Thursday, January 12, 2012

#384: From the Rubber to the Road - Leaving the Treadmill

A friend writes:
Hey, Pennsy. If you get a minute, could you reflect on your transition from the tredmill to hitting the open road? How far were you enduring inside before you went out? Is one easier for you than the other?
It's taken me a while to remember those first steps without the "training wheels." As always, I'm telling the story I recall, not necessarily the one that actually happened. Your mileage may vary.

In my younger days, I always tried running outside, on the streets or on an available track like the big cinder oval at my high school. I can't say for certain why the habit never "took" for me back then, but it never did. For one thing, I never had the right clothes. I would wear basketball shoes and my feet would blister. Or I would wear sweat pants and my thighs would chafe. Like any rational person, I didn't like doing something that hurt me. I was probably feeling self-conscious, too. A Fat Man Jogging is always a potential target for the judgement and taunts of strangers. I was still young enough for those things to bother me, I guess. Sooner or later, my excuses always out weighed my good intentions.

Back in December of 2007, I developed a painful, hot spot on the inside of my leg, just above the knee. Mrs P was concerned, so I called the nurse hotline and the lady told me to get to the emergency room NOW! Turned out I had cellulitis, but given my 400+ lbs and sedentary lifestyle, it could have been a blood clot. The experience spooked me, and we decided to jump on a New Years special at a local gym. It was a great decision. They got me lifting weights again, and taught me how to use the cardio machines: bike, elliptical, stairmaster, and treadmill. 

I walked for a long time on the mill, always trying to go a few minutes longer, a little bit faster. Now and then, I would try to trot, but neither my wind or my knees were ready for the challenge. One night, while Mrs P was in her spinning class, I started jogging and was able to keep it up for a minute. I never changed the speed on the belt. It was probably about 4 mph. I walked till I felt ok, then started jogging again, knocking off portions of 15 minute miles. I was gasping for air and sweating rivers, but for some reason, my feet kept going. I closed my eyes, and felt myself running for the first time in years. When I opened them, Mrs P was standing there in front of the treadmill, weeping and proud. 

After that, I jogged the same way I had walked: patiently adding time and speed. Not much speed. I could run at 4.5 mph max, but I was running, and I was happy.

Sometime in early Spring, I noticed a poster on the gym bulletin board advertising a 5K race to support a local shelter for women in recovery. I liked the idea of running for a cause that mattered to me, and Mrs P and I talked about whether or not I was ready to take on the challenge. I had never run that far, and I had not run outside yet. She encouraged me, and I sent in my registration. 

I took my first steps outdoors early in the morning, running the sidewalks around our neighborhood. Jogging before sunrise gave me a little anonymity, and the only other runners I encountered were always friendly and encouraging. I ran too fast and too far. I still hadn't discovered the magic of walk breaks. My knees and ankles ached. I went back to the treadmill till I felt better, then tried again. Went a little farther, this time. I know now what a dangerous approach this was: running till you get hurt, then waiting till you get better. Knowing that the race was out there, (and that I had paid to run in it,) kept me motivated to keep going. Eventually, I could run 3 miles on the mill, and three days before the race, I decided I should go out to Coldstream Park and run the course. It was cold and rainy. The hills were much harder than I expected. An old man passed me twice while I   navigated the 1.5 mile circle. I felt pretty good.

The day of the race, I started too fast. Around the 2.5 mile mark, I felt a sharp pain in both Achilles tendons. I had strained both of them and would be limping for weeks. I thought they were just cramping, so I stopped to stretch (bad plan) then continued jogging along. I saw the 3 mile marker (the one in my profile picture) and knew the finish line was just around the bend. Running as fast as my fat, crippled legs would carry me, I reached the chute, high-fived the supporters lining the path, and handed in my bib stub to record my finish order. Mrs P was weeping again, of course. 

It was the greatest feeling.

The pain went away, eventually, but the pride in my accomplishment never did. I will never be a speedy runner, but I will always love running, I think. I'm hooked. I like the treadmill because it offers simplicity. I can set the speed and incline, put in my headphones, close my eyes, and go. I have also come to love the road. A lot of that has to do with living in the Bluegrass. I can leave my driveway and be running beside horse pastures in about 15 minutes. You have to be more alert on the road. I never wear my iPod there, but the music of the morning more than makes up for it. 

So back to the question... I guess I just stayed on the treadmill until my body told me it was time to leave. Having an event to prepare for helped. Seeing myself get stronger helped. At some point, I found the courage to try something new, just like joining the gym had been new. I could have been smarter about the way I made the transition, and after my cancer, I used Run/Walk/Run to train more safely, but I liked the feeling of running outside.  I like them both. The treadmill is easier, but road running can be heavenly. 

Trust your spirit. You'll know when it's time. One step at a time.


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