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You’ve Started Running—Now What?
When you first began running, you probably found lots of how-to-start advice. Yet despite this plethora of information, research shows that more than half of new exercisers (in all activities) quit by the six-month mark. Why is this so? People start exercise programs with the best intentions—why do so many fall by the wayside?
I believe it’s because so many beginner exercise programs leave people high and dry. Naturally, getting started is the most important step. I know from my own experiences, and from listening to and reading people’s stories, that new runners are asking their bodies to undergo vast changes. I know how discouraging those first workouts can be, when it seems as though the body will never cooperate, never feel fluid, never resemble the lean shapes that seem to be everywhere. I know it’s important to give beginners precise instructions to help protect them from injury and overexertion, both of which can easily sabotage their efforts. Given the challenges and obstacles, perhaps it’s not so surprising that half of exercisers drop out by the six-month mark.
HOW THEY BECAME RUNNERS
Most people start running as a means to an end. They may want to stay in shape, have a healthier lifestyle in general, or lose weight. They may want to meet people, impress people, or spend more time in the company of a particular person or group of people. They may run as part of their conditioning program for another sport, such as skiing or soccer. It’s rare that someone will tell me, “I started running because I wanted to be a runner.” Even those people who take up running with the intention of doing it regularly and consistently may not consider themselves “runners” for months, even years.
When someone sticks with running, however, something happens. Running becomes an end in itself. It’s not that the original motivations for running no longer matter. New runners lose weight and keep it off (often without dieting), lower their cholesterol levels, gain fitness, and make new friends, and they are pleased with these changes. But on top of all that, the activity of running itself becomes a reason for heading out the door. It may take a few days, or it may take months or even years. But at some point it dawns on the runner that she would do this even if it didn’t help keep her slim, healthy, and connected to a close-knit group of friends. She is drawn to the simple activity of putting one foot in front of the other, breathing harder than normal, and feeling the wind in her hair and her feet rhythmically hitting the ground. She has become a runner.
Runners love to talk about their early running experiences. They share these stories before runs, on the run, after races, and at social gatherings. Running is almost always a wonderful, health-promoting, life-affirming pursuit. But for those who have made running a regular part of their lives, running is something more. It is a part of their essence. It is not just something they do; it is who they are. The stories that follow (starting with my own) illustrate how runners at all levels became real runners.
I spent my childhood developing a love of running, though I had no idea that’s what I was doing at the time. I played very actively, roaming our wooded suburban neighborhood on foot from age six or seven on. Once when I was 10 or 11, my dad and I went together to plant bulbs in the courtyard of my elementary school as part of an ongoing school-beautification project. We arrived and realized we’d forgotten the trowel. My dad was all set to drive home for it, but I offered to run home for the tool. I set off across the playground and through our neighbors backyards, covering the half mile or so to our house without stopping to walk. I dashed into the garage, grabbed the trowel, and ran back. I remember being in awe of myself. I was breathing hard and sweating, but it felt wonderful to move swiftly and silently through the woods, pausing only to climb over fences. I arrived back in the schoolyard panting and triumphant. In the spring of my sophomore year in high school I started playing lacrosse. I’d joined the team because that was what the most popular girls did, and more than anything at that age I wanted to be popular. Unfortunately I had no eye-hand coordination, so although I could run up and down the field all day doing drills, when it came to tossing and catching and cradling and scoring, I was hopeless.
In the middle of the season, we had a fund-raising event for the team. We all got sponsors to donate money for each 100-yard lap we ran up and down the field while cradling the ball in our sticks without dropping it. I signed up my sponsors and showed up with my ball and stick. Predictably, I dropped the ball on about the eighth lap, well before most of the other girls. Glumly I watched the others run up and down the field, lap after lap in the warm spring sunshine, while I fretted over how little money I’d raised. Amazingly, one girl ran 17 miles without stopping or dropping the ball, raising more than $200 (a lot of money in those days!) for the team.
That summer I decided to run to get in shape for field hockey in the fall, a sport in which I was similarly limited by my lack of coordination. I ran for 30 minutes at a time around our neighborhood, wearing tennis shoes. I imagined I was doing at least four miles, but when I clocked my run on the car’s odometer, it was less than three miles. Discouraged, I ran new routes and purposely didn’t measure them to avoid disappointing myself, and eventually worked up to running close to an hour at a time.
I failed to make varsity that year, and performed poorly in lacrosse again the following spring. I simply didn’t have the skills, no matter how much I practiced. That fall the coach finally put me on the varsity field hockey squad, but I spent most of my time warming the bench. I went to her office once after practice and announced I wanted to quit and go out for cross-country. She gave me a well-meaning lecture about the virtues of perseverance and determination, and I ended up sticking it out. As soon as the season finished, I asked my friend Amy, who’d captained the girls’ cross-country team, if I could start running with her. Amy had done winter track the previous year and hated it (she preferred running outdoors, and three seasons of competition was too much), but was delighted to have someone to help her stay in shape for the spring track season.
We lived about a quarter mile from each other, so our plan was simple: meet at the corner midway between our homes every weekday morning at 6:30 and run for 30 to 45 minutes. That first late-November morning it was pitch black in my bedroom when my alarm clock jangled me awake at 6:10. I burrowed deeper under the covers, planning to go back to sleep for another hour. But then I thought about Amy out there waiting for me in the cold and dark. I knew she’d be there, and would do the run whether I showed up or not. I thought about her voice on the phone the previous evening: “Okay, see you in the morning!” I hated letting anyone down, and I hated the thought of what Amy might think: that I wasn’t reliable or, worse, that I was a wimp.
So I got up, stumbled around looking for socks, shoes, sweats, hat, and gloves, and tiptoed downstairs and out the door. Amy was waiting for me at the corner, her breath clouding the air as she gripped the pole of the stop sign and stretched. “Hi. Where do you want to go?” she asked. We ran slowly toward the elementary school, then cut across the playing fields, coated with thick white frost. My eyes teared, my fingers and the tip of my nose tingled. At first I worried—about being too cold, about keeping up with Amy, about how tired I’d feel later in the day, about how I’d manage to get up again tomorrow. But a funny thing happened as we ran and talked and watched the sun rise: Gradually my worries started to feel trivial and insignificant. It was as though I could look at them sitting there in a place in my mind called “worries,” but they had nothing to do with what I was really experiencing in that moment: the rhythm of my breathing, the sound of our feet hitting the sidewalk, the sights of passing trees and houses and an occasional dog-walker or car. By the time we’d circled back to our corner, I couldn’t even remember what I’d been worrying about.
Amy and I kept running every morning. A few times those first few weeks I did let her down—either sleeping through my alarm or hearing it and going back to sleep. She let me slide at first. Then one morning I awoke to a “ping, ping” sound. Tiny pieces of gravel were hitting my window. I jumped up, parted the curtains, and peered out. There was Amy, standing in the driveway tossing stones up at me. I dressed in a flash, flew downstairs and outside. “Thanks!” I gasped, much to my surprise. Thanks? Thanks for rousing me from a sound sleep before dawn on a freezing cold winter morning so I could stumble around the neighborhood while everyone else was sleeping?
Yes, thanks. I was grateful that Amy had come to wake me up. I wanted to run. I liked being out there in the silent dark with that alive, tingling feeling. It didn’t make me tired, or cold, or sore. It felt great—I felt great. I’d do it whether Amy met me or not. I’d do it even if I decided not to go out for spring lacrosse. I loved it for its own sake.
We ran all that winter, every school morning. Sometimes we did longer runs on Saturday or Sunday afternoons, around the lake, across town to the Revolutionary War battlefield, or out into the country. That spring I skipped lacrosse and went out for track. Amy and I graduated in June and headed off in different directions. Running was to play vastly different roles in our lives, but I’ll never forget those runs. They transformed me from someone who ran into a runner. My life would never be the same.
My Midlife Breakaway
In 1965, at 147 pounds, I deduced that a future spent bashing heads with 222-pounders in high school football practice would not be bright. While I still had my wits about me, I switched to the cross-country team, and won a 5k junior varsity race less than three weeks later. Eventually, I would set a school record in the two-mile.
Life in the counterculture, travels around the world in bohemian style, and a series of 80-hour-a-week jobs took me light-years away from the sport. Then, in 1976, on a flight from Los Angeles to Cleveland, I read Kenny Moore’s Sports Illustrated article about John Walker and Filbert Bayi, who had both set world records in the mile and were expected to be Olympic rivals in Montreal (Bayi’s home country, Tanzania, ended up boycotting, so the showdown never took place). The article connected with every pleasant residual memory I had about running. I was ready to do interval training right there in the aisle of the plane. In accordance with FAA rules, I waited until I got home to New York, and into Central Park.
I’ve been running on and off for 25 years now. The highlights are many: the blissful four-mile road race I ran in the Berkshire foothills by the 8:30 p.m. light of a full moon; the Thanksgiving five-miler I managed to win even though I was about the seventh best runner in the event; the day I greedily entered—and won—two races in two states.
Running uniquely combines the lyrical and contemplative with the analytical and quantitative. What other endeavor can give such a sense of empowerment—while no one else is getting hurt? No judge or coach determines your value; race results speak eloquently for themselves. At 50, I no longer compete, but running enables me to stage a bit of a breakaway every day, and hopefully assists me in being . . . well . . . less fiftyish.
—Peter Gambaccini, 50, New York City
As a child and teenager, physical fitness was never a priority for me. I was quite overweight and I started smoking at age 12; in addition, I lived in a household where fitness wasn’t important and in a neighborhood where, at that time, an evening jog wasn’t safe, especially for a female. However, at age 25 I got a wake-up call in the form of precancerous lesions in my mouth due to 13 years of smoking. I knew that I had to take control, and I knew I could do it because 10 years earlier I’d lost (and kept off) 60 pounds through sensible dieting and light calisthenics. As part of my strategy to stop smoking, I started exercising a little more seriously. I began using an exercise bike, then graduated to a real bicycle. I jogged a little and did weight training for variety, but cycling was my activity of choice.
Less than a year after I smoked my last cigarette I took part in a 35-mile bike ride to raise funds for multiple sclerosis research. When I finished with lots of energy to spare, I was so proud of how far I’d come! By then I’d realized that I needed to make exercise a permanent part of my life, given the work it took to lose weight and stop smoking, as well as a long family history of obesity and heart disease. And I was determined to have fun in the process.
A couple years later, my employer was recruiting for the Corpor- ate Challenge, a 3.5-mile running race, and I signed on. I started training and entered a four-mile fun run as a dress rehearsal. I was amazed— a free T-shirt, a number to pin on, and best of all, folks who didn’t even know me cheering on the sidelines! I finished in a time that is slower than my current training pace, but I didn’t care very much about pace that day. Later that week I ran the Corporate Challenge on a hot, humid night. Not only did I run a faster pace than I had in the four-mile race, but I came in first of the women in my company. It was a heady feeling.
Running gradually replaced cycling as my favorite fitness activity. One of the things that helped was the New York Road Runners Club, which sponsored group runs that enabled me to run safely. The NYRRC’s races also gave me opportunities to improve. In the next few months my race times improved dramatically. I ran the New York City Marathon the following year. Training for and finishing that first marathon was so wonderful and empowering that I’ve been hooked ever since. One thing that keeps me going is remembering it’s a privilege. Many people, due to inability and/or circumstances, can’t run or perform any type of exercise, and thus miss out not only on the sheer pleasure that comes with being physically active, but on the opportunity to save and extend their own lives.
—Adria Gallup-Black, 41, New York City
A Natural Progression
I started running when I was 13 years old. I can’t remember exactly why, it’s been so long. I started out by running around my block, which was about a quarter mile. I enjoyed it so much, I began running longer distances. My mother persuaded me to join the cross-country team in high school, which turned out to be a great idea. That turned me into a runner for life—I loved the regular workouts, the team spirit, and the challenging races. Running became part of my everyday routine.
When I went to college I didn’t join a team, but I kept running on my own. Gradually I built up to running longer distances, always surprising myself at how far I could go—10 miles or more—without feeling bored or exhausted. I got to see parts of the surrounding towns and the city I probably wouldn’t otherwise have seen, all the while turning into a better runner. After I graduated I continued to run. I kept on running when I moved several times to take jobs in different cities. It was a constant, no matter where I was living. I added more mileage each week, ran ever-longer distances, entered races, and watched my finishing times get faster. Running had become a vital and constant part of my life, without my even stopping to think about it. I can’t remember Saturday mornings without long runs, or how I used to fill my free time during the week that I now spend out on the roads. But I know this: I’m awfully glad I discovered the sport.
—Matt Glynn, 30, Buffalo, NY
My Longest-Running Relationship
Running is my best friend. It’s been with me longer than any adult relationship I’ve had, including my marriage of 26 years. Starting out in 1967, when I was 16, in a time and era when running was not popular—especially for women—nightly runs around the block consoled me from bouts with bad boyfriends, catty girlfriends, and the fear of going off to college. Running and I had a sort of secret liaison, because I didn’t dare tell anyone except my dog who came with me. It was tough enough getting through the teenage years without being labeled a weirdo for running.
During college in the early seventies the running boom was still a few years away, but I kept up my nightly runs on and off—mostly off because guys were always hooting at me about my endeavors. To some degree that never changed. But, faithful as ever, my pal running was always there for me, welcoming me after long hours in the library, keeping me away from the dreaded “freshman 15,” and on long runs whispering in my ear that my boyfriend was remaining true to me.
—Gail Waesche Kislevitz, 50, Ridgewood, NJ
Reminiscences of a Would-Be Field-Goal Kicker
I started running in 1971, during the summer between my junior and senior years in high school. I ran to get in shape for football—I was go- ing to be a field-goal kicker, and figured running was the best way to get strong legs. (I know now that I would have been better off bik- ing and lifting weights, but I was young and ignorant back then.) I ran for about two weeks on trails wearing soccer cleats, then switched to sneakers—not running shoes, but gym sneakers, because back then only “serious” runners owned running shoes, usually Adidas leather-and-suede affairs. If you were really serious you had a pair of nylon Onitsuka Tigers.
I soon realized that I lacked the requisite strength and accuracy to be a kicker, so I figured I’d go out for cross-country, which in those days was more of a “counterculture” sport than football. I worked out with the team in August, ran the first time trial, and did not finish in the top seven (which was required to make the varsity squad). The coach told me, “You can be a bigger help to the team writing about us than running for us,” so I began writing articles for the school newspaper. I then went to the sports editor of the local weekly and offered to do the same for them. This was my first “real” byline, so in a sense running is what started me writing. I don’t know if I would have wound up where I am today otherwise. During my first two years of college at the University of Pennsylvania I partied and played rugby (had to get that football thing out of my system, I guess). I got back into running during my junior year, when I started training with the Penn track team. I had a goal of running the Penn Relays Marathon (a standard 26.2-mile marathon held around the time of the Penn Relays) in the spring of my senior year, so I trained for close to a year, then ran the marathon in April. I believe that was my first road race. I dropped out of the marathon, but I came back the following year and finished it in 2:56. I really had little clue how to train for a marathon—I just hung around some guys in the area who were road racers and did what they did. Basically I’ve been going at it ever since. I had a “streak” period in the early eighties when I didn’t miss a day of running for four years. I can’t remember what broke my streak, but I’m still a committed runner, out there nearly every day.
—Jim Gerweck, 47, Norwalk, CT
A Fast Girl Who’s Stuck With It
My earliest memory of running is taking the President’s Physical Fitness Tests in the late 1960s. I was always the fastest girl at the various distances. About that same time, the era of girls’ and women’s sports arrived, and my President’s times caught the attention of the P.E. teachers, who sought me out for the school’s first-ever girls track team. I did as many running events as was allowed, plus long jump and discus (we were a small team). It turned out I was pretty good and as a high school sophomore I ran 2:15 for the 800, tying the state record. I was unbeaten for two years.
Despite that promising beginning, I stopped running completely when I got to college. I guess I was overwhelmed with schoolwork, part-time jobs, and various other college activities. I didn’t run again until a year after graduation when a boyfriend suggested training for a 10k road race. I was immediately hooked (on running, not the guy), and 22 years later I have not stopped. My motivations for running have changed a lot over the years. In high school, it was my identity: I was the girl who ran really fast. I’ve used running to win trophies. I’ve used it to test my endurance—mental and physical—by training for and running marathons. I’ve used it to feel less bloblike during two pregnancies, and to get my body back in the aftermath of pregnancy. It has also served as a sanctuary during periods of personal and professional stress. As I enter middle-age, running allows me to outdistance the thirtysomethings who only know my race number, not the birth date on my driver’s license.
—Sharon Linstedt, 45, Buffalo, NY
In Grandfather’s Footsteps
I started running in the seventh grade, during the winter of 1973. My grandfather had been the track coach at Grinnell College in Iowa from the mid-1920s until about 1945, and served as the head starter at several big Midwestern track meets until about 1970. He inspired my interest in running, and I also remember following track and field keenly during the 1972 Munich Olympics. About the same time Grinnell built an indoor P.E. facility with a 200-yard track, and as a faculty kid I was allowed access to the building. I embarked upon a “fitness routine” which I followed several times a week. It consisted of running a mile or two around the indoor track and then sneak- ing into the weight room—where only college athletes were supposed to venture—and pump- ing rather minimal amounts of iron. I also occasionally watched the college track teams practice and learned of an indoor all-comers meet some of the distance runners were organizing. I entered the mile race and finished in 7:17, and recall being completely demoralized by such a slow time.
During high school I became a pretty good tennis player and gave that sport most of my athletic attention. But I secretly yearned to try cross-country, having enjoyed my occasional runs on the local golf course and college practice fields. I doubted, though, that I would be a strong runner. In my senior year I joined the cross-country team, and sure enough I was strictly junior varsity material, never breaking 11 minutes for two miles. But at the end of the season our coach took us to a six-mile road race. I finished second among my teammates and decided I liked longer distances.
I attended Grinnell, where I ran cross-country all four years and track as a junior and senior. At first I had no intention of joining either team, despite my grandfather’s background there, but the cross-country coach talked me into it, and I will forever owe him a debt of gratitude. Participating on those teams was a great experience. We worked pretty hard but kept things in perspective. I made considerable improvement during those four years and was number-three on the cross-country team by my last season.
During the winter of my freshman year I trained for my first marathon (Drake Relays). To my surprise I discovered that running 50–75 miles a week through an Iowa winter is not only possible but also fun. There wasn’t much to read about marathon training back then (1979), but I prepared pretty well and my training log from that year is one of my most prized possessions. On race day I ran a very steady pace and finished in 3:07. By that time I was hooked, and so I’ve remained ever since.
—John Kissane, 41, Athens, GA
The “Now What?” Factor
Certainly, some new exercisers give up within days of starting, due to soreness, fatigue, and lack of time. I’ve found, however, that there’s another point beyond this initial stage, when the will to keep moving can wane. This second stage occurs sometime during the three to six months following. For runners, it often corresponds with the completion of a 12-week or 16-week beginner running program, a typical schedule offered by running clubs. These programs are often timed to culminate by participating in a local race, such as a 5k (3.1 miles), a reasonable goal for most people.
The problem is this: The runner finishes the 12-week class, does the race, or is able to finally run a mile without stopping to walk. The accomplishment feels amazing and transcendent while it’s happening.
Yet afterward, the runner wonders, Now what?
I wrote this book with that runner in mind. I don’t want any runner, anywhere, to give up on running at any point because they aren’t sure what to do next. Running is one of the simplest and most natural physical activities in the world. Almost anyone can do it, with minimal equipment. However, what is not so simple and often is far from obvious is how to run to maximize your enjoyment of running and the benefits you derive from it. It took me many years to fully integrate running into my life. I found there was a big difference between running and being a runner. This book exists to bridge the gap between those two states of being.
QUESTION AND ANSWER
Q.What is fartlek running?
A.If you hang around runners long enough, you’ll eventually hear the word “fartlek.” This, unfortunately, is a Swedish word meaning “speed play.” It refers to a type of speed training in which runners alternate faster and slower running within their run in a less-structured pattern than they would at a track or other workout setting. They might run hard segments of various times (30 seconds, 1 minute, 2 minutes, etc.), or use landmarks such as streetlights or telephone poles, or simply alter their pace when the coach or group leader tells them to. The result is a workout that’s tough in a fun, invigorating, and spontaneous way. (See this chapter and Chapter 3 for more on setting up training programs.)
From the Trade Paperback edition.