Sneakers and Cigarettes
During my disaffected high school years I didn’t give much thought to exercise,
fitness was for “jocks.” I found my intellectual niche in the drama club while many of
my classmates maintained a rigid Olympian training schedule, participating in sports year
round. Between the ages of fourteen and nineteen I grew at least an inch a year and there
was plenty of space on my expanding frame for all of the whole milk, fast food and fatty
cafeteria offerings. The only physical activity I undertook was occasionally long, angst-
ridden walks in combat boots while listening to Gothic rock bands on my walkman. I
would aimlessly wander the suburbs and skip through the wooded areas and construction
sites in between the cul-de-sacs and strip malls, sorting out all of the heavy issues in my
During college I had to do a considerable amount of walking to get around.
Between walking to class, my job at the cafeteria, and off campus parties, I averaged at
least a mile a day. Exercise still wasn’t a necessary part of my life. I went from being an
anti-social drama kid to a socialist minded, long-haired free spirit that tended to look at
working out in a gym and regular planned exercise as part of a vain and bourgeois
society. But during this time I met a certain, self-proclaimed “man of steel” that changed
my attitude about exercise and running in particular.
Steve Gass and I met during cigarette breaks during my last year in the dorms.
Smoking cigarettes was a common way of meeting people in college, although it wasn’t
often that somebody as active as Steve smoked quite so much. He talked of running
cross-country in high school and training for marathons, all while maintaining a pack-a-
day smoking habit. The next year we lived together off campus and although I never
participated in any of his runs, I began to see that staying in good shape didn’t mean
having to give up all of your bad habits.
After graduation I realized that my future would probably involve a few decades
of stationary deskwork. The only exercise I would get expect during my usual day would
be walking across the parking lot in front of an office park or shopping center. During
my slow, monotonous days of office temping I found that taking a break every couple of
hours and hitting the snack machine on the way to the smoking area made the days go
faster. The vending machine at my first assignment was stocked with special packs of
Twinkies that contained three cakes instead of two. Within the first few weeks of
working in an office I was finding it necessary to adjust my belt buckle a notch outward.
It was time to come up with a fitness plan.
At the time I was twenty-three and had hadn’t run a mile since my eighth grade
fitness test. I had never been in an organized sport and had taken Ballroom Dancing
during college to complete my kinesiology requirement. Through the internet I learned
that ten minutes was a good pace for running a mile, and that a man of my height and
weight (6 foot, 195 pounds) could expect to burn about one to two hundred calories for
every mile completed. I dug out a pair of sneakers from my closet and tried to remember
some of the stretches from high school gym class.
I planned to run two times a week, on Tuesdays and Thursdays after work. The
first obstacle was to complete a mile. At the time I was living at my mom’s condo in
outer suburbia in Alexandria, Virginia. At the edge of the parking lot there was a
running/bike trail that paralleled a highway. I could take the trail for a half-mile arc, then
take a right onto a residential street that arced for another half mile back to my mom’s
house. I confirmed the distance by taking a pacing lap around the course in my car and
watching my odometer. It was important that the course form a circuit, one of my goals
was to create courses where I wouldn’t have to run back over the same distance twice.
Mile 1-June 1998
On a muggy Tuesday in June I took back all of the things I said about the vanity
of exercise and set out for my first attempt at running a mile. After half a mile my shirt
was splattered with sweat and I lost my breath after taking in too much thick, polluted
summer highway air. Running through a suburban area usually means no shade and
running over asphalt or concrete that has been soaking up the sun all day. As much as I’d
like to say that I finished the run with a smile, feeling like a “man of steel,” the truth is
that I had to take a breather at the halfway point. The best thing about running my first
mile was when it was over. My temples and lungs throbbed so much that it was hours
before I could stomach a cigarette, and I had only burned off just one of the Twinkies that
I had consumed that morning with my coffee.
Two days later on Thursday I ran the circuit without stopping, and it hurt just a
little less. I came up with my first maxim about running; that it wasn’t a matter of doing
it when I had the energy to, but a matter of sticking with the routine even when I didn’t
feel like I had the energy to do it. After maintaining my new routine for two weeks I
started off in the cooler darkness one night and managed an extra quarter lap around the
course, setting a new personal record.
Mile 2-July 1998
After a month of doing regular one-mile circuits I decided it was time to move
onto the next step. Rather than running the one-mile course twice, I decided to come up
with a new path. I mapped out a two-mile course, again with the aid of my car. The very
beginning and end were the same as my first course; it was simply a matter of taking
larger arcs through my neighborhood. Suburban roads tend to form arcs and cul-de-sacs,
curving back into themselves. I managed to make the first attempt without stopping,
burning off both of the Twinkies that I had that morning.
At this point I had been a runner for two months and was learning how to pace
myself, and I developed another maxim. In the beginning I had started off running as fast
as I could, at a sprinting pace, and would lose my breath quickly. Every few minutes I
would determine whether or not I was running as fast as I could. If I couldn’t possibly go
any faster, then I was sprinting, and I would slow myself down. At times I would be
moving only slightly faster than at the pace of a walk, although my legs were catching air
at every pace and I was still technically running.
Mile 4/Mile8-August 1998
On August 1st I turned twenty-four and was satisfied with my progress. By taking
up running I had won the first battle against aging, and I was eager to cover greater
distances. To find a four-mile route through my mom’s neighborhood I used a detailed
ADC (Awful Darned Careful) street map. This would become a valuable tool for
measuring distances on future suburban runs. After consulting the map and doing some
further measurements with my car I had found a wider four-mile arc through the suburbs.
I completed the four-mile route on the first attempt with little trouble.
Throughout August I ran the route several other times, occasionally alternating with the
two-mile route. I began to gather more running equipment, such as a water bottle and
digital watch to measure my progress. Up till that point I had used second-rate clothing
such as cut-off sweatpants. For the first time in my life I found myself acquiring a pair of
actual running shorts from Sports Authority. It was a treat to myself for having gone
through a whole summer without gaining a pound.
During the Labor Day weekend I decided to go for 8 miles, finishing the four-
mile course and then turning right around to do it again. The toughest part was bracing to
go through the same scenery twice. By this point I began to develop a certain rhythm.
During these runs I was able to turn inwards and get into the same near-meditative state
that I achieved during my long walks in high school. To get over and the fatigue and
pain I had to detach myself yet maintain a certain focus on moving my legs and keeping
my breathing regular. I could plan out my weekend, work out a plot detail on a particular
chapter I was writing, or finish an argument with my girlfriend. Every beat of every step
was like reading a single word in a book. When the fatigue set in I could often force a
solution to whatever was on my mind and focus on completing the run. After completing
that 8-miler at the very end of a productive summer it looked like I was well on my way
towards a healthy future. Perhaps the next summer I would be able to join my old friend
Steve in a marathon, the ultimate test of running ability.
Relapse-Fall 1998/Spring 1999
My new running habit wasn’t going to stick quite yet. During the fall of 1998 I
was able to fulfil one of my lifelong dreams after acquiring a six-month work permit for
the United Kingdom. I set off to London with my savings from the previous summer for
a stint as an office temp. There was a thrill in bringing my running shoes and shorts over
to London, like I was becoming an intercontinental athlete.
Getting from my West End flat to central London involved quite a bit of walking,
unlike commuting back in DC. Without a car I had to walk to get to pubs and grocery
stores. Once every week or two I would run around my neighborhood or hit parks like
Hampstead Heath. Despite the fact that I was drinking more and running less, my weight
still continued to go down with all of the walking. By the time I came back to America in
spring, my weight had gone all the way down to 180 pounds. Although I was still
getting out and doing a few miles every now and then, I had broken my routine.
After my stint in London I returned to my mother’s condo in Alexandria and did
nothing for two months. It was a somber moment in my life. With a Communications
degree I had little career prospects. After sulking around my mom’s condo for two
months I started temping, but didn’t get back into my running routine. I still occasionally
ran the two and four mile courses that I had mapped out, but not frequently enough to
hold back my weight gain.
During my dreary days as an office temp I got back into snacking and eating
dinner sized lunches, such as the half chicken and two-sides special at Boston Market.
Many of my old college clothes wouldn’t fit, and I had to by a new wardrobe of pants
with a larger waist size. I also tried to quit smoking for the first time and my metabolism
slowed down. In August I turned 25 and my weight had gone up all the way to 220
pounds. At the one year anniversary of finishing my first 8-miler I found myself bloated
and defeated. The shorts I took out of storage were tight and began to tear at the crotch
as the summer wore on. The prospect of running was further diminished by a move to
the unfamiliar locale of Montgomery County, Maryland. My commute went from a half-
hour drive to a thirteen-stop ride on Metro Red Line that took an hour and half each way.
After twelve-hour days, I had little energy left for exercise.
Millennial Resolutions-Spring 2000
The year 2000 rolled over and with the significance of the millennium I decided
to make a resolution that was just as profound. When I started my running routine after
graduation the goal had been to maintain my current shape, now I had the goal of losing
twenty pounds. It was not only going to be a matter of completing long runs, but
modifying my food intake as well so that I burned more than I took in.
I began to look at the nutritional information on the side of the packages when I
went to the grocery store and consulted the internet for more detailed information. The
normal food intake (what I could expect to burn in a typical day of deskwork) for a man
of my age and weight was about 3000 calories. I decided to slash my intake to 1500
calories a day when I didn’t run, stocking up on low fat groceries . On the days that I did
run I would treat myself to a full day’s worth of food. A four-mile run that burned 600
calories would make a dent against my intake, but not so much if I treated myself to a
twenty ounce, 250 calorie soda afterwards.
I needed to plan out longer, more regular runs. Instead of two periods of exercise
a week I decided on three. Until it got warm enough for longer runs I could use the
treadmill at the fitness center in my apartment complex. It was a challenge to stay on the
treadmill for more than ten minutes at a time, although at least there was a television in
the workout area.
After consulting my ADC map of Montgomery County I was dismayed that the
opportunities for suburban runs in Gaithersburg weren’t as apparent. It seemed as though
I couldn’t go more than half a mile without hitting a bad neighborhood or uncrossable
highway. But I discovered an unusual aspect of my daily commute from Washington to
Shady Grove Metro in Rockville. The station was about a mile from Lake Needwood
Park, which was actually the end of the Rock Creek Park trail that began along the
Potomac near the Mall downtown. The trail worked it’s way through Northwest along
the creek past the National Zoo, though the wilderness enclave of Rock Creek Park in
Northwest, crossing the state line into Bethesda, Maryland, all the way back to Lake
Needwood in Rockville. From the National Zoo the Red Line of the Metro roughly
paralleled the trail. Any point along the Rock Creek Park trail was never more than two
miles from a Metro Station. As the weather warmed I developed my most ambitious
running plans yet. It was possible for me to actually run most of the way home from
10 miles-February 2000
My plan was to run regular ten and fifteen-mile runs from downtown DC to
Rockville where my car was parked at the Shardy Grove Metro station. One Sunday I
ran five miles from Lake Needwood towards DC on the Rock Creek Trail, then turned
around and ran back. I wanted to be sure that I could cover such distances while there
was plenty of daylight rather than getting stuck in the dark after work. I had been
rebuilding my running abilities on the treadmill and finished my first ten-miler without
15 miles-March 2000
By March I was ready to make my first attempt at fifteen miles. I took the Metro
into work as usual and left an hour early to make sure I had enough daylight. Starting
from the National Zoo, I figured it would be fifteen miles to Lake Needwood, where my
girlfriend would pick me up. I was capable of running fifteen miles, but on this run I had
committed my biggest running error of all.
For nearly two years I had been using the ADC maps to plan out runs. They had
been an invaluable resource so far, although on this run I had miscalculated the distance.
It was difficult to measure the length of the curvy trail on the flat map. I’ve always
approximated such distances with my fingers against the distance key at the bottom.
Messing up the distance on a drive isn’t such a big deal as long as you don’t run out of
gas. But while measuring the distance of my run over the course of several pages of the
ADC map I had been off by twenty-five percent. The distance from the Zoo to Lake
Needwood had actually been twenty miles.
My girlfriend was going to wait for me at the end of the trail. Five more miles
would be at least fifty extra minutes. I had only given myself a ten-minute window
before sunset. I got off the Rock Creek trail in Bethesda by Medical Center Metro, took
the last few stops, and then raced in my car to the park. My girlfriend was standing at the
end of the trail looking concerned, and was startled to see me coming from the other
direction. It was an anti-climactic end to my first fifteen-mile run, but at least I had
thought up an excuse during the last few miles.
New Routine-Spring/Summer 2000
At the time of the two-year anniversary of completing my first mile I was back
into my routine and had lost twenty pounds. I was regularly completing ten and fifteen
mile runs. My clothes were too big after going from a thirty-eight waist down to a size
thirty-four. On the weekends I would go on gleeful shopping sprees at Target and The
Gap, buying new clothes for my tighter frame.
Also during this time I began to take advantage of the many running trails that
grace the Washington, DC area. Besides the Rock Creek Trail there are dozens of others
to explore on weekends or after work during the longer daylights of the year. In
suburban Maryland there is Lake Clopper in Seneca Creek State Park outside
Gaithersburg offering four to six mile circuits. The C and O Canal Trail extends from
Georgetown out 180 miles all the way to Cumberland. For a nice downhill slope there is
the Capitol Crescent, which extends from Silver Spring to DC through Bethesda, built on
an old railroad grade.
Suburban Virginia offers several circuit courses such as the suburban four-mile
courses around Burke Lake and Lake Accotink. There are straight courses at Bull Run
Park and Huntley Meadows. In Arlington two trails merge. The Mount Vernon Trail
extends from George Washington’s historic home and the W, O, and D trail is built over
an old railroad grade that goes out fifty miles out to Purcelville. Thus Cumberland, Great
Falls, DC, Silver Spring, Bethesda, Arlington, Purcelville, and Mount Vernon are all
linked by hundreds of miles of trails.
At this point I was able to join my old friend Steve Gass on runs. I was
considering my first marathon, but by this point Steve had moved on to “ultra marathons”
that ranged from fifty to one hundred miles. I had acquired better running shoes and new
equipment such as a Fuel Belt, ™ a water carrier that carried twenty ounces of water split
between four smaller five ounce bottles to prevent bouncing. I registered for the new
Montgomery County Marathon in the Parks in November. It looped along the Rock
Creek Park Trail, which I had learned nearly every bend of by that point.
20 Miles-October 2000-False Start
After registering for the marathon I decided to attempt a twenty-mile practice run
a few weeks before the November date. I chose a familiar section of the C and O Canal
Trail near Harper’s Ferry. My girlfriend, who was more of a biker, went ahead and left
bottles of Gatorade along the way. This was going to be ten miles out and back. It was
my least favorite way of doing a run, but the drudgery of seeing the same course twice
was the least of my problems. The night before I had been out drinking and had only
gotten four hours of sleep. At the end I felt like I had been beaten with baseball bats.
The next day I left work early and tried to sleep off the pain. The throbbing in my
joints subsided but I had a fluttering in my chest and decided to consult a doctor. Having
a heart monitor strapped to my chest for twenty-four hours revealed nothing. My doctor
thought that the fluttering might have something to do with an allergy medication that I
was taking at the time. The fluttering didn’t come back but I decided to write off the
thirty-five dollar registration fee and put aside my marathon plans for the moment.
I still continued to run after my scare but readjusted my training. After moving
back to Virginia I joined the gym at my new job at George Mason University. During the
winters I was able to add swimming and weightlifting to my routine. This strengthened
my back and shoulder muscles that tended to get sore during the longer runs. I made
some changes to my diet, making sure to get plenty of fruits and vegetables. On the
nights before longer runs I made sure to get enough sleep and watched my drinking. I
was able to continue all of my vices while continuing more moderate four to ten mile
runs on the weekend.
In the summer of 2002 one of my co-workers at the library convinced me to again
register for the Marathon in the Parks. Andrew McNeil was a former high school athlete
who had only run a maximum of nine miles but had a rivalry with his younger sister. She
had completed the Disney Marathon the year before at a time of six hours and Andrew
was determined to beat her time.
Throughout the summer and fall of 2002 Andrew and I trained together. The first
time we attempted to run the four-mile circuit around Burke Lake he had to stop for a
breather. It was a bit distressing but I had confidence in him. While I had been goofing
off backstage in high school he had been playing basketball and baseball. He was a
dedicated graduate student and he didn’t smoke. I was able to show off the trails that I
had discovered over the years. We tried to meet up at least once a week to run, but would
also train by ourselves. From my new place in Arlington I could run directly to
downtown DC via the Mt Vernon Trail over the Memorial Bridge. From my place to the
Mall, around the Capitol and back again was ten miles. It was my new, special trail
developed just to train for the marathon.
Two months before the marathon my personal life went to shit and I started
drinking more. The days were getting shorter and it became difficult to do training runs
after work. I had hoped to be running at least three times a week but would often only
manage to squeeze in just once a week. At the one-month mark Andrew and I did a ten-
miler along the Rock Creek Park trail from Bethesda to the Zoo and I had to stop three
times. During the marathon I expected to take a few walking breaks, but I was clearly in
trouble. Andrew was in the midst of his dissertation and PHD applications and was
falling behind as well. But the male macho code didn’t allow for either of us to quit first
without a lifetime of heartless insults. We would be at the starting line at six in the
morning or never live it down.
Marathon-November 17th, 2002
On a cold rainy morning I found myself driving to Shady Grove Metro in
Rockville before dawn. This had been the rallying point of my first ten and fifteen-mile
runs from two years before. The same point I used to leave for work everyday while
living with my ex-girlfriend in our miserable little love nest. I was a twenty-eight year
old drinker that smoked half a pack a day, but I was still thin and eager to prove that I
was a “man of steel.”
Half of the 1500 registered participants decided not to show up that morning
because of the rain. At least it would only rain for the first hour of the race, leaving me
four more hours to dry off. At seven in the morning 750 runners started off with a trudge
in the murky sunrise. The route zigzagged through several residential neighborhoods for
the first six miles. It was encouraging to see several dozen people holding up signs
along the way; the passing of the runners was quite an event here. A group of children
were out with signs that read “yeah runners” and “go faster!” In front of a church right
before the entrance to Lake Needwood there was a group of parishioners shouting non-
denominational cheers and playing the theme from Chariots of Fire over a boom box.
There were aid stations set up every two miles along the route passing out Ultima,
an awful generic version of Gatorade. At mile 8 in Lake Needwood the aid station
workers were dressed as “mullet men,” wearing bad wigs and flannel shirts. At the
halfway point outside Bethesda the workers were dressed up as 60’s hippies and 70’s
disco dancers in the middle of a muddy soccer field passing out packets of some intense
energy supplement with the word “goo” in it.
Generally I was feeling pretty good with the exception of the cold. The drizzle
had soaked through my running jacket, T-shirt, and stocking cap and left me shivering.
Every couple of miles I could stick the stocking cap back into my coat pocket for a few
minutes and have a lukewarm steaming wet cap as opposed to a cold wet one for a little
while. Finding distractions like that was a way of passing the time, much better than the
discouraging act of counting the elapsed miles and hours.
At the twenty-mile mark the aid station provided chocolate chip cookies and
Vaseline to prevent nipple bleeds. It had been four hours and I was still maintaining what
technically passed for a running stride. I celebrated by walking the next mile, allowing
all of the soreness I had held back to catch up and pierce my legs at every stride. It was
discouraging knowing that the front runners were finishing the race at two-and-a-half
hours while I was at the halfway point.
After one more half-mile walk at the twenty-three mile mark I finished the last
two-and-a-half miles in a straight shot. I found a sudden burst of energy and managed to
pass forty other runners in the last ten-minute mile. After finishing with a time just under
five hours I lacked the energy to jump up and down. I was cold and only able to move
slowly with a slight limp, thinking, “ this must be what it’s like to be eighty.” Running
those twenty-six miles on that rainy day in November was the hardest thing I had ever
It had taken eight years for me to become a “man of steel” after meeting Steve
Gass over cigarette breaks in the dorms. Completing the marathon was more of setting
out to prove a principle rather than the cornerstone to healthy workout strategy. Sticking
with the running routine gave me a certain amount of pride. Being in good shape has
advantages beyond staying thin. I never have trouble shoveling snow or unloading
groceries. But there was something more. This was something that I had done myself,
something that could not be bought. Finishing the marathon was something that I owed
only to myself. I did it in my own style. I was not a health freak, still drank, and didn’t
even have to give up smoking.