63. Finding Inspiration in Each Other

63. Finding Inspiration in Each Other

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Runners

Finding Inspiration in Each Other

The best angle from which to approach any problem is the try-angle.
 ~Author Unknown

I took a long, hard look in the mirror at age thirty-one and faced a harsh reality. I definitely was not the same person I had been ten years earlier. The subtle changes that had occurred gradually over the years suddenly seemed drastic and the numbers on the bathroom scale emphasized my physical decline.

In 1980, while on work furlough during an economic downturn, I used the time off to catch up on projects around the house. One day, I was painting my garage when I noticed a woman running past. She was obese and was wearing a bulky, gray sweat suit, which reminded me of the one Rocky wore while getting in shape for his big fight in the first movie.

The next time the woman ran past my house, I glanced at my watch and then kept an eye out for her return. To my amazement, she jogged by nearly 90 minutes later. I thought she must be in better shape than she looked. This woman’s determination made a lasting impression on me.

Another nudge was provided by an article in a health magazine, which said the lifestyle you settle into in your thirties is how you’ll most likely live out the remainder of your life. For me, that was a scary prospect.

At the time, I was a parent volunteer at my daughter’s elementary school. One of my first assignments was to chaperone a “Jump Rope for Heart” fundraiser. The children jumped rope for as long as they could to collect pledges for total minutes jumped.

I remember being especially impressed by one kid who jumped for more than an hour, proving that he was in great shape. At that point in my life, exercising for an hour seemed impossible. I tried jumping rope at the event and was embarrassed by how few minutes I could keep going. I bought one of the jump ropes, took it home and began my leap of faith into the exercise realm.

While helping in the school’s pool several weeks later, the physical education teacher, Mr. Wondergem, asked if I had lost weight. My weight had crept up to 196 pounds at one point, but by then I had gotten down to the low 160s. I told him that I had lost weight and that I also planned to take up running now that I was no longer out of breath when I climbed a single flight of stairs.

Mr. W. suggested I read Runner’s World magazine to get some running tips. The issue I picked up featured “How to Run Your First Marathon” and I was enthralled with the idea. Amby Burfoot, winner of the 1968 Boston Marathon, wrote the article, which was accompanied by a training chart with daily mileage requirements alternating with rest days. It all seemed so simple.

On my 32nd birthday, inspired by that obese woman jogging past my house, and armed with a training plan, I took my first steps as a runner. My initial goal was to run two miles. After only two blocks, I was forced to abandon the quest. I limped home and pondered my fate.

The following morning, I told my wife Gail I didn’t think I would run that day because I hurt all over. She agreed that resting was probably a good idea. But then I asked, “Well, what will prevent me from saying the same thing the next day or the next?” I knew if I was going to reach my two-mile goal, it had to be a total commitment.

On my second outing, with each step more painful than the one before, my goal was simply to run a little farther than the previous day. As I continued training, I learned that I could go farther by taking walking breaks when it simply hurt too much to keep running. Eventually, the walking breaks became less frequent and the small milestones of going farther each day helped me accomplish my bigger goal of running an entire two miles.

The next time Mr. W. remarked on my weight loss, my running mileage had increased and my weight was down to the 150s. He wondered how I had lost the weight so quickly. I told him I had followed his advice and read Runner’s World and that I was following a marathon training plan. “You can’t, Roy! You have to run a 2-mile race or a 5K or 10K before running a marathon,” Mr. W. said.

Those were not the words of encouragement I was expecting. I had so often heard, from the time I was a little boy through adulthood, “You can’t, Roy.” It was time for the negativity to stop. I was determined to change those three discouraging words “You can’t Roy” into “You can try!” Shifting a few letters changed my entire frame of mind.

In 1981, ten months after those painful first steps, I ran my first marathon. I was accompanied much of the way by a man who told jokes throughout the run, which made the time pass quickly. I had never run with anyone before that marathon and starting the race with 700 other runners was amazing. My time was 3 hours and 16 minutes and I enjoyed every step. I couldn’t wait to tell Mr. W. about my accomplishment and let him know that he should never tell anyone they can’t, but rather that they should TRY!

Before the marathon, I told Gail I was just going to run one race to see if I liked it. Man, did I like it! I ran fourteen more races that year and began training for my second marathon with a goal of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

One day while on a training run on the country roads, a car pulled up and the gray-sweats lady, who never seemed to lose any weight despite all her running, offered me a ride. I declined, explaining that I was training for a marathon. She asked if I knew how far that was and after replying that I had already run a marathon, she drove off.

The next day, as I laced up my running shoes on my back porch, the woman ran by. I caught up to her and ran alongside and I asked her how far she ran each day. She told me she ran to the McDonald’s to drink coffee and read the newspaper!

Fifteen years later I ran into the same woman, who was now much slimmer. “You don’t remember me, do you?” she asked smiling. After looking into her eyes, I replied, “You used to be that obese lady who ran by my house!”

She had inspired me and I, in turn, had inspired her.

~Roy Pirrung

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