 1-2 times per week to this day. I’ve never had another ankle problem since.
If you get hurt. Go see your doctor. Go to PT or a podiatrist if necessary. Don’t act like you’ll just magically heal. Fix the problem!
I don’t remember where I learned about the Disney marathon weekend. It may have been an ad online somewhere. It doesn’t matter, really. I saw it and the more I read about it, the more intrigued I was by the Dopey Challenge. The Disney Marathon weekend includes four races, which you can sign up for individually: Thursday is a 5K, Friday a 10K, Saturday a half marathon, and Sunday a full marathon. Or, you can be crazy and sign up for the Dopey Challenge: all four races. I talked with my wife about it and we decided to take a family trip to Disney and I signed up for Dopey, while she signed up for the half.
We had an excellent trip. On Thursday I got up very very early and ran the 5K, and then Friday I ran the 10K. Both races wound through the Epcott Center. You’re there with thousands of others running through the empty Disney park, and behind the scenes too. It was fantastic (except for the part of the route that went by the waste processing plant - who the hell thought that was a good idea??) because you never get to experience the parks like that otherwise. Saturday was to be the half marathon, but the weather that weekend ended up pretty bad. The temperature dropped into the 30s. The half marathon on Saturday ended up being called off on a count of Thunder. I wouldn’t have been able to finish it by that point anyway. My legs were done. I didn’t even bother trying the full. We just tried to enjoy the parks for our last couple days there, even though it was so cold. But, I vowed that someday I’d go back and finish the challenge for real.
I only ran two other races in 2017, as I was still doing things the wrong way and still hurting myself. I had stopped keeping track of my eating. Then I spent two weeks in Germany for work in June/July, and I probably gained 10 pounds. I mean, it’s Germany. They have such delicious food, and the best beer in the world. How could you not gain some weight there?
At some point I looked at myself and got tired of being the fattest I’ve ever been. I started tracking my food intake and weight again. I wasn’t adjusting my eating, but just getting back in the habit of tracking it. Build good habits slowly. Eventually I started adjusting my eating again. I started doing some workouts again. I slowly got back on the right path.
My wife has a goal of running a half marathon in every state (in the US), which I think is admirable, but there’s some places I just don’t care to visit. I love traveling around New England, though, and her goal inspired a new goal in me: run a half marathon in every state in New England. In one year. So, 2017 came to an end with me winding up to start my string of races in 2018.
My wife and I had so many events we wanted to do that we had to make a shared spreadsheet to keep track. My half marathons. My wife’s triathlons. All the other little races we wanted to do. 2018 would turn out to be a very busy year for us.
We both signed up for the Hampton Beach Half Marathon in New Hampshire first. It was set in March. We both trained over the winter. Thankfully we had some periods in Jan & Feb where it warmed up enough to melt all the snow, and I’d get to do some long runs outside. I started doing a lot of stretch routines to get my body limber again. When the event finally rolled around, we showed up the morning of and it was the worst conditions I’ve ever had for a race. It was a couple of days after a nor’easter had rolled through. Hampton Beach is, you know, on the beach. The ocean was roiling still, and waves had (and were still) tossed water, sand, rocks, shells, and seaweed all over the coast road which made up most of the course. The weather was cold and drizzly. Suffice to say: we both hit our Personal Worst at that event. My wife did better than me, but she still vowed to redo that race and get a better time. I’m all for that, but I’m going to keep an eye on the weather and only sign up last minute if it’s looking like it’ll be a decent run this time.
Even having a bad race and getting a PW didn’t slow me down. By that point I was on a roll. I worked out a schedule to do P90X3 to get back in shape. I was watching what I ate. I was keeping myself limber. My wife got me a couple of books on running, and I learned a bunch of important things from them (like finally understanding the “cumulative distance” idea). I was mixing running and cross training with P90X3 to great effect. I signed up for my next race, the Shipyard Ale Old Port Half Marathin in Portland, ME in June. I trained like crazy for it. The right way. We took a trip to Maine for the weekend and had a great time. I made a major improvement in my time for the race, and really enjoyed it. I didn’t do as well as I’d done at my first half marathon, but I got my time down from 2:46:48 from Hampton to 2:13:45 for Portland. I will definitely go back and run that race again. It’s a fun route.
But the key for me was seeing the progress. There is no better motivator, in my experience so far, than when you beat yourself at something. I don’t run races to compete with other people. I run races to compete with Past Gabe. I kick his ass whenever I can.
I learned a few other lessons that year as well, in terms of injuries. Such as:
Over the course of 2018 I ran all over the place. Massachusetts, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, Connecticut, Rhode Island, Nevada, Utah, Arizona, and Germany. I finished half marathons in every state in New England, plus Nevada. Then I ran another virtual half on my own after that, and even a 15 mile run just for kicks. By the last half I ran in 2018 I had also hit a new milestone: I completed a half in under 2 hours for the first time! 2018 came to an end and I made new goals for 2019: become a Marathoner.
So here I am now. We’re a few weeks into 2019 and I’ve been testing my marathon training plan for a month now. I’m combining P90X3 with The Less-Is-More Marathon Plan, and an additional day at the gym for legs (since I don’t have all those nice machines at home). So far it’s working well, and it’s quite simple. I only run three times a week. I do speedwork on Tuesdays, a tempo run on Thursdays (which I combine with a weekly 5K run with my local brewery’s run club), and a long run on Saturday or Sunday. I’ve woven in the P90X3 workout schedule while strategically position certain workouts to avoid overworking my legs.
I dropped 27 pounds in 2018. I have muscle definition all over the place. I actually have abs now! The more I work my whole body, the better shape I get into, the better I run. My 5Ks are down to 23 minutes, so a 7:30 pace. I’ve been calculating what I need to qualify for Boston, and I will need to get my 5K pace down below 6:00 in order to do it. But, in 2018 I dropped from around 10:00/11:00 pace to 7:30, so if I can shave that much off then I can keep going.
I’ve signed up for my first marathon ever: the Martha’s Vineyard Marathon. It’s in May, in a beautiful place. We’ll take a weekend trip to the island, I’ll run, we’ll all relax. It’ll be great. It’s also a Boston qualifier, so if I somehow do well enough, maybe I can apply for Boston 2020. I don’t expect to qualify at my first marathon, but it’d be nice. If I don’t, then I’ll be looking to run another marathon in the fall and I’ll be working throughout the year to get my pace down where it needs to be. With everything I’ve accomplished so far, I have a good feeling that I’ll be able to do it.
We’ll see how I do with this marathon. If it goes well, the next stop is to try an ultra marathon. I’ll cross that bridge when I come to it. Running, of course.
Whew! This one took me quite a while to write up. Maybe I’m just talking into the void, but I figured I’d put what I’ve learned out there in case it can help someone else some day. I certainly hope so. I’ll be making some additional blog posts about my training plan, gear, etc. in the coming weeks.
Speaking of gear, I switched to a Garmin Vivoactive 3 last year, and it does a (admittedly-not-the-most-accurate) vo2 max test, which at first was good, and then I got into the athlete range, and now it says “superior.” So I guess now I’m a runner and an athlete. BTW, I love this watch. I’ve been through so many Garmin watches (each of which I liked) but the va3 is damn near perfect.