Salty Dog Plod Along, or how I fell in love with running

“I’m so tired of hearing about your half marathon,” the comedian said. “Quit it. Just stop.”

“Who cares that you ran half a marathon,” he clarified on my tiny phone screen. “It’s kind of like saying, ‘Hey, I read half a book.'”

Oof. I ran the Heartland Half Marathon this year, and I had felt pretty good about it up to that moment.

At the Turkey Trot the other day, I told a runner friend about the joke. He laughed but then just asked, “where do you stop then?” referring to the continually lengthening distance people will run.

So, I decided to write about it.

I ran the Heartland Half Marathon this year. Before deciding to run it, I probably wouldn’t have called myself a runner — I’ve been more of a plodder. I plod pretty well; my wife even says my family has a unique gate when we plod along. Sometimes, she will drop a beat to my swaying plod.

It surprised me that I actually considered running it. But you know how it is; the idea pops into your head and just seems to gain momentum until you suddenly hear yourself say something like, “I’m going to jump out of an airplane. Or hike the Appalachian Trail. Or ride my bike across the country. Or run a half-marathon.”

The thought started when I saw the route and realized it was pretty hilly. “Man, that is going to hurt,” I thought. Running it wasn’t even a consideration.

Then I texted a friend complaining about the route hitting every big hill in Huntingburg, he simply replied, “are you training?”

Hmmm… am I? The thought had formed.

As the idea began tumbling around a bit, I happened to see a post by one of the local nursing homes. It was a photo collage featuring residents giving advice to graduating seniors (“Advice for seniors from seniors”). In one photo, a lady in a wheelchair held a sign that said, “Spend more time walking”.

With my friend’s text challenge and my approach to 50 years of age, the idea had gained some momentum. But this image toppled my trepidation over and I decided I would do it.

“I think I’m going to run the Heartland,” I tentatively told my wife.

She was immediately supportive, as she usually is — her support is why this little website exists.

So, about 13 weeks before the race, I started a 12-week program leaving a week for any running-related injuries. If you want to do a race, get a training program. Many are available, including one through Memorial Hospital and Downtown Running and Fitness specifically for the Heartland.

During my training, I realized a couple of things.

First, chafing…

Second, mental toughness is a huge part of running (any physical activity, for that matter), and for me, the flats were more mentally challenging than the hills. Flats make me want to quit. Hills give me something to conquer.

Third, people driving in the county wave at me when I wave at them. For some reason, people in the city don’t wave back. By the way, if you drive by someone running along a county road waving at you, that is probably me.

Fourth, I like running.

When I run, I think about paddling a kayak.

Here is the key to paddling a kayak well. When you put the paddle in the water and pull it back, you aren’t pulling your kayak through it; you are pushing the water behind you. Whatever water is around you, whether a lake, a river, or an ocean, is being forced behind you.

You are the fixed point in your universe. You are moving the water.

When I was running, I tried to think the same. Those moments my legs started to get heavy, or I was facing a long flat, I remembered that I was moving the pavement behind me.

I was moving my goal to me.

Immediately, my cadence would change. My feet would hit more confidently.

I pushed the earth behind me.

I even experienced those singularly special moments when my plodding became gliding. In this state of flow, the exuberance of moving freely overwhelmed the pain and tiredness. I had never felt that before when running.

I like running now.

“Above all, do not lose your desire to walk. Every day I walk myself into a state of well-being and walk away from every illness. I have walked myself into my best thoughts, and I know of no thought so burdensome that one cannot walk away from it.”

Søren Kierkegaard

Approaching the race day, I wondered if I could actually do it. The furthest I had run in my training was about 10 miles, but I had read and heard from plenty of runners that if you can do 10, you can do 13. But still, it hurt to do that 10 and I hadn’t done 13 yet. I wasn’t completely confident.

The race was interesting. I had headed as far to the rear of the starting pack as possible. I didn’t need to be in front of any faster runners, and these days, I have to warm up so I can warm up; I knew I would be taking it easy the first mile or so.

A couple of miles later, I was on a pretty good pace behind a couple that own a local CrossFit gym. I felt good running behind them, garnering confidence in keeping up with these really fit folks.

This went really well for the first eight miles. But the eighth mile of the run was a long flat set between fields of corn. It was grueling for me — the Crossfit couple pulled way ahead, and then I got passed by a couple of 70-ish-year-old guys wearing matching jerseys and shorts that were having a pleasant conversation as they passed.

That mile was unending; I was struggling to see progress to the intersection ahead of me as the corn eternally walled me in. But I finally made it. And turning off that section invigorated my body as the mental exhaustion was pushed back a bit.

At mile 10, my wife was waiting for me and asked how I was doing. “Fine,” I hollered at her. “But it’s all new territory from here.”

She saw me at mile 11 to cheer me on. I simply threw my empty water bottle at her and grunted and kept going.

Getting past 12 miles, the run had us crossing back over State Road 64, and that is the point that nearly stopped my race. As I approached the highway, a city officer waved me through while stopping several cars so I could pass. My Midwestern politeness forced me to pick up my pace as I crossed the roadway.

There was a water station on the other side of the highway at the base of the last steep hill on the route. After taking a small cup from a volunteer, I threw back the water and began looking for the trashcan to drop it in. Along the route prior to this moment, I had observed that all the trashcans were about twenty to thirty feet further along the run, thus giving runners a chance to throw back a drink and then discard their cups.

At this station, the trashcan was about five steps after the volunteer handed me the cup.

In mid-drink, I saw the trashcan and, being the polite Midwesterner I am, stopped running to finish the drink and throw the cup away.

I stopped.

With more than 12 miles behind me, at the base of the last, and arguably the steepest, hill, I had stopped moving forward for the first time in more than two hours — yeah, no record times with my inaugural run.

I tossed the cup in the trash and told my legs to move. Nothing happened. Again, I pushed that invisible lever in my brain that had in the past moved my legs. Nothing. I imagined a cartoon man switching that lever up and down frantically, hoping the next swing up or down would magically restart my legs.

Finally, my left leg swung forward, and as my foot hit the ground, my knee nearly buckled. After a few more moments of arguing, I was able to take another shaking step forward up the hill. And another. And another until my knees quit revolting again. I was able to begin a slow walk and move into a jog again.

I got to the top of the hill and began the descent at a faster pace. Coming down, I saw another runner in front of me struggling. When I caught up with him, I recognized him from church. I knew he was a regular runner because I had seen him at many of the running events held around the county.

I started pacing along beside him, and jokingly, I said, “There’s no pain relief like the finish line, huh?” To which he responded sardonically, “until tomorrow.”

A few paces later, he told me that he had been in every Heartland Half Marathon, and this was his worst race ever. He said he thought it was because he had been sick earlier that week.

“Well, this is my best race ever,” I joked, adding that it was my first one.

He laughed and kept going.

I told him that I thought I would lose at least two toenails for sure but possibly three.

We laughed and sped up a bit as we talked the last couple of blocks. It was easier running in this shared moment. When we got to the end, he invited me to take off ahead of him to finish, and I said, no, we can go across together. So we both sped up and passed under the race banner side by side.

It was a good moment, and those last few blocks were probably the ones that will stick with me for the rest of my life. Even the corn rows are fading away.

For me, mental toughness has been an acquired skill. Since accomplishing the half marathon, I’ve been able to regularly increase my pace. Something that seemingly eluded me for years prior to the race. I look forward to runs or walks outside daily, now.

The other day I went for a walk with my dog and decided to jog the two-mile route we regularly take. When I got to the turnaround point, it hit me that a couple of years ago, I would be out of breath and want to quit at this point. Back then, it represented me being halfway finished with something I did as an obligation.

Now, running is a blessing.

What next?

We are made to run.

Did you know that ultra-marathons began as a horse race — the Western States 100. The myth is that a rider’s horse went lame during the 100-mile race, so the rider decided to run the rest of the race. Gordy Ainsleigh was the rider in the tale, but in later interviews, he said the story wasn’t true. However, when he was pulled from the race in 1973 after his horse, Rattlesnake, went lame about 29 miles in, he had a conversation with another runner that set him on track to run it the following year. In 1974, he did run the 100-mile trail, finishing in under 24 hours while beating quite a few horses. Of course, that last sentence I wrote in no way encapsulates his struggle in completing the race. But, what did happen is that the year after Gordy finished it, 62 runners showed up and entered the race.

We can run for a long time.

A half-marathon is an accomplishment. Just like an ultra, or a marathon, or a 5K, or a 3K or even a mile is for some. We each have our own path. Where we are at this current moment is our own unique experience. We can savor our own accomplishments and still build up those around us.

Running has become medicinal for me. When I run, it is my race, no one else’s. Each step I take is against aging, poor mental and emotional health, a weakening body, and a narrowing perspective.

I’m not ready for an ultra, but I enjoy “spending more time walking running,” and a marathon may be in my future.

Thanks for reading my rambling.

I also want to thank the organizers and all the volunteers that put the Heartland Half Marathon together. Without you, this guy wouldn’t have decided to start plodding along and looking forward to the Ferdinand run.

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4 Comments

  1. Love the story keep moving forward the mind will say no but the body is capable of so much more.

  2. I was certainly struggling as you call it near the end. I got a boost of energy finishing that last half mile with you. Congrats again on your first of many half marathons.

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