Other than my brief run as a chubby toddler, I was rail thin for much of my childhood. Genetics assured me that I’d never grow tall thus removing the threat of low-hanging tree branches and munchkin-sized houses. I exited high school similarly thin and untouched by a diet that routinely included less-than-healthy fare. I felt impervious to whatever garbage that I shoveled into my mouth, but things changed once I got to college.
I had been athletically-inclined for much of my school career in spite of my limited physical talents playing basketball early on and transitioning to tennis once I reached the inevitable limits of my height. That activity along with the famed teenage metabolism kept me thin.
Once I landed at Oglethorpe, I tried out for the tennis team primarily to remain active, but my attempt was very short-lived. During the tryouts, the Coach put me on the court against a fellow student who hailed from Sweden, a country that seems to produce an inordinate amount of elite tennis players. The Swede promptly used my pride to wipe the court clean, and I limped away to the Coach’s suggestion that I play on the B-team. Discouraged, I opted to quit tennis entirely. My heart simply wasn’t in it, and I had more pressing concerns than whether or not I could fit tennis practice into my schedule.
What followed was two and a half years of working, studying, and eating like the typical college student with virtually no physical activity beyond traversing that conveyor belt at UPS for a few hours every weekday morning. When my pants didn’t fit, I bought ones that had elastic waist bands. When I got winded going up the steps to my next class, I told myself I was tired from work. The mirror in my bathroom became a liar.
During the summer between my sophomore and junior years, I flipped on the TV on the morning of July 4th and saw coverage of the famed Peachtree Road Race as it winded its way into Piedmont Park in Midtown Atlanta. The Peachtree, as it is often called, is an iconic 10K road race that began with just a few runners at the beginning of the running boom in the 1970s. As I watched the elite runners glide through the finish line, I felt a tinge of jealousy. I could never run that far that fast. I flipped the TV off and forgot about it.
By the time I finished final exams in mid-December half way through my junior year, the perennial sinus infection had reared its ugly head again. I ambled through December that year cursing my ailment and my general disdain with my health. By then, I weighed 40 pounds above what I had weighed when I graduated high school. Somehow, the freshman 15 had made like a bunny and multiplied. For someone of my height, the 40 pounds really mattered and not in a way that was flattering or healthy.
As the New Year approached, I decided I had to make some changes. I made a New Year’s resolution that I would become a runner and that I’d run the Peachtree Road Race. Running and I had never been intimate friends. In fact, we’d been frenemies during my brief time as a student athlete. Previously, I had only run to be in shape for whatever sport I was playing. Now, I would just run for running’s sake. Crazier things had happened.
On January 1, 1992, staying true to my resolve, I dressed in shorts (with an elastic waist band, of course), a ratty cotton t-shirt, and some clunky old tennis shoes that were probably a holdover from my days on the high school tennis court and went for my first-ever run. The brisk January air burned my lungs. My legs screamed, and my ears hurt from the cold exposure. I hated it. Nothing had changed from my time doing running drills in school. I stopped a quarter mile into it to catch my breath, bending over and levering my arms against my knees on the sidewalk next to the road that snaked through my neighborhood. I wanted to quit.
I cursed my ill-informed resolution. I cursed my body for being ill-prepared despite the fact that I had arrived at this point through my own neglect. I looked back at the sidewalk leading to my apartment and the comely siren of surrender sang to me in her most beautiful voice, but at that moment, I ignored her, shut out her song and took the most tentative step in the other direction. One step led to another, and before I knew it I was at the half way point of my planned two-mile run. When I ran down the last hill to my apartment at the end of that run, I was hooked. The adrenaline and endorphins pulsed through my veins. I became that which I had scorned – a runner.
After that first run, I kept going. I registered for road races including my first Peachtree. Ultimately, I’d run 14 consecutive Peachtrees before time and geography made it impossible. Running became as important to me as breathing. It provided a release from the stress of everyday life. In all the years that followed, when work made my schedule almost impossible, I still ran. No matter where I was, I strapped on my running shoes and went for a run. I wasn’t always diligent, but I never stopped. Running had saved me from myself. It wouldn’t be the last time that would happen.