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From One Geek to Another: This is How I Became a Distance Runner

Posted on 06/13/2007 in Geek by Matt

A little over two years ago I decided I wanted to lose some weight.  I wasn't morbidly obese or anything but I had the figure of a typical computer guy:  skinny arms accompanied by a lower half that was unusually fatter than my upper body (picture Tyrannosaurus Rex with love handles).  My diet was mediocore and I never, ever exercised. I tried signing up for a gym and exercising occasionally, but I never had the discipline to stick to anything long enough to make a difference.  As of now I have around 9% body fat and last week I ran 26.2 miles in the Vancouver Marathon.  I weigh nearly 40 lbs less than what I weighed two years ago and I run almost every day for distances starting at 3 miles and sometimes going as long as 20 miles, depending on what my goals are.

The approach I took to becoming a distance runner is a bit unorthodox and I'm by no means a health professional, but it's what worked for me. I think a lot of geeks out there share traits that keep us from succeeding at becoming highly active:  our careers typically confine us to an office chair all day, many of our hobbies don't involve much movement (xbox 360, anyone?), and we're accustomed to a lifestyle that makes intense physical exercise seem almost alien.  Being intelligent can play against us too; it just means that the apathetic devil on our shoulder is that much more persuasive.

Going Cold Turkey

I'm the type of person that goes cold turkey. If I need to change my life I do it drastically and give myself no room for error.  This is how I started out as a runner: I didn't begin with a casual jog once or twice a week and slowly build up to serious running.  I started off running nearly 5 days a week and kept at it.  I knew that if I gave myself more than a few days off I'd start making frequent compromises and I'd end up quitting.  I also knew that to want to keep exercising I'd need to see results fast.  In other words, I'd need to start dropping pounds. The best motivation to keep exercising is stepping on a scale and seeing a significant loss in weight - so even though going cold turkey is like jumping into a bucket of icewater, it's absolutely worth it.  My recommendation is to start out running a minimum of 3 days a week and working  from there.  Don't concern yourself with distance or duration at this point, just focus on making running a part of your daily routine.

Understand that Running Hurts.  Running will Always Hurt.

Forget the notion that exercise is going to one day become painless and easy.  Exercise hurts, it will always hurt.  It becomes less painful over time, but a certain degree of pain will always be there. The real trick for me was learning to cope with that pain, almost like learning to endure a small amount of torture every day.  I know that's not exactly the most appealing way to put it, but it's the closest thing to the truth that I can give you.

The First 3 Miles are the Hardest

This distance varies from runner to runner, but the first couple of miles of any run are typically the hardest (within reason, obviously mile 25 of a marathon is going to be harder than mile 1 - but we're just talking about moderate distances here). I remember the first time I experienced what I call "floating," where your body suddenly shifts up a gear and you feel like you could run forever.  For me this usually starts around mile three.  If you can commit to running long enough to hit this mark you'll find that running long distances is a lot easier than you thought. I used to assume that running 6 miles was 6x harder than running 1 mile - this is absolutely not true.  Once you've got a bit of training you'll find that the miles get easier up to a certain point. 

Don't Negotiate With Yourself

When you're initially learning to make running a regular part of your life you'll find yourself making all kinds of excuses as to why you shouldn't run on a particular day: perhaps you worked out yesterday,  you'll have more time tomorrow, or today was stressful at work and you feel you deserve to just go home and relax.  Put the excuses to bed and put your damn running shoes on.  

Busy Schedule? There's Always Time to Run

The best part about being a runner is that it's a highly accessible form of exercise:  you can squeeze in a 20 minute run morning, noon, and night.  Even if it's 11:30pm and you just got home from a movie try and squeeze in a quick run before bedtime, it takes up the same amount of time as watching a Futurama re-run and is infinitely better for you. You'll sleep better, too. 

Do it Outdoors

I'm not a big fan of running on a treadmill, I've found that exercising outdoors is way easier.  Even with an iPod or a TV to watch running on a treadmill is pure torture for me, all I can think about is how tired I am and how slowly the miles appear to be counting down on the treadmill display.  Treadmills minimize distractions and put you face-to-face with fatigue. If possible, find a park or a nice stretch of road with varying terrain to run on.  I'm fortunate enough to live right next to a lake with a 2.8 mile trail around it and in the summer it gets flooded with people so there's lots to keep my mind occupied while I burn through the miles. It also affords me the opportunity to dodge yap-yap dogs on leashes, watch various performance artists, and discreetly ogle all the pretty women.
(Ah, greenlake...)

OMG!  I'm Being Chased by an Abominable "Fat Monster"

I know this sounds ridiculous, but I used to picture a "fat monster" running behind me that personified the voice of fatigue and apathy.  Any thoughts I had along the lines of "This is hard, I should stop" or "I am so damn tired, I should just walk the rest of the way" was the voice of that little bastard trying to get me to give up.  Don't listen to the monster, If he had his way you'd spend the rest of your life eating quadruple-stuffed oreos while watching youtube.

Understand that Exercise is as Vital as Eating, Sleeping, and Perhaps Even Going Two-sies

I used to think of running as a sick hobby reserved for over-achieving masochists who eat blended vegetable shakes for dinner.  Now I understand that exercise is as important to my health as breathing, eating, and sleeping.

Set Goals (duh.)

Anyone who has ever tried to achieve something important in their life has probably heard this before: set goals and stick to them.   Create a calendar of runs with a set distance you'd like to run by a certain date, or simply weigh yourself every week and try to hit a target weight.  Whatever works best for you, just as long as you have something you're working toward. No loosey-goosey, have a plan.

Pack Your Bags, Kids -  We're Going on a Guilt Trip!

If I don't exercise I feel stressed out and guilty. The guilt I feel is to a similar degree that someone might feel for eating at McDonald's or setting a pack of bunny rabbits on fire*.  I've often told people that the trick to making myself want to go run all the time is to make the pain of avoiding it worse than actually doing it.  For me, avoiding a run means I'm going to be edgy, stressed out, and anxious.  I'd rather endure an hour of sweat than an entire day of guilt and anxiety.  It's kind of warped, but hey - it's how I became a distance runner.

* Bunnies don't travel in packs.  That was a complete lie.

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