My Story of going from the couch, to back surgery, to running half marathons
I was never a great athlete, but I’ve always loved sports. By the time I was a college student, I had limited my heart pumping activities to the occasional game of pick-up basketball. A more frequent activity was a marathon sports-watching binge at the frat house. My proclivity towards cheap, light and domestic beer combined with televised sports contributed to a typical and unhealthy American lifestyle. Over the course of several years, I found myself out of shape, and the not-so-proud owner of a herniated disc in my back.
I tried physical therapy, cortisone shots, and acupuncture but was never able to shake the persistent pain caused by my unhealthy lifestyle.
I had a constant tingling sensation in my back and right leg. Even if I had wanted to, my injury prevented me from exercising, rehabilitating adequately, and on some level from truly enjoying my life. After living with discomfort for roughly five years, I finally convinced my doctor that performing surgery on a seemingly healthy 20-something the was right course of action.
Looking back, I realize that I was an idiot in college (I think most people are in their mid-20’s). It was novel to take the easy path because I had my first taste of independence. I would drive when I could walk. I would take the elevator instead of the stairs. I compromised my body and I paid the price for it.
Fortunately, my surgery was a success. Afterwards I was able to rehabilitate the muscles in my lower back and core to the point where the disc wasn't compromised and was able to heal over time. Most people who have back surgery will tell you, once you go under the knife, you’re never totally the same. I was lucky because I was able to alleviate my persistent pain without significant residual complications.
After my surgery, I realized that I needed to grow up, so I decided to do something that seemed radical at the time: I decided to start running.
Going About it All Wrong, But That’s All Right
Here’s the thing: in rehab I was told that the impact from running would compromise my back. But I was fed up with people telling me what I could and could not do. I am an independent man (some might say "stubborn"). When I was told I shouldn't run, I convinced myself that I actually wanted to run.
I had never run more than a mile and a half in my life.
And I went about it all wrong. When I decided to try running, I started out sprinting like a bat out of hell, and then I’d collapse after 1/3 of a mile at the most. I’d stop, wheeze, walk, and then try sprinting again until my calves burned and my lungs constricted, until my entire body pulsed with pain. I was frustrated. This running thing? It was stupid! I couldn’t do it. I went back to my PT and confessed my frustration. She told me that it was too early to quit and suggested that I try to run for even just a minute longer the next time. I figured it couldn’t hurt -- not anymore than it had that first time, right?
I tried it again: sprint, walk, sprint, walk—pacing wasn’t a concept I’d mastered, to say the least. At some point Katie, my girlfriend at the time, now my wife, offered to run with me. She would set off at a steady pace, and I would sprint and pass her, then stop and walk, and she would pass me, then I would chase her again. With Katie serving as my motivation (and pacing rabbit), I worked my way up to running three quarters of a mile. And then a mile. And then two miles...
Finding a Finish line
I progressed slowly but surely, running once or twice a week, until I resolved to try to run a greater distance.
My friends Andy and Courtney inspired me to enter the Crissy Field 5K (3.1 miles). Using my sprint-walk-sprint-walk technique, I was exhausted half way through the race. I remember fixating on a 75-year-old woman running by at about a 12 minute pace. I was so frustrated because I was this strong healthy young runner who could sprint by her, but she would keep up her slow and steady pace and pass me when I’d start walking again.
Despite my frustration at being outpaced by someone nearly 50 years my senior, that first 5K was an important step towards beating my chronic back injury. My sense of achievement and accomplishment was something that I'd never learned playing (or watching) team sports. I also began to understand that when it came to running, strength wasn’t necessarily about physical strength: it was equally about developing mental endurance.
My first 5K took me a month or two to prepare for, starting from zero after back surgery. I started small and ran once or twice a week. I eventually worked my way up to running three miles regularly, though I was still walking and running. I developed a sense of accomplishment that drew me even further into running; it got under my skin and into my blood.
Going the Distance
When I run distances, I start as slowly as possible. I let my body ease into the run, and let the endorphin rush build slowly.
Yes, there’s some discomfort, but that pain diminishes over time. At the same time you learn to figure out what’s an injury and what’s simply muscle adjusting to movement. For me, after about three miles, my body starts to give up and says, “Okay, just do what you’re going to do.” I still run and walk for the first few miles when I’m going to run for a long distance. I try to start somewhere flat and after my body adjusts to moving I progress to more diverse terrain. After I hit that three-mile mark, I let my body naturally pick its pace.
I usually run for distance, so my goal is mileage—I don’t really care about speed. I'm fortunate enough to live near the coast, so my regular route is past the Golden Gate Bridge, where I run as close to the water as possible to admire the view of the ocean, surfers and ever-present fog bank.
Once I decided I enjoyed running, I set out to run 365 miles in a year. While that works out to a mile a day, I found that running a couple miles each time out was preferable. Along the way, I would sign up for a 5k and then a 7k, eventually working my way up to a 10k.
I made my 365-mile goal and I decided that the next year I was going to run 500 miles. I wanted to run ten miles a week, taking take two weeks off for vacation. Even to this day, I feel like ten miles a week over an extended period of time is a lot of running. While I have focused more on achieving longer distances and training for races, I still try to run 500 miles every year.
Two years after my back surgery I decided to run the San Francisco Half Marathon. I love running races. It’s incredibly motivating to be surrounded by other runners who, like you, have put in hundreds of miles of training to get to this point, and to celebrate your achievement together.
To this day, I create a series of yearly running goals that include a total miles run and races completed target. This year (2016) my goal is to run 500 miles and complete all of the Rock & Roll Half Marathons in California.
Tech ToyS, Gear & Data
I admit it: part of my love of running is the tech toys that come along with it. The mixture of tools and media that I use to enhance my runs helps me both enjoy the in-run experience and stay motivated. Most importantly, the data I've collected helps me monitor my progress and keeps me honest in my efforts to achieve my goals. Here are some of the tools and systems I use:
- Hardware -- iPhone / Apple Watch / Jaybird Headphones: While it might seem like hardware overkill, I've found the combo of the iPhone, Apple Watch and Bluetooth headphones is the most fun way to run. Ideally, I wouldn't carry my iPhone, but it's necessary, since the Apple Watch can't function independently (yet -- C'mon Tim Cook!). I use the Supcase Arm band, which is stable enough to hold an iPhone 6 and makes it easy to remove my phone from the case when I run into a photo-ready moment. I use Jaybird 2X bluetooth headphones, since they have an in-ear stabilizer and hold a charge for 10 hours. With my cocktail of hardware, I'm able to listen to music and track my run, while using my watch as my in-run command center. Yes, the Apple watch is a little nerdy but, yes, it's totally awesome for running.
- Performance Tracking -- Nike+ Running: The Nike+ Running App helps me monitor my in-run performance and provides me with a great dashboard to track my progress (pictured above). While there are other services like Track My Run and Strava that provide similar feature sets, I've been using Nike long enough to be hooked and not want to export my data to another service. In the end, the Nike Running Suite is compatible with all of my devices, provides a user experience that doesn't get in the way and integrates well with music apps. If I had one request of the Nike team, I wish their Apple Watch app had an in-run heart rate view.
- Streaming Music -- Shazam / Spotify: Ugh -- I'd really prefer to promote Rdio, which was one of my favorite apps of all time, but it's gone the way of the Dodo bird. That said, during the week, I use Shazam's song ID service to keep a record of new songs that I like. Once a month, I'll use my Shazam'ed songs to create a playlist on Spotify, which keeps my music fresh during my shorter mid-week runs. Once a quarter, I'll add all of the uptempo songs from the last three month to my "Marathon Playlist", which now has hours of high-energy music and is great for my long runs.
Why I bothered to write about running
In spite of some concerns years ago that running would compromise my body’s ability to heal, it has absolutely proven to have the opposite effect. I went from experiencing chronic back pain and unhappiness to a more regular feeling of personal accomplishment. Since 2010, I've run ~2,500 miles. I've also run 8 half marathons and have signed up to run all four Rock-and-Roll half marathons in California this year.
Running is a moving meditation for me. It is a time for me to reflect and focus, and to give myself a healthy release. Don't get me wrong, I still drink some beer and watch sports, but running has become an equal part of my identity. While it seems strange to go from being a frat boy who wanted to be the life of the party to running half marathons— I couldn’t be happier about it.
That said, I didn't write this article to tout my personal accomplishments. Truthfully, that's what held me back from writing about running for years. As I've become a more dedicated runner, I've encountered people I could tell wanted to learn to run but just didn't know where to start.
If that's you, I've been there... I was in your shoes for years.
I didn’t make any changes overnight: on the contrary, for me running was a challenge that at times seemed insurmountable. I learned that by breaking seemingly impossible tasks into smaller pieces and recognizing that even one step was progress, I could take on the challenge. Step by step, mile by mile, slowly (very slowly) but surely I have made progress. I started out-of-shape and injured and I was able to go from back surgery to running half marathons.
I'm not a great runner. I'm not in perfect shape. I've still got lots to learn. I literally fell over, hit the cement and took a chunk out of my knee while running last month. That said, if my story of slow but steady progress encourages you or someone else to take his or her first step, then the time spent on this article was time well spent.
I hope to see you out there!