From Couch to Marathon in 6 Months, Losing 85 Pounds on the Way!

I have to confess that inside of myself, even as I notched 5Ks, 8Ks and a half-marathon, I still held the notion that I wouldn’t be a REAL runner until I completed a marathon. And having just completed my first marathon – the Wineglass Marathon in Corning, NY – and having done it better than expected … I am now a REAL runner.

At the beginning of June, I wrote about what I termed the “Adult Vanquishing of Childhood Monsters” … as I ran my first (and second) 5K Road Race and totally banished my self-imposed thought of myself as forever a painfully slow ‘jogger’. In that post, I described my path to weight loss through the years, which had landed me at being around 200 pounds for most of the last 23 years. But as noted, by late March this year my slow weight gain since getting my thyroid under control had gotten me up to ~275 pounds or so … and worse yet I simply wasn’t enjoying running AT ALL. I was physically uncomfortable, and therefore I would manage a day or two a week of half-hearted runs and end up taking a week or so off – and more than eating the difference.

The realization

Last year my brother ran his first marathon – the Wineglass in Corning. He lives in Princeton, NJ, so he stayed with us and I drove him to the starting line. At that point he expressed that he wished we were doing it together – and so did I, even though I had no desire to run. At the conclusion of the weekend, we made a deal that we would run the 2012 Wineglass Marathon together! But as I said in my earlier article:

But it was when my brother visited over Easter and we went for a run with him wearing his Garmin 305 that I came to a realization – I was running a shorter distance and at a slower pace than I had thought. I was simply going on time and feel, and was terribly wrong. I knew I was slow … but not THAT slow. And it was that visit that was the kick in the butt I needed.

That was the realization that I wasn’t even doing the paltry workouts I THOUGHT I was doing – and was in no way headed to a marathon … that was at that point less than 6 months away. I have been told I can have an iron will … and I would need all of it to get there.

Wait … when did this become TRAINING?!?

As I wrote about before, I started using my phone GPS and quickly ramped my daily mileage from the ~2.25 miles I was doing through 5 miles and up to nearly 7 miles and started running 5 or 6 days a week as I worked up to the first 5k. I have always found that my eating habits self-regulate when I am exercising ‘for real’ – I gravitate towards fruits and fresh vegetables and away from processed foods and fried stuff. So over the next month the weight started to quickly drop off. In fact, if you look at the images at the top and bottom of the earlier post, you can see a significant weight change in just a few weeks.

At the same time my pace was improving, as was my endurance. There is apparently a word for this – ‘training’. I was just trying to get in shape and lose weight; but I was also starting to read up on marathon training and techniques, and had discovered a half-marathon ~5 weeks before the full marathon that I felt would be perfect to use a pre-race warm-up.

For most of the summer after we got back from vacation in early July I was running 8-10 miles per day 5-6 days per week, with an occasional 7th day run or ‘double’ dropped in there for fun. I was discovering that I needed to eat more – I was burning thousands of calories per day and especially with how many warm and humid days we experienced I found I was losing energy too often.

As I talked to some other folks about my running and plans, they would ask about training and offer advice … and I discovered that purely by luck and instinct I had fallen into a reasonably solid training plan.

The problem – although I was eating ‘more’ I was still intentionally operating at a calorie deficit. I have written about my weight loss before, but as I approached my half-marathon I had lost 75 pounds in 4.5 months but wasn’t quite done yet.

My Half-Marathon ‘Teachable Moment’

When the weekend for my half marathon came I knew I wouldn’t have a problem with the distance – I was running close to 10 miles each day, and knew that I should be able to make the race at a sub-10 minute per mile pace. And in fact I managed to get across at a 9:24 pace as Dan Judie and Carly wrote about here.

But I made three critical mistakes:
– I forgot my GPS watch at home and by the time I realized it was too late. As a result I went out at someone else’s pace rather than my own, meaning that despite feeling great for about eight miles, I faded at the end. Lesson – if you don’t run your own race you will fail running someone else’s!
– I was running full-out right up through going 10 miles on Friday before the Saturday race. I had read about ‘tapering’ but hadn’t given it much thought – for me running that 10 proved I was ready, but in reality it simply depleted my carb stores. Combine this with my continued weight loss diet and it is the basis for another lesson: an endurance event is no time for overtraining and under-eating!
– I was stingy with my mid-run fuel. I had a few Gu packets and chews, but only had one at the half-way mark. I should have had some before, and twice during the race. Oh, and I could really have done better going with Gatorade rather than water at the stops. Lesson – running an endurance event is NOT the time to worry about calories!

As a result I crossed the finish line with a good time but not feeling great. In fact it took a while to know HOW I felt … I was ‘funky’; knew I should eat but really couldn’t. And it took all of the following week to really get back to my routine.

From this experience I read up about tapering and marathon eating – and in particular the maxims that you should stay away from the scale before a marathon, and that no one ever complained about being too well rested before a marathon.

The Final Month

I am choosing to pretend my ‘5-day juice detox‘ never happened, except to say that had I willfully stuck through it I could have totally ruined my marathon training. Thankfully I had my priorities in order and quickly quit and got back to reality.

At this point school had started, and that led me to keep my daily runs at 7-8 miles, which I continued running 6 days with some doubles for a total of 8-10 runs per week (yes, that is ~75 miles per week for a few weeks, not too bad). At the same time I had greatly increased my food intake – I was having much larger breakfasts with plenty of protein (mostly peanut butter) and then having fruit and trail mix at my desk along with water all day. I discovered the joys of chocolate milk as recovery food. And two weeks before the marathon I decided that I simply ‘had to know’, so I ran ~26.5 miles on one Sunday – it was split up into two runs because I needed to shuttle the kids around … but it made me pretty sure I could do it.

And although you really are NOT supposed to worry about weight as you head to a marathon, I had to know. So just before I started my ‘taper’ period of lower exercise and continued high caloric intake I stepped on the scale one last time:

I was down 85 pounds in 5.5 months. I hadn’t weighed this little since before I got married more than 20 years ago, and was within 5 pounds of the thinnest of my life. And I was in the best shape of my life.

The Marathon Arrives

As I mentioned I took two weeks to ‘taper’, which meant one week of running 4 – 6 miles per day, varying pace, distance, flat and hill composition, and so on. The final Sunday I wanted to do a distance speed push, so I plotted out ~9 miles and wanted to keep close to 9 minutes per mile. I managed to have 8 of the 9 miles sub-9 minute, with the exception of the steep hill section where I dropped to just over 10 minutes. It felt really good, though it was probably not the best choice since it would require decent recovery.

The final week I ran every other day for 4 miles, with one day running close to 8 miles on a fairly flat course at a moderate pace. And on the day before the race as noted here I took the new Garmin ForeRunner 10 out for a quick 2.25 mile warm-up run. As I had read – if you are not ready two weeks before a marathon, you will never be ready. And despite nerves, I thought was ready.

My brother and my niece arrived mid-afternoon the day before, and we headed to the Marathon Expo in Corning where we got our bibs and shirts and wineglasses and champagne bottles and did a bit of shopping. It was a busy day at the house because it was the homecoming football game and my older son is in marching band so both boys headed there … and then had the semi-formal homecoming dance that night (with not too much teen drama this year, fortunately). As a result we got to bed later than planned (with Judie and Dan catching me on email and asking WTF are YOU doing awake?) … and 5AM arrived too early.

The Race and the Aftermath

My goal was to try to run a 10 minute per mile pace as long as possible and hopefully break 4:30. Actually I should back up – that is my THIRD goal, my first two were (a) to finish and (b) to run the entire time (many people hit a wall and alternate running and walking after about 20 miles).

The weather was perfect – about 45 degrees and mostly cloudy. I wore a sweatshirt that was in our ‘donate to charity’ pile and gave my brother a thermal shirt from the same pile. These were ‘throwaways’ – they would be discarded and not be recovered. My wife drove us to the finish line and we took the shuttle to the start, where we stayed inside the registration building for a while until we hit the starting line. Here is a picture of my brother and I before the start:

I was determined to NOT repeat my half-marathon mistakes, so we sought out the 4:25 pace group. The way a marathon goes is they have people assigned to hold to a certain pace for the whole race, and have a flag that sticks up so you can follow. By keeping a pace that is on your target, you avoid going out to quickly and fading later. We kept pace with the group slightly ahead then slightly behind … but after the hills at 5 and 8 miles my brother was starting to lag and we were falling back. By 10 miles he was feeling pretty crappy and told me to go on ahead. By mile 12 I had caught up with the 4:25 group and ran the rest of the race just slightly ahead of them.

The crowds that showed up and cheered on the side-lines were great – many people would move from spot to spot and cheer. The Elmira College field hockey team manned the mile 14 water station, and I could hear their cheers a half mile before and after we passed them! I also enjoyed seeing people I knew helping out as volunteers – and you really cannot overstate the impact of the legions of volunteers.

Best yet – I never hit a wall. I stretched my arms and worked my lungs every mile starting around 16, and while I certainly got tired I never fell off pace. In fact, there was a section about a mile long through a park where the path was narrow (two people wide) and there were people scattered all along cheering where it was hard to pass a few people to keep my pace – it was frustrating, but I knew that since I was running a single-pace race I was starting to pass those who went out too fast or were just hitting the wall.

Although I know the area fairly well and had looked at the map, for some reason I was surprised when I came upon Bridge Street, which would take us over the bridge and then have us turn onto Market Street for the last three tenths of a mile. I had it in my head we came out on the far side of the intersection with Pulteney Street but we came out on the near side, making my final distance a full quarter-mile shorter than I thought! As a result when I rounded the corner onto Market Street I had plenty of reserve energy and broke out into a much faster pace and passed perhaps a dozen or more people (you can see one in the image above).

I crossed the finish line with a time of 4:21:58, almost exactly 10 minutes per mile, and a few minutes ahead of the pace group I had tracked all day.

As I crossed the finish line, I felt surprisingly good – in fact I felt MUCH better than after my half-marathon, my 26.5 mile day two weeks prior or my ill-advised 15.5 in high heat after a long day of activity. It took a minute to really assess how I felt – I had a medal placed around my neck, grabbed the aluminum blanket wrapped around me and had some chocolate milk before I tried to find my family. I ran into a coworker who finished about 10 minutes after me, and ate some great chicken soup.

I knew I had run well, and my pacing was perfect – I actually had energy to spare, but wouldn’t have changed a thing since I would rather have excess energy than have faded badly at the end. My pace was nearly flat throughout – check out my Garmin race summary!

My brother said that if this was a loop course he would gladly have given up at mile 15, but he managed to run/walk to the end at ~5:20 total time. I saw a couple of people I knew while we waited and we cheered for EVERYONE coming down Market Street – I knew what it meant to me to hear the cheers. It was a great day, and since I felt good I was able to work to make the rest of the day – which happened to also be Lisa’s birthday – special for her.

What did I learn and What’s Next?

Now that a day has passed and I continue to feel great, I am more pleased than ever. People are amazed at how great I look and feel and am getting around, whereas my coworker is hobbling, looks spent and is more like the post-marathon image people expect.

I am a runner now … for REAL. But that is really meaningless … I have accomplished so much more than that.

I have managed to drop 85 pounds in 6 months; to go from running 2.25 miles at about a 13:45 pace 4 times a week to running 7-8 miles per day 6 days a week at a pace of about 9:30. I ran my first 5K, completed a half-marathon, and have now completed a full 26.2 mile marathon and walked away with energy left in my tank. It was not as hard as I expected, to which I owe my training and hard work over these month.

Tomorrow I will be back on the road, starting off with about 4-6 miles depending on how I feel and working back to full 50 mile per week schedule over the next couple of weeks. I have another half-marathon (hill-based this time) in a month, and this time I will be ready.

I know I am very fortunate – first off I have an iron will, which has always allowed me to turn decisions into action; I also have really good joints and body structure that allows me to punish myself for 26.2 miles without any real issues; finally I have a resilient body that can drop weight quickly and work with me to accomplish my goals.

But I am also proud of myself – I managed to lose more weight than I could have hoped, get myself into the best shape of my life, and do something I didn’t even have on my bucket list since I just always had it on the ‘out of reach’ list for myself. I am fortunate to have a wife and family and friends that believe in me, and glad that I believed in myself.

A couple of notes: thanks to US Cellular, whose Samsung Galaxy SIII took these pictures, and thanks to Garmin for rushing me a ForeRunner 10 to use on the race – it is a testimony to their reputation that I left my Nike+ watch at home on my first marathon, and the confirmation is that I will never go back.

Categories: Health and Fitness

4 replies

  1. Wow this is so amazing, congratulations! I’m starting to live healthier after the freshman year weight gain.

  2. Excellent work, Mike! I’ve been following your progress with interest. You are an inspiration!

  3. What an inspiring story. Thanks for sharing, and congratulations. I know that if I talk to any running friends who feel a lack of inspiration I may send them a link to this.

    Six months to a marathon is extraordinary and your pride is justifiable. I don’t think it takes a marathon to be a real runner; you were a real runner months ago and you just didn’t realize it.