I would be lying if I said that I always loved running. I was a two-sport varsity athlete in high school. Later, I played an NCAA sport and competed in intramurals at the U.S. Naval Academy. Back then, running was a necessity to maintain fitness for sports. But over time, as I aged out of competition, the necessity to run diminished until, at most, I ran three miles a year (1.5 miles in the spring and another 1.5 miles in the fall) for the navy’s physical fitness test. By then, I was a Nike kind of athlete—I believed that on any given day if I needed to perform athletically, I could "JUST DO IT!"
That all changed one November in 2012 when I received mobilization orders to Afghanistan to serve as a team leader for the Rule of Law Field Force at the Marine Corps’s Camp Leatherneck in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. My team and I were deploying to an area of active Taliban resistance and were required to undergo intense mission training prior to deployment. An army medic’s warning made an indelible impression: “If you are out of shape and get fragged, you will die on the operating table.” Although I hoped to go to Afghanistan and return uninjured, I definitely did not want to get wounded and die on an operating table because I was out of shape and my body could not handle the trauma. That day, I started what would eventually become my personal couch-to-marathon training program.
I had not run more than 1.5 miles consecutively in years. To start, I focused on time instead of distance. I ran 30 minutes daily on a treadmill at whatever pace I could manage.
After a few weeks, I moved outside to run under my own power. To gauge my progress, I downloaded the Runkeeper and Jog Log apps to track my distance and pace. I eventually added a chest strap to monitor my heart rate during runs.
One advantage to serving with marines in a war zone was my immersion in a culture of physical fitness. A marine’s workout is a necessary and integral part of the workday. A marine who is incapable of meeting the physical demands of the job is useless. My daily workout included runs of increasing duration and faster paces.
I soon learned that the U.S. Air Force hosted a monthly Full Moon 5K (3.1 miles) at midnight to raise money for the That Others May Live Foundation. I became a regular participant along with hundreds of other service members.
There were also opportunities to participate in longer races. I ran the Marine Corps Historic Half Marathon Forward (13.1 miles) and the AJC Peachtree Road Race (10K, or 6.2 miles) on Camp Leatherneck. Feeling a sense of accomplishment, I signed up to participate in the Rock ’n’ Roll St. Louis Marathon, which I successfully completed after returning from deployment.
My desire to run is driven, in part, by my association with other runners. For a time, I met with the local chapter of Black Men Run for Saturday group runs. Although I do not participate in group runs as often as I once did, I still keep up with the group on Facebook. On more than one occasion, I have willed myself to get out and run on a day when I did not feel motivated because someone shared his or her running accomplishment that day.
I also browse the Facebook page of the National Black Marathoners Association (NBMA) on Medal Monday. Every Monday, runners from across the country post photos wearing their finisher medals, with comments about their weekend races. Some of the members are world-class competitors. Most are not. Some I consider ridiculously slow. Everyone in the group has already completed or is working toward completing a marathon. The members share stories of their running successes and failures and encourage each other. The group is my go-to source for running advice and emotional support. Like many in the NBMA, I set a goal to run a marathon in all 50 states. So far, I have finished 13 marathons in 10 states and two foreign countries.
The following are my tips for new runners:
- Run for your own reasons.
- Take care of your feet. Use an online shoe finder to pick a shoe that works for your stride and foot strike. Wear synthetic socks to prevent blisters.
- Be safe. On roads, make sure that you are visible to traffic. Wear bright colors in daylight. At night and in the evenings, wear reflectors, flashing lights, and a headlamp.
- You will probably have aches and pains during and after your first few runs. Be patient. As your fitness improves, they will work themselves out.
- Running is often easier with a friend. Be sure to choose a friend who meets you at your pace.
- Join a running group. Running groups meet for runs of varying distances and paces.
- Do not get caught up in how fast or how far you run. There is always someone faster (and someone slower . . . and those who only wish that they could run).
- If you run alone, a written plan helps keep you honest. There are numerous couch-to-5K (or longer) programs online or on phone apps.
- Download an app. Apps track your runs, compare your efforts, play music, and offer verbal cues to encourage you during the run. My favorites are Runkeeper, Jog Log, Strava, and Garmin Connect.
- Music, audio books, and podcasts are nice to pass the time on longer runs, but sometimes it is nice to unplug and to listen to your body and the surrounding environment.
- Find a race. Some race to win. Others race for completion. Chances are you will make new friends who share your passion to run.
Through grace, I survived the deployment without injury. Since then, running has become an integral part of my daily routine. I run six days a week, ideally in the morning. I include running when I travel. I scour the internet for destination races, popular running routes, and group runs.
My overall health has improved. I have become less stressed and more physically fit. My blood pressure has decreased significantly. I managed my A1C without the necessity of medication.
I cannot say that I love running. But there are things that I love about it. I love the feeling of accomplishment when I complete a race, especially the longer distances. I love the smiles that runners exchange as they pass each other on the road or on a trail. I love how runners meet and include newbies on group runs. I love the viewpoint and experience of the world on foot. I love the serenity that running brings.
In terms of both physical and mental benefits, I recommend running as a path to personal wellness.
Edd Peyton is a special counsel and civil mediator at Lewis, Thomason, King, Krieg & Waldrop, P.C., in Memphis, Tennessee.
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