Breaking 5:00, Part I

            Some people refuse to believe me when I tell them I used to smoke a pack of Camel Lights a day. By the time I relocated back to Central Virginia from New York I’d managed to kick the habit and replace it with running, so the people that met me upon my return have only known me as a non-smoker. Over that time running has become increasingly central to my life and central to my identity, to the point that it seems incredible to some that I could have ever been an occasional smoker, never mind a habitual one.

            I’d been an occasional runner in high school, logging miles during the summer to keep my fitness up during wrestling season, and had tried reintegrating it into my routine in my early twenties. Running regularly came in fits and starts, as did the Camels. Ask anybody who’s quit, and they’ll likely tell you that you don’t quit cigarettes once, you quit multiple times. I, for one, “ha-ha” quit about a dozen times before I kicked it for good.

            In retrospect, my quitting almost feels like an accident rather than a concentrated application of willpower. I was 26 years old and working at a law firm in Midtown Manhattan. My job required sitting, combing documents for relevant data, sitting, loading data into a discovery program, sitting, tagging documents that were relevant to the litigation the firm’s client was engaged in, and sitting. I’d lost my exercise discipline when I got to college and spent my early twenties trying to reclaim it. I joined a gym and started to hit it pretty regularly during my last couple of years at the firm, and, since I lived near New York Bay and its long, uninterrupted foot and bike paths that skirt the water, I started to build my mileage up. 

            I can vividly remember my first run from this period; I’d sprung for a new pair of New Balances at the New Balance store in midtown, and that night strapped them on and ran the ¼ mile from my apartment down to the bay, then walked back. That ¼ mile was my ceiling at the time.

I’ve stretched things out a tad since then.  Photo credit: Dave Krovetz

I’ve stretched things out a tad since then. Photo credit: Dave Krovetz

            Gradually I started to stretch things out, and soon was running the length of the footpath from the pier to the stretch under the Verrazanno Bridge where the path dead-ends before making a U-turn back toward my apartment. Add in the weight training I was doing at the gym, and I started to make good, though not spectacular, fitness gains.

            Then in the fall of 2008 something happened that kicked my fitness habit into overdrive. The world ran out of money, and the law firm decided that they couldn’t afford my swank lifestyle anymore. Suddenly, I had nothing but time on my hands to work on running, and I started running and lifting everyday. My rationale was “I’ve been tethered to a desk all day for years, I might as well take this opportunity to move as much possible.” I was still sneaking the occasional cigarette, but I made deals with myself along the lines of “if you get your workout in in the AM, you can have cigarettes afterward guilt free.” The logic was unimpeachable, but as time wore on I was more and more conscious of the fact that I was smoking out of pure habit rather than any sort of enjoyment.

            It was some time around New Year’s Day 2009 when I stopped and said to myself “I haven’t smoked a single cigarette in three months, and I haven’t missed it at all. I think I’m done.” I spent the better part of that year trying to find my economic footing in New York during the Great Recession, but eventually decided to try my hand back in Virginia, where both my mother and my alma mater were located.

            My job upon returning largely revolved around moving furniture and AV equipment into and out of places (I joked to new hires that ostensibly we were in the events department, but secretly we’re in the moving business.) On top of that I was running 5 times a week. All that activity turned my metabolism into a piston engine; no quantity of food you put in front of me during that era stood much of a chance.

            When I ran the Charlottesville 10 Miler for the first time, I clocked in around 75 minutes, nothing world beating, but way above average. What’s more, I crossed the finish line with all kinds of gas left in the tank.            

Celebrating my first sub-70 minute 10 Miler with Ma Walsh.

Celebrating my first sub-70 minute 10 Miler with Ma Walsh.

            I’ve been steadily (with some fits and starts along the way) been clawing my way into the upper echelon of runners in the area over the last few years, and, with the 10th anniversary of my quitting smoking coming up in November 2019, I’ve set a series of time goals: by that time I aim to have a sub 5:00 minute mile, sub-18:00 minute 5,000 meter race, and a sub-80 minute half marathon to my name. I may try to toss in a sub-60 minute 10 miler in there, though I might have to travel out of Central Virginia to do that.

            It’s going to be a hard year; I kept my fitness up but didn’t train, per se, this past winter, so I’ve got some catching up to do. The sub-5 mile is going to be the hardest time to crack in the bunch (according to Jack Daniels if I can go sub-5 in the mile then 17:00 in the 5K and 75 in the ½ are in the cards, but, baby steps). I was doing some track workouts back in July to start hammering away at the mile, but then I signed up for the Marine Corps Marathon in DC at the end of October to benefit the Music Resource Center, so mile training is temporarily on hold. 

            I plan on picking up with mile-specific training after I finish the 10K and then attacking the longer distance goals from there. I’ll be keeping track of my progress here at the blog, and Coach Ann will be chiming in with her perspective on my training the same as she did with our friend Ken. Check back here in November for updates on my progress.