I vaguely remember Jim mentioning that it was difficult to find time to run with all of the hours he was working. Then he took a few days of vacation. Later I found out his "vacation" had been running in the Boston Marathon. Of course, I'd heard of the Boston Marathon. Who hasn't. But I didn't realize that they don't just let anyone enter into the race; each runner has to complete a qualifying marathon under a time based on their age and gender. No offense intended, but Jim had never struck me as a particularly athletic person. He was tall and thin and didn't have much muscle and he just didn't have the look.
It wasn't until last year that I ran my first foot race. Jim and other runners at work ran as a corporate team each year in Austin's Capitol 10k and in the past had won the event. I had started to run because I was in desparate need to lose weight, lower my blood pressure, and relieve stress. I started out not being able to run a mile without stopping. I kept running a 2.5 mile loop until I finally worked up to the point where I could run the entire loop without stopping to walk. Then I subscribed to Runner's World magazine so I could learn more about how to improve my running without injuring myself. I learned to add a weekly long run. Initially this was a 4.5 mile run which was pretty hard for me. As that run became easier I gradually extended the long runs until I was running continuously for an hour. I gradually extended myself on longer and longer runs until I worked up to 7 miles in about an hour and 15 minutes. At that point the 2005 Capitol 10k was coming up and I figured that I could at least finish it because it was 6.2 miles and I knew I could complete 7.
That first race was revealing. For me, it wasn't really a race, but more of a training run. I knew I could complete the distance but was under no illusions that I could complete it quickly. As the race progressed I was amused that I seemed to be racing with a fit lady that looked to be about 70 years old and a group of other mature women that were running with her. I'd let my weight carry me past them going down the hills and they'd come gliding back past me going back up the hills. Jim was waiting at the finishing line cheering me on. He congratulated me and told me that I looked like I was running really well. That was pretty kind of him. When I got home and looked up the race results I saw that he finished the race in about half of the time it took me.
It is a lot of fun running in a race. The Capitol 10k is a huge race with over 12,000 entries and there is nothing like running in a large group like that to motivate you. Even better, there is always someone a little faster than you, someone a little slower, and someone that is running at the same pace. This means that you are never running along. When I train, I run with my dogs, but other than that I'm always by myself. So the races present commaraderie that I don't get in training. I enjoyed my first race so much that I ran a couple of shorter 5k races over the next month.
The races gave me a goal and helped me increase my training. I continued to extend my long runs until I was up to 10 miles. Those long runs made me realize something about running that I'd never imagined. After running for about 45 minutes it was like something clicked in my body and it felt like I could just keep running forever. Some people talk about a runner's high, but I've never experienced that. It was more just a feeling of the running becoming easy and fluid without strain or effort. During the summer of 2005 I realized that if I could run 10 miles then I could probably run 13 and 13 is half of a marathon. So I started looking at a half marathon to enter. As I looked at RunTex's web site I saw a link to the Austin Distance Challenge. I went to that web site out of curiousity and went to the 2004 results. I was amazed to see that my friend Jim had taken 2nd place overall and 1st place in his age group. I knew Jim pretty well from work, but I had no idea that not only was he a good runner, but one of the best runners in Austin. You may not realize this, because I sure didn't, but Austin has a very hot running scene and is home to some world class distance runners. Jim, it turns out, is an elite athlete who consistently runs out at the front of all the races.
The Austin Distance Challenge was definitely jumping into the deep end. Over five months I race a 10k, a 10 miler, a half marathon, a 20k, another half marathon, a 20 miler, a half marathon, and finally the Freescale marathon. In addition to the 101 miles of racing I ran hundreds of miles of training and battled injuries and sore muscles.
Along the way I ran and raced with thousands of other runners. I learned an important, and for me, profound lesson. As you are standing at the starting line it is often to difficult to tell who is fit and who is not. The lean people aren't always well conditioned, although they probably are. Otherwise ordinary or unathletic looking types are suddenly transformed when the horn goes off. I've watched time and time again as apparently overweight people passed me and steadily pulled away as I strained to keep up. I've tried to hang with middle aged mothers who despite average appearances were very fast. I learned that it doesn't matter if you are pretty or homely, short or tall, fat or skinny, elegant or clumsy, you can be a good runner. What matters is whether or not you are willing to make the sacrifices and train regularly and put in the hundreds of miles of preparation. What matters is, literally, your heart. Once the race starts you can't fake it. You can't tough it out. You can't compensate for missed training runs. The race is the ultimate measure of how well you've prepared and how well you've been living your life. Running brings out the best of people by teaching them sacrifice, discipline, serenity, to explore their limits and push past them. And for me it has taught me the important lesson that you can't tell any of those things about a person by looking at surface appearances; you can only judge by the results in the race. So remember that next time you judge a stranger based on surface appearances. That mousy looking soccer mom just might be an elite athlete.