From Couch Potato to Ultramarathoner/Triathlete

Every so often someone from my past discovers my blog or asks me what I'm up to these days. When they discover the running history of the last 4 years most of them don't believe me. I don't blame them.

Up until the age of 16 I occasionally did some cross country running and swam a little. The running was mainly because it enabled me to avoid the misery of playing rugby with a group of guys who didn't like me much to start with and didn't really want a wimpy nerd on their team. The swimming was because our local pool had a cheap/free night for youth groups and lots of my friends went. Most of the time we played around but we did used to get badges for distance swimming and I still remember swimming the 48 lengths of the pool to complete 1 mile. I clearly remember it taking me an hour mostly breaststroke and I probably touched the side when I wasn't supposed to. I was amazed that my friends sister could swim the same in under half that time and did it on a regular basis training for a team.

Once there was no requirement for organised sports after 16 I chose not to partake in any. I was no good at any of them, didn't know any of the people who did them and really saw no point in it. Then I discovered beer.... then I discovered that while at university you were allowed to eat whatever you want whenever you want without your mum buying and putting it in front of you and slowly my girth began to rise. No cars when I was at Uni so there was plenty of walking and biking which kept me reasonably nimble even if I had no stamina.

During my first years of work I continued the trend of doing nothing. I still didn't have a car (or a driving license - I was a late developer) so thankfully I was kept from being a total couch potato. But on the whole it was drinking, eating, coding and watching TV.

There were a few notable attempts to be more athletic during this time:

  1. I remember a group of us at University tried to go running once - I don't remember why - and I remember being utterly rubbish and utterly exhausted and never doing it again.
  2. Drunk one night I told my buddy I could go to the gym with him and keep up. I was happy to lift more than him on the leg machine but he killed me on everything else and after overdoing it on the bike I ended up sitting in the toilet waiting to throw up... (thankfully I didn't)
  3. A group from my office in London did a mini triathlon - bikes in the gym, 1 mile run and then so many lengths in the pool. Again the 1 mile run killed me and I wondered why I was doing it.
  4. I did get a membership to a gym a couple of times and I did pick up my swimming and surprised everyone by knocking out several lunchtime swims over a mile. It still took me an hour of breast stroke but I convinced myself I wasn't really that unfit.
  5. I even bought a bike and did some rides with friends training for the London to Brighton ride (but I was too freaked out to try it - 54 miles seemed so far... now I'm planning to run almost that far!)

I can remember seeing the first London marathon - I would have been 14 - and thinking how cool it would be to run all that way and I was sure my grandfather and uncle had both run that great distance (though I've since found out that my grandfather never ran more than 10 mile races and my uncle stopped at the half marathon.... both seem a long way when you are a kid). Yes I am the first marathon runner in my family - most of them think I am crazy.

And then before you know it you are approaching 40, you are 20-30lbs overweight and you know exactly what that means.....

What does a fat old bloke with a bike that's not been ridden for 5 years do? He joins a gym again... he takes advantage of the free week of personal training... and then he stops going because its too expensive to pay a trainer... he tries a different gym and even manages I think 6 weeks in a row at one point because he has someone to go with... he tries going to spinning classes but somehow is never motivated enough to spend the money or the time. He pays to get his bike tuned up and then hangs it back on the wall in the garage waiting for the tyres to go flat. So for a few years nothing really changes and I knew something eventually had to.

So one day in early 2005 I was reading about the keep fit classes that my local city put on. They have belly dancing classes, aerobics and even such wonderful things as 'bums and tums'. Many of them are in the daytime so its pretty obvious that the target audience is not me. But there in between all these classes was "Learn to run". 10 weeks and you run a 5k at the end of it. I was a bit skeptical but I figured it was no more a waste of money than flushing it down the gym toilet every month so I signed up.

The first week we walked a minute, ran a minute 10 times. Yes that was it. Twice a week we slowly built up until we were running over a mile. 5 weeks later I signed up for a 5k so that there was no way to back out (remember I am king of the tightwads) and a week after that I decided to run 3.1 miles on the treadmill just to make sure I could do it and amazingly I could. My first 5k was 32:23 and I was 50% amazed and 50% dead. I do not remember being that out of breath or that tired in my life but i ran the whole way. That year was awesome, every time I ran a 5k I knocked several minutes off my time until I was down to 25:13. Sadly I learned that when you are unfit to start with its easy to improve fast... these days I train for longer races but I still find it hard to get under 25:00. Each time you run a distance you think - the next one up can't be that much harder can it? You see people running and think - they don't look any fitter than me. The 5k turned into a 10k, then a half marathon and then there was no stopping me and I ran my first full 1 year after my 1st 5k.

Then you discover that the longer races give you medals and best of all people look at you like you actually did something cool even though you were a long way behind the winners. There is no better feeling than the look on someones face when you tell them you did Disney 2008 and they ask if you did the half or the full and you tell them you did both.

How did I keep this up for 4 years when I've never managed more than 6 weeks?

  • Stinginess - I pay for group coaching and I am a tightwad
  • Structure - I have a coach who tells me what to do and I do it. I dont have to plan my own workouts and I know 2 times per week that I am supposed to show up. It means I dont under or over train too which helps with preventing injury.
  • Peer pressure and friendship - I run with a great group of people who expect me to show up for the 3rd long run and support me through races, injury and chafing in places you wouldn't talk to your doctor about

I've come to the conclusion that for me I need all off those things or I will find an excuse not to do it

So that's the story... 13 5ks, 3 8ks, 5 10ks, a 10 mile, 2 sprint triathlons, 7 half marathons, 8 full marathons and a 50k later I'm still going strong with many more stupid races still to go. One other thing - I'm very sure that if I can do it then anyone can.

Published 01 May 2009 03:35 PM by zman
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