Hundreds of people in florescent-colored running shoes and dri-fit t-shirts stretch their calves, hop in place, or take warm-up laps around the strip mall parking lot. Coldplay and Cheryl Crow blast from a lite rock radio station van idling at the starting line. Two dozen runners fill up a blue wall of porta potties while a crowd gathers around them. A woman screams as early-morning sprinklers pop up and spray down her table full of pamphlets.
I’m here for the half-marathon.
I eat a banana, drink a Dixie Cup of water, and mosey up to the “>10 min./mile” starting section. I try imagining the 13.1 miles ahead of me. Just six months ago, running continuously for 60 seconds left me heaving for air, hands on my knees, love handles stabbed with pain. “Ow, my side! Ow, my side!” I’d yell at my wife every morning when I’d first started running.
I hated running, but enough was enough. At five-foot-six and 215 pounds, I was one value meal away from being categorized as “severely obese.” My blood pressure tipped over the high-normal range, my wife scowled as I went for seconds--and thirds--at every meal, and all of the dress shirts I’d bought in the past five years started losing buttons from the strain of holding me in.
“So did you go to McDonald’s?” became a work buddy’s morning greeting for me. I never responded to that because I probably did go to McDonald’s for breakfast. Then I’d go for lunch. He told me I was a runaway train. “Choo-choo!” he’d yell across the cubicle aisle. I’d get offended and then grab a pre-dinner Quarter Pounder on my way home.
When my wife wasn’t looking, I’d dip cheese in mayonnaise as a snack. I’d fry bread in bacon fat before spreading on the butter. An entire bag of Lay’s salt and vinegar chips would serve as an appetizer to a box of Fruit by the Foot. I’d eat half a 20-inch diameter pizza, then eat my wife’s leftovers sometime around midnight. I’d wake up at three in the morning with acid reflux, get out of bed, then dip some more cheddar in mayo.
I’d like to say that a lot has changed since I started exercising regularly. And some of it has. But not all of it. Instead of my old cycle which consisted of: eat >> hate self >> eat, I’ve added a sparkling new element to the chain, so now it’s more like: run >> feel okay >> eat >> hate self. Before, it was a downward spiral. Now, it’s a roller coaster. It’s better this way.
“Go!” shouts the radio DJ through a megaphone. The crowd surges forward, then stops, then surges forward again like some kind of human accordion. All I can see are heels and elbows, and for the first crowded quarter-mile of this half-marathon I’m bouncing up and down more than striding forward. Last.fm’s LMFAO radio is outpacing me in my earbuds. Everyday I’m shuffling.
By the time I hit the one-mile marker I pick out a young couple to pace behind: the woman is shaped like a Virginia Slim, but the man is built more like a 64-pack of Crayolas. They’re doing about ten-and-a-half-minute miles. I can dig that. I run up next to them, compliment them on their stellar pace, then tell them I’m going to try keeping up with them. They’re my goal. “You’re awesome,” I say. “No, you’re awesome,” they say back. We continue running the half-marathon. Only 12.1 miles to go.
I tried marathon gaming once back in 2008. My wife had flown to Germany for a week-long reunion with an old family friend. This was back when we were still DINKs (Dual Income, No Kids), which left me with an entire weekend to tackle GRID’s 24 Hours of Le Mans race uninterrupted. Sure, there are condensed versions of the Le Mans, squeezing 24 game hours into 12 minutes of accelerated gameplay, but that wasn’t my intent. I was going to race a full 24 hours in real time. I was going to marathon it.
I’d gotten a full night’s rest, one of those bags of salt and vinegar chips, and a two-liter of Pepsi. I shoved my favorite chair as close to the TV as possible. I inserted a fresh set of AA batteries into the gamepad. I turned up the soundbar on the entertainment center. I was ready.
Six hours later, my contacts dried to my pupils because I wasn’t blinking enough, my bladder was developing an infection from holding in urine for too long, and bedsores began to appear where my love handles served as inadequate lumbar support for my chair. The frontal lobe of my brain felt like it had stuck itself to the parietal bone of my skull, but my car was in even worse shape. I was only a quarter of the way through this 24 Hours of Le Mans, and if my Lamborghini Murcielago’s damage indicators were indeed any indication, I wasn’t going to make it another 30 minutes.
In fact, Screw it, I said. This many frames per second for this many hours straight? I obviously hadn’t thought this plan through, and not just because the salt and vinegar chips had already burned off the top layer of skin on my tongue. I hadn’t trained for this level of marathon gaming, and it showed. I drove that Murcielago straight into the next set of chicane barriers I could find. It was the smartest thing I’d done all day.
It took some time working up to running a half-marathon. It started with the Couch-to-5k Running Program, a series of gradually-building jogging sessions that incrementally increased my endurance. In February of this year, I was still that huffing, puffing, side-aching sack of cheese and mayonnaise I told you about. But by May, I was hitting the three-mile marker without breaking much of a sweat. And by August, I was standing around in florescent-colored running shoes and a dri-fit t-shirt, ready to run my first 13.1-mile half-marathon. Sorry for party rocking.