The Connection Runners + workout

The Real Challenge

If there is one thing that I have learned thus far in my 12 marathon 12 month challenge, it's that the human body is an extraordinary work of engineering - condition it properly, and it is capable of remarkable things. But as Mark Twight, the founder of Gym Jones says, "changing your body is just mechanics; it's changing your mind that presents the real challenge. If the mind is not first trained to enjoy hard work, to relish suffering, to address the unknown, then no program, no amount of training can be effective. The muscle we need to train the most is inside the skull."

He is absolutely 100% correct.

I was relatively fit in college, running regularly and playing several seasons of rugby which basically was sprinting, tackling, and a few pints after the match. But after living a sedentary life post-college, amplified by poor eating habits and giving zero thought to sound nutrition, my weight ballooned to the mid 220's. Sleep apnea kicked in, my blood pressure was a bit higher than it should be, and my triglycerides - which basically measures the amount of fat in your blood - were a whopping 387 at my October 2008 physical. Not a pretty picture.

When my son turned 5, he wanted to learn a martial art, and we decided upon Taekwondo. I had always wanted to learn a martial art as well, and we both began our training as white belts. He went to the kids class after school, and I went in the evenings. The experience has been nothing short of transformative.

The combination of two weekly 70 minute Taekwondo classes, and a new emphasis on eating a healthy Mediterranean diet of cold water fish (esp. wild salmon 2x/week), lots of fresh fruits and veggies, berries and nuts got me down 20 lbs to the 200 mark in about three months. Not bad, but still not even close to where I knew I should - or could - be.

We were awarded our yellow belts, and soon began to apply the various techniques we'd been learning and started to spar with fellow students - but Georges St. Pierre I was not. After charging like a bull for the first 30 seconds, I'd lose my wind and turn into a 200 lb heavybag and get pummeled by my opponent because I wasn't able to muster the energy to throw a counter, or even move fast enough to get out of the way.

"Never let you opponent see how tired you are!" Grandmaster Park would tell me, an 8th Dan black belt and incredible instructor. "Always look in your opponents eyes. Is he tired? If he sees you're tired, you've already lost!"

I needed to get lighter, quicker, more nimble. Quickly.

At about the same time I was getting my clock cleaned at Taekwondo I began reading extensively about martial arts and the philosophy behind it, and in doing so came across a quote by Bruce Lee that resonated with me:

"... physical conditioning is a must for all martial artists. If you are not physically fit, you have no business doing any hard sparring. To me, the best exercise for this is running. Running is so important that you should keep it up during your lifetime. What time of the day you run is not important as long as you run. In the beginning you should jog easily and then gradually increase the distance and tempo, and finally include sprints to develop your 'wind.'"

Simple as that. Start running, I told myself - heed the advice of Grandmaster Park and Bruce Lee and get with it. So on a trip home to Connecticut to see my family back in August 2009, my sister (who finished the New Orleans Half Marathon earlier in the year), offered to go for a run together. I hesitated, but she did not take no for an answer. Out we went for my first run since... .1997! It was a 5 mile jaunt on a humid August morning, and I experienced what some refer to as an 'Aha!' moment.

It felt so good. So right. What I should be doing. The following month, we ran a 5k together. 26:36! My first 5k, ever - and I couldn't wait to do another one.

That December, a group of friends were putting together a team of ten to run in the Cherry Blossom 10 Miler in Washington, D.C. in April. My wife asked if I wanted to run in it, and as I had been running a 4.3 mile hilly loop here in Kittery about three times a week, I agreed... .albeit with with a heavy amount of trepidation. Ten miles is a long way - or so I thought.

That was when the training really ramped up. Monday, January 4th I ran 5.3 miles, untimed. Felt good. Tuesday, 7. Wednesday, 8. Thursday, 9. Did TKD on Friday night, and Saturday morning ran ten miles in 1:48:25. As the saying goes, I was getting comfortable with being uncomfortable. I knew I could do the distance, so the focus now became getting faster.

I began keeping a running log, writing down every run, distance and time. I also started doing pushups - sets of 10, with the goal of doing 100 a day.

My running and pushups became an integral part of my every day routine, and I didn't feel 'right' if I didn't get my run in or do my pushups. In anticipation of the Cherry Blossom, I signed up for a ten miler here in Maine, the Mid-Winter Classic in Cape Elizabeth the morning of Superbowl Sunday. It would be a good test of my ability to push, determine what my 'race pace' was, and see where I stood.

I finished in 1:26:38, or 8:39 per minute mile.

That race was one year ago, and it really opened the door of possibility for me. I turned out 1:15:15 at the Cherry Blossom Ten Miler in April, or 7:31 minute per mile, about two months later. I was well on my way to becoming addicted to running races, and decided to go for the gusto: I registered for the Sugarloaf Marathon. 26.2!

Sugarloaf was going to be held in May on my son's sixth birthday, exactly one year to the day of my fitness renaissance/total body reboot - the day I signed up for Taekwondo. I followed the Hal Higdon 18 week Novice I training program, x'd off each and every run, and my initial goal was to break 4:00 - but after relentless training (including the Eastern States 20 Miler) I decided to set an aggressive goal of 3:40. I knew I had it in me. I turned in a 3:39:19, or 8:22 per mile.

Sugarloaf was the turning point, when I truly realized I could do just about anything - including a 50 mile ultra last July, and my lastest endeavor, 12 marathons in 12 months.

Fast forward to today: I run anywhere from 30-50 miles a week, do 1,500 pushups a week, and attained my blue belt - the official half way mark to black belt. My blood pressure is 120/69, resting heart rate 51, and those triglycerides? Down from 387 to... .41!

I believe we all have a limitless reservoir of potential that flows within ourselves. Hard work has allowed me to drill down past the layers of self-doubt and complacency to unleash it - and in doing so, I've realized that I'm capable of so much more than I ever thought possible.

Never underestimate yourself!

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The Real Challenge + workout