Tuesday, November 20, 2007

In the Beginning

In the beginning, I was not a runner. Well, in the very beginning, when I was in middle school and junior high and high school, I ran some. I ran the mile in P.E., when I had to (with a best time of nine or ten minutes, to my great shame), and sporadically in high school and college I went through phases where I jogged regularly for exercise, maybe two or three miles at a time. In fact, when I was a senior in high school I ran/jogged about three miles a day for several months, actually improving my pace to around eight minutes, and triumphantly finished a two-mile fitness run in P.E. under 16 minutes (that means less than an eight minute mile—hurrah!).

I refer to my running back then as jogging, not because of the pace or anything about the way I did it, but because that’s what we called it in the 70’s and 80’s. Now it’s running, and although most of us aren’t running any faster than back then, we don’t jog any more. In fact, my nine to ten minute pace that was such a disgrace in junior high (the more athletically gifted kids could run a mile in six or seven minutes), is now a respectable mid-range pace for hundreds of other runners in the 5K, 10K and longer races I run these days. (As for me, I can’t break a ten minute pace in my solo training runs but usually finish faster than nine minutes in races. Go figure.)

But still, although I ran as a young person, I was not a runner. I never really enjoyed it, even when I got down to the eight minute mile. I endured it, I did it because I had to (in P.E.) or because I wanted to lose weight and get in shape, but I never did it for the love of running. When I stopped running in college (after wisdom teeth surgery), I pretty much figured I’d never run again.

My opinion always was—and still is, in many ways—that nobody has to run. There are plenty of other legitimate ways to exercise and get into and stay in shape. Walking is wonderful exercise (and according to most authorities burns as many calories per mile as running, it just takes longer), and my fitness sprees over the next 20 years pretty much involved very long walks (plus bicycling while I was still in college, and a stint of step aerobics in law school).

But unfortunately I did not engage in those fitness sprees often enough, or for sustained enough periods of time, and over those 20 years I gained a lot of weight. Actually I think most of the weight gain happened in the five years or so after I graduated from law school. That’s when I went from a relatively normal person who could lose some weight (and always wanted to lose weight) to a genuinely heavy person. Obese, by all standards, although I never really wanted to admit it to myself. Then for about eight years I fluctuated in my fatness, periodically losing some weight but eventually always gaining it back—and probably more as well.

But since this is about running, not weight loss, I’ll just say that when I was 39 I began losing weight again—successfully this time—and by the time I was 40 I was no longer an obese person, though still in the “overweight” range (that’s very hard to get out of). A big part of my weight loss was exercise, and I did that primarily with walking (plus yoga and lifting weights). I walked a lot on a treadmill, and that solved the problem that always kyboshed my past walking programs—bad weather and early darkness.

I didn’t just walk on the treadmill, I walked on an incline, and I walked fast. I made up interval programs where I increased my pace from 4 miles per hour to 4.5 in increments, up and down, and then up to 5 and back. I believe this helped a lot with losing weight. (I also walked outside when the weather allowed, but I didn’t walk as fast as on the treadmill.) But no matter what I did, walking was not getting my heart rate up past 120 beats per minute. It just wasn’t cardio enough for me.

So I started incorporating a little running into my intervals. Just a minute or two at a time, interspersed with walking. Even though I was quite fit in many ways, the running seemed hard at first because my body wasn’t used to that kind of movement. But as I got used to it, I increased the duration and speed of my running intervals, until I was up to a routine where I would walk the first mile, then turn to running, finishing six miles in sixty minutes on my fastest days, or six and a half miles in 65 minutes if it was taking a little longer. (Because of the mile walking, I really had to pump up the pace to finish with an average speed of six miles per hour!)

But still, someone who runs on a treadmill is not really a runner, and I was not yet a runner. I was a person who ran on the treadmill for exercise. Truth be told, I was afraid to run outside. A little bit afraid that I would look silly (I didn’t want to be one of those persons who look like they’re in agony while they’re running) and also a little bit afraid that I just couldn’t do it. The treadmill is very different from the road. Even with walking, I could never go as fast outside as I could make myself go on the treadmill. (I did start to experiment just a little bit with running outside during my walks, by walking on the sidewalk portions and running on the cross streets—just to see how it felt!)

The changeover came when I went to England with friends in April 2006. There would be no treadmills in England (I am sure there are treadmills in England, but not where we were going), and although I would be lots and lots of walking, my running intervals would be put on hold.

The first morning in Bath I got up early to go for a walk before breakfast. Bath is built on hills, and my bed and breakfast was about a mile (plus) outside the city center up a long hill. I walked down the road and then turned to walk up the long hill in the opposite direction from the city centre. I walked briskly about a mile to the top of Wellsway (it may not have been the actual top, but it is where the road turns into a highway—dual carriageway—and it seemed a good spot to turn around). As I started down the hill, I spontaneously broke into a jog (yes, a jog). The assistance of gravity pulling me downward made running quite easy. I passed the turn to my B&B and continued all the way down the hill (which was quite steep at this point) to the railway station where I stopped to turn around. I walked back up to the B&B to get ready for breakfast and our day, having just gone on my first run in almost 20 years.

I repeated this run the next day, this time with one of my friends who had flown in the day before, and this time ran further into the city to the centre. (My friend didn’t really like running, she just did it to keep me company, and support me in my efforts!) We were early enough for me to take her on a walking tour of Bath, all the way up to the Royal Crescent and back.

We left Bath that day for the Cotswolds, and I did run one day to Chipping Campden, but found that walking the footpaths was a more rewarding type of exercise in the Cotswolds. But after our week in the country, we headed to London, and I put on my running shoes again. (Actually, I had been putting them on all along, but using them to walk instead of run.)

Very early in the morning on our first day in London I headed down to the hotel lobby while everyone else was still asleep. The only person around was the night desk clerk, and as a courtesy I asked him where I might run around the hotel. (I actually figured I knew the area well enough to find myself a route, but he wanted to be helpful.) He suggested that I go to Regent’s Park, which it turns out was a mile or so away down (or up) Euston Road. For twenty years I had been staying in this same London hotel near Russell Square and I never knew that Regent’s Park was so nearby and easily accessible!

So I headed out on what would be my running route for our days in London—walking over to Euston Road, then down (up) Euston Road to the nearest entrance to Regent’s Park (there are many on all sides of the park), then running around the inside perimeter of the park, with forays in and around various gardens. When I left the park, I was so revved up that I ran all the way back to the hotel, and sometimes, up and down the stairs a few times (several flights from the bottom to the top of the hotel). Now I know that any time I spend in London will involve running in Regent’s Park.

Regent’s Park is where I became a runner.

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