Photo by: Dan Greb, Montgomery County Road Runners Club
I think the story begins with a series of pictures.
The first is on our refrigerator: a grainy selfie of my wife and I the day we brought our oldest daughter home from the hospital shows both of us tired, happy, and significantly overweight. The second, taken some years later, is an Instagram post of her best friend’s husband, shirtless on a beach in Delaware, toned and defined and approaching 40.
I can’t pinpoint the exact motivator that pushed me into running, but when I think about how I got started, I always come back to those two photos: snapshots of where I was, and where I wanted to be.
There were for me those simple facts that most men know to be true about their health: I knew that I needed to change my lifestyle–for me, for my wife, for my kids; I knew I didn’t want to be the lone overweight husband in our circle of friends; I knew I had a family history of high blood pressure, heart disease and cholesterol issues; I knew I loved donuts, fried food and beer.
I also knew I hated running, mostly because I was bad at it, and that made me feel like a failure. I was good at other athletic ventures, some of which I pursued with varying degrees of seriousness, but pure cardiovascular training always eluded me, just as I avoided it. I had a partial hip reconstruction when I was a small child, and throughout my teens and twenties, I used that as a crutch either to explain why I was a terrible runner, or to avoid running altogether.
I knew though that at the core of my aversion was a pair of simple shortcomings: laziness and a lack of at least some of the most basic elements of self discipline. I wasn’t ever able to motivate to get out there and do it, or when I was, I was still unable to force myself to stick with it long enough to get in shape. The result is that it took me more than 35 years to start running regularly.
Once it took however, the running stuck. I started with a long streak of two miles each day until I was able to run the distance without walking. At that point, I progressed to three miles, then four. I joined the local run club in our Washington, D.C. suburb. I did my first road and trail half marathons. I kept a spare set of shoes and shorts under my desk at work. I bought a smartwatch and got on the run tracking apps. I ran the Cherry Blossom, the A-10, and the other notable races in the area. I made an age group podium. I bought a jogging stroller. I made obnoxious comments about running. I began looking at different marathon programs. I subscribed to active lifestyle magazines like this one. I called myself a runner. I jumped in with both feet.
And it all felt amazing. I lost 60 pounds in the first year. My times came down and with them my blood pressure and cholesterol. My resting heart rate was low and my V02 max was high. I felt skinny, fit and strong. People asked me what I had done to lose the weight, and when I said running, they responded with those familiar, long-held crutches of their own. I sat shirtless at the pool and beach without feeling self-confident. I felt attractive. I respected myself. I believed I had finally moved from a life that mirrored the first of the photos into one that mirrored the second.
So when the doctors told me that recovery from bilateral hernia surgery would mean no running for several months, I was legitimately concerned that I might give that all back, and that in turn worried me that I might revert to the person I was in that picture on the refrigerator.
Injury of course is endemic to running. Whether it’s minor or major, athletes will all at some point face the prospect of taking time off to heal. It is then that the concept of self control becomes that much more important. For her part, my wife has gone on her own journey since that first photo was taken, empowering herself as a fitness instructor and coach for other moms. She has been a remarkable leader in our lives, and it’s through her that I understand what a mistake it is to view this whole process transactionally. If I understand eating a donut as something I can do only if I run three or four miles, the only thing keeping me from that donut is those three or four miles. That places the onus entirely on me and my self restraint in the event of an injury that keeps me from running, and when I invariably give in to the donut, the accompanying shame only makes things worse.
Physically speaking, there’s nothing remarkable in my running story. Millions of people take up running; millions lose weight, and unfortunately millions struggle to balance their fitness goals with the realities of injury. What makes the story meaningful for me, and I hope for others, is the transition it marked for me internally. That struggle with laziness and lack of self-discipline manifested itself in several harmful ways in my life. I flunked out of college at 19 because I couldn’t force myself to go to class instead of going out. I struggled to keep a job in my early 20s because I couldn’t see past the immediate day-to-day hassles of work-life to my eventual career goals, and as my metabolism changed into my 30s, I couldn’t steel myself against the food and lifestyle choices that joined me uninvited on the scale.
Running was hard for me, yes from a physical standpoint, but even more significantly from a mental one. For the first year, I genuinely felt that with each run I was overcoming the excuses and laziness that had dogged me up until that point. To pair that with the physical results was a genuine revelation, a personal victory, signifying that I could in fact make myself do this thing that I’d convinced younger versions of me was out of reach. But with the injury, that continued success, and with it the progress I had made to that point, seemed in real doubt.
The doctors cleared me to begin light jogging several weeks after the surgery. I ran too many miles that first week back, but am moving along now in the slow process of regaining my fitness. I’ve had plenty of donuts in these down weeks, and I’ve regained some of the weight that I had lost. The simple act of running however–of putting on my shoes and leaving the house–marks for me the time that has passed and the stage that I find myself in now. I know that it’s in me now, the ability to make myself go do it. It’s a better place I’m in, and while it’s not quite the ideal in the second photograph, it’s a pursuit in that direction.
Patrick Delaney lives and works in the Washington, D.C., area with his wife and two daughters.