I’ve always been overweight (the polite term was always “stocky”), and for the most part, sedentary. I’ve lifted weights in the past, but certainly never ran or did anything that required sustained movement for longer than, say, a minute. I never ran in high school or college – not track, not cross country. To be honest, I didn’t even enjoy being in the outdoors. I loved watching TV, movies, and playing music. I’d never even ran a mile prior to January 2010.
I moved to Tennessee in 2009 to work at Holston Valley. I met the future love of my life, Evan Hawkins, in September of that year. She, on the other hand, was a runner. A major runner. She ran cross country in high school, and even ran the Little Rock Marathon. Oh yeah, and she climbed Mt. Rainer. I was tipping the scales at 210 pounds, had no intention of running with her, and have no idea what exactly she saw in me. To further complicate matters, her entire family consisted of avid adventurers, runners, and world travelers. They were all highly competitive, and had no qualms about saying so.
Evan and I had a significant discussion towards the end of ‘09 where she told me that she had always envisioned herself married to, if not a runner, at least someone who cared about their health and loved the outdoors. That certainly wasn’t me. I’ll never forget the moment: She laid out her love of the outdoors, camping, hiking, and National Parks. She described people who ran races as “happy, healthy people”, and that she enjoyed being around them, loved running races, and wanted her life to be filled with people and events like that. Something inside me clicked. A flame was lit.
I ran for the first time on January 11, 2010. I did two miles in 31 minutes. It was more like walking fast. I had chest pains and shortness of breath. But I was proud. The next day, I did three miles in 42 minutes. And I was even prouder. I bought some Mizuno running shoes. I loved listening to my iPod while I ran, and I loved reporting to Evan my progress and times. Growing up in SC, I’ve always known about the Cooper River Bridge Run in Charleston, but never dreamed I would ever actually run it. One of my Valentine’s Day gifts for Evan was signing us up for it. Being actually signed up for a real race completely motivated me to keep training and running, mostly so I wouldn’t embarrass myself. I turned 30 on March 6, and I actually ran 10 miles that morning – a feat that only months before would have been laughable to me. I resolved to change my life, finally get fit, become a real runner, and ensure that my 30's would outshine my 20's.
I also soon began reading about running and famous runners. I read about people who quickly became my running heroes. I read about Dean Karnazes, Kilian Jornet, and Geoff Roes. I bought all of Dean’s books, and even bought the "Ultramarathon Man DVD, which I have probably watched, in all honesty, 200 times by now. I discovered legends like Prefontaine, Bikila, and Haile Gebrselassie. Also, it became clear that I would never be a truly great road runner due to my body type, and the fact I actually found road running monotonous for the most part. I read about a type of running that I never even knew existed: trail running. It seemed to fit me. I am short, “stocky”, with muscular, thick legs: not the prototypical elite marathoner. My body was actually like Dean’s was (except much less fine-tuned, of course). That motivated me, and I soon hit the trails. I began running at Bays, Laurel, and Warriors, and I was hooked. Running on trails and being around nature, animals, rocks, roots, streams and trees was breathtaking to me, and it made me want to go longer and farther and to run stronger; as opposed to roads, which made me want to stop at the next stop light. The sights, sounds, and smells were so fresh and vivid and ever-changing and colorful, as opposed to the road, with trucks, horn-honks, sewer drains, and exhaust fumes. I bought a hydration pack, a pair of Salomons, and compression stockings. I started looking up to the guys who I considered to be the “local trail elites”: the Smelsers, Goodmans, Warners, Clabaughs, and Grays. The 11-mile Laurel Run up to the firetower and back became by far my favorite run, and I was soon doing it almost weekly. My dog also unsurprisingly loved it, and Evan loved joining me on the trails as well. She even commented during one of our early Laurel runs “Who would have ever thought you’d be leading the way running like this.” Her amazement at my progress only served to further push me. Success breeds success.
Then came my first race ever. The 2010 Chasing Snakes 10K. I was pumped. Evan assured me before the race “if you feel like you need to stop and walk, its okay, this is your first race”. But I’d been running for three solid months, had already lost almost 20 pounds, gained muscle, built some endurance, and was ready to show off my stuff. Standing at the starting line in my sparkling new North face t-shirt, with Evan beside me was something I’ll never forget. Her brother, who is a high school cross-country runner, and stepfather, who has run half-marathons, done triathalons, and climbed mountains before, were also all running it. The gunshot sounded and we were off. I felt good right away. Foo Fighters were pounding in my headphones. Evan and I stayed together for the first few miles. Then it was almost as if I became possessed by a force unknown to me. I began to actually go faster, eventually passing both her stepfather Mark and her brother Cliff, amazingly. I couldn’t believe what was happening. I was sure that I would hit the wall and fizzle out before the end, but I didn’t. I just kept running, even up the hills, and finished first amongst the family! Evan’s mom was taken by such surprise that she missed taking my picture at the end, simply assuming that Cliff would finish first. It was an tremendous moment, and I was prouder than ever. That race sealed the deal: needless to say, running was something that I wanted to continue, become better at, and it was that moment that I realized that I obviously had real potential and could maybe, just maybe, be a really strong runner one day.
I kept running, kept getting fitter, and I kept trail running. I’m a regular now at all the big local races. Evan and I even ran the Haunted Half dressed as Mario and Luigi, two weeks after a trail Half in Atlanta, and two weeks before the Veteran’s Day Classic, which I PR’d at. I’m hooked, and my peak is too far in the distance to even see. I have stopped trying to run really fast, and now focus on going far, and then farther. I have dreams of 50K and 50-mile trail races in the future. It’s my ultimate dream to even run Western States, Ultra Trail Mont Blanc, Wasatch, and Leadville in the next few years. Besides simply running, the whole gestalt of fitness, endurance, and adventure is now my passion. I have even done a 24-mile one-day AT hike in the Smokies, and a one-day 18-mile Rim-to-River-to-Rim hike in the Grand Canyon with Evan – after which I proposed to her. And she said “Yes!” That’s right; she will be my wife on April 30! My entire life has been literally turned around by running, the outdoors, searching for adventures, and a girl named Evan.
5. Chasing Snakes. My first race. Having never even run a 5K, I didn’t know to expect. Somehow, I finished first amongst the ‘Hawkins family’, thus igniting a heated family rivalry that lasts to this day.
4. Laurel Run Ascent. Who in their right mind would attempt an 11-mile mountain run after only running for a mere 4 months? You guessed it. My first true challenge, and my first real trail race. I will never forget finishing this race, the moment when the finish line, and Evan, came into view at the end. I beat my goal time by 15 minutes, survived, and fell into her arms. This was the beginning of my passion for trails. No turning back since.
3. Cooper River Bridge Run. In my hometown, with the love of my life. We ran it together, and it was our first real ‘destination race’. We ran slow, chit-chatted, smelled the roses, gazed at the sights, took pictures of each other running, sang along with the music, and finished hand-in-hand. And then we gorged ourselves on oranges, bagels, and Clif bars at the massive finish line festival in downtown Charleston. Beautiful race. We’ll be back in 2011!
2. AniMile. One of the lights of my life is my 3-year old spaniel Toby. I have done countless training runs with him at Bays and Warriors, and I’ve longed to race with him. We did run the Greeneville Astros 5K together, but this single mile race was his crowning achievement. We finished fifth place overall, ran it in matching shirts, and had more fun than words can describe. He’s never been happier or more visibly excited. He soaked up the crowd’s cheers, and he pulled me the entire mile! Sensational day!
1. Bays Mountain 15-Miler. My longest and toughest run to date. I had bonked at the Wolf, and even scarier, at the Eastman Road Race only a week prior, and was seriously doubting whether or not I was attempting suicide with this race. But I loved Bays so much and knew I’d regret it if I didn’t even try. Somehow, I gutted it out and finished! For me, the most unforgettable running moment of 2010 was at around mile 12, at Feagins Gap. I was destroyed, my feet were hamburger, legs were lead, and I was forced to walk for the first time in the race. I desperately wanted to quit, and my inner voices were shrieking “Just quit”. But then other inner voices were telling me “This is YOUR mountain, this is your training ground, this is who you are now!” I thought about a line from Ultramarathon Man: “What counts in battle is what you do when the pain sets in”. At that moment, I looked up, and at the top of the hill, I saw my beautiful Evan, jumping up and down, smiling ear-to-ear, screaming and cheering me on. I crumpled into her arms, we hugged, and she paced me for the remainder of the brutal race. This is my crowning achievement race up to this point, and I wouldn’t have even finished without her.
First Year of Running – PR’s
1 mile – 6:13 – AniMile
5K – 21:27 – AmazingRace
10K – 51:27 – Chasing Snakes
Half Marathon – 1:46 – Veteran’s Day Classic
2011 will be an even better year of running, and for life; and I can’t wait!