It all started when I was 9 years old and my parents took me to see Charriots of Fire. I knew at that moment I wanted to be a runner. More specifically, I knew I wanted to be an Olympic sprinter. What I didn't realize at the time was that I didn't exactly have the genetics to make that dream come true. But, hope springs eternal in the mind of a 9 year old boy, so I came home anxious to begin my training. I wanted nothing more than to tie on a pair of spikes and run with my head back just like Eric Liddell.
We didn't have a lot of money or resources so my family certainly wasn't about to go buy some spikes. I mentioned my newly formed dream to my brother, who was about 18 at the time. We decided the best way to overcome this newly created obstacle was to upgrade a pair of my old Nike running shoes, you know the old white ones with the red swoosh like Jenny gave to Forrest.
We scooped up the shoes and headed off to Dad's work bench. We pulled out the insoles and grabbed a handful of roofing nails. A few minutes and 8 to 10 nails later we slipped the insoles back inside the shoes to cover the large, flat nail heads on the inside of the shoes. Armed with my new"spikes" and a garden trowel, I headed to the side yard. I dug a starting pit, just like I'd seen in the movie, then sat down in the grass and laced up my shoes. I was so excited I could hardly wait. I got down into a crouch, got my feet in the blocks, got ready, got set and...took off as fast as my skinny little legs could carry me. I made it about 2 steps before the ground pushed the nails back up into my feet. I yelped and jumped up into the air, which seemed like the thing to do until I came back down on the same feet I had just jumped to get away from. After some very comical hopping up and down and yelling, I finally managed to get stopped and off my feet. My feet were a little banged up but it was nothing compared to how completely crestfallen I was to discover that our brilliant plan was a complete failure. (My brother still laughs almost uncontrollably whenever this subject comes up.)
Well, I may not have had any super cool spikes, but I still wanted to run. I signed up for a local 5K later that year and finished it in about 24 minutes. My parents and I thought that was pretty awesome for a 9 year old. What we didn't know at the time was that I wouldn't ever get much faster. I didn't have any idea what I was doing. I just knew I loved to run. I have a clear and distinct memory of being at the local pool with some friends and talking about what we wanted to do when we grew up. I had no idea what I wanted to do but I remember thinking that I never saw grown ups running and I thought that was tragic. All I could figure was that no matter what I did, I wanted running to be a part of it.
I continued running shorter distances, nothing longer than a 10K, for years and ran track in middle school. Badly. When track season started my freshman year in high school I was there. There were two problems. 1) I was REALLY slow, and 2) I had recently grown 6 inches. My newfound height resulted in a severe case of Osgood Schlatter Disease. I was told I would not be able to run until I finished growing. I was even more upset than I had been with my failed Nike experiment. I turned to cycling and found a second love, which I continued to pursue until well into college. By that time, I had stopped growing and got back into running. I stayed active for several years during and after college, running several days a week, but never anything longer than a 10k.
Anytime I had any sort of personal difficulty in my life, I turned to running. For example, when I had a relationship break up I spent a lot of time running by myself as I worked through the resulting emotions. In 1999 my father died and I made a career change. This resulted in a much more sedentary life style. I still ran occasionally, but not very often.
In 2001, when I met my wife, I was pretty much a slug. I had stopped running and working out and was way out of shape. My wife was very active and worked out all the time but was not a runner. I had no desire to run.
Then everything changed in December of 2002. I was sitting on my ass, watching TV when the Hawaii Ironman coverage came on NBC. Something in my head clicked back into place. I knew what was missing in my life. I needed the challenge, the goal, the smug sense of self-satisfaction that comes along with being an endurance athlete. In 2003 I signed up for a triathlon, a half marathon and the Chicago Marathon. I finished all three. None of them were pretty, but I was hooked. This was the beginning of the end for me. From then on I was always planning for a race or racing. I even managed to suck my wife into the vortex with me. She had not run at all since she was 12 years old. One day very early in my training for Chicago she said she wanted to go for a run with me. We ran two miles together. By the time we got back to the house she was so amped she could have been high. You can read all about her version of that experience here. The next week she ran her first 5K in about 28 minutes. The week after that she signed up to run Chicago with me. We spent the summer doing long runs around Raleigh. We had absolutely no idea what we were doing. Sadly, she suffered a stress fracture in her leg and was not able to run Chicago in October with me. Since that time we have finished several marathons and an Ironman together.
THE ULTRA WORLD
There's no way to say this without sounding like a pretentious ass, but I have to be true to who I am. After several years of running marathons they began to seem somewhat pedestrian. I wanted to try something new, to attempt something that I had never done and wasn't certain I could do. A good friend and frequent training partner of mine suggested we run a 50K. I was game. It was a great experience. That same year I ran the Mount Mitchell Challenge and the Bel Monte 50 Mile Endurance Run. I finished up the year with an Iron distance triathlon. Bel Monte was one of those rare and wonderful life changing experiences. It forever changed the way I looked at running and life. From the time I crossed the finish line of that race, I was transformed. Since then, I have continued to run ultras including 50 and 100 mile events. Each one brings with it a new sense of purpose, accomplishment and joy.
Running ultra marathons is impossible to explain to anyone who is not a runner. I once heard it said that, "To those who understand, no explanation is necessary. To those that don't, none will suffice."
I think that just about says it all.