It has been a quite while since I completed the Couch to 5K running plan. This post will provide some pre-C25K history, where I started, and some post-C25K history, what I have been doing since.
I have never really been a runner. As a teenager, I walked a lot. I would think nothing of walking the thirteen miles to the county fairground to help out with the harness racing horses. If I was out on a job site with my Dad doing construction and wanted to go home early, walking sixteen miles home was not a strain. At 135 pounds, I was thin for my 5’10″ height. Though I did run just for fun sometimes, I had never raced, not even in school. That was twenty-five years ago.
Then, I grew up, got a regular job, got married, and stopped walking. Time was more precious. Instead of walking from one end of the mall to the other, we drove. My level of exercise decreased and then disappeared altogether. I was eating better, too. You can guess the result. I quickly gained weight. My highest weight was last spring, before the switch. I weighed 237 pounds.
I have also had back problems for a long time. A chiropractor visit, sometime around 1990, resulted in a diagnosis of mild scoliosis. That was the first of what would turn out to be regular visits to many chiropractors over the years since. The now sedentary lifestyle, long hours at a desk as a software developer hardly moving from my chair, the extra weight cantilevered over my belt, and the entire lack of exercise, all resulted in a deteriorating back. My visits to the chiropractor occurred at least once every six months, usually every couple of months and, sometimes, several times a week. The low point began the summer of 2007. I needed to use a cane to get around.
The cane was insurance. I didn’t always need it. I just needed it often enough that I couldn’t leave it behind. I had developed a hyper-mobile lumbar disc. At any time, it could move out of place and lock, pinching a nerve. This usually occurred when transitioning between sitting and standing or when standing too long. Any movement that moved the vertebrae in the wrong direction could trigger it. When that happened, my knees would give and I would fall or, more usually, catch myself on something. The cane gave me the confidence to move around and was useful for climbing back up when I fell. Physical therapy helped some, but did not eliminate the condition. I even saw a couple of orthopedic surgeons, but I was too young for surgery. I was stuck with the cane for life or, as it turned out, until I switched.
That switch is what has allowed everything since. I came across an article on the internet. I don’t remember specifically which one, though it may have been one by Dr. Rossi. It might have been this one. The article has an image, a diagram, that I have seen several times. The diagram compares human figures in profile, wearing shoes with heels and without heels. The lines through the human figures illustrate the effect wearing shoes with heels has on posture, how the skeletal structure needs to compensate for the heels throwing the feet, legs, and back out of alignment. When heels are not worn, this compensation is not needed. The metaphorical lightbulb was shining brightly. I needed to find some flat shoes. The New York Magazine article, You Walk Wrong, provide more information. From that point on, my normal shoes would not have heels. I had switched.
What I had found was Vibram FiveFingers. I bought a pair of black KSOs at Hanig’s in late spring of 2009. I loved them. Either barefoot or combined with some Injinji or Feelmax toe socks, I wore them for everything, for business casual work and for even dressier occasions. Using a Sharpie marker, I blacked out the yellow logo for a dress mode VFF. A couple of weeks later, I bought some blue camo Classics for my casual pair. The benefits of wearing a minimal shoe were immediate. Without the raised heel throwing off my posture, my back was beginning to realign. I no longer needed a cane.
I did have a brief setback, though. Shortly after the switch, I attended a three day convention. Though I was not using a cane at that time, those three days were spent sitting in hard plastic stadium seats. It was enough to trigger an episode with my back that took several visits to the chiropractor to resolve. Since then, I have not needed another visit to the chiropractor. If I stay working bent over for a long time, like working on a bike or at the bottom of a cedar closet I was lining, then my back will still weaken. But, as my core muscled have strengthened and continue to strengthen, it now recovers quickly without external manipulation. I also learned to lay on my side, relax, and tilt my pelvis forward and backward. When I put my finger on it, it’s weird to feel that vertebrae pop in and out of place. It is no longer a debilitating issue.
Once the surrounding back muscles got used to the new position, I could move freely and did. I was very appreciative of my regained ability and did not want to waste it. That’s when I started the Couch to 5K running program and started dreaming of running longer distances. The C25K journey was begun here on June 10, 2009 and finally summarized here on September 10, 2009. I had successfully completed the Couch to 5K running plan. I was now a runner.
But, was I really a runner yet? There were some aspects of my C25K performance that troubled me. Though I was going through a running motion, I was quite slow. But, for all of my slowness, my heart rate was quite high. I was using a heart rate monitor to keep an eye on it. The highest recorded was 191 bpm. My normal HR at the end of a workout was in the 160-170 bpm range. The prior year, I had had a stress test done as a check up. My max HR in that test was only 145 bpm. With the C25K workouts, I was regularly exceeding the max HR recorded by a cardiologist. True. I wasn’t exercising at the time of that test and was now. Still, it was quite worrisome. The announcements of deaths occurring during marathons did nothing to improve my outlook. It was a risk I could not continue taking. Something had to change.
So, not long after completing the C25K, I started over. I discovered the Low HR Training group at RunningAhead. That led me to Dr. Phil Maffetone and the Maffetone Method of training. Stu Mittleman’s Slow Burn book is similar. The theory is that, by doing aerobic base building that does not exceed a calculated heart rate number, you can get faster while maintaining the same heart rate. Once that aerobic base is built, anaerobic training can be added to increase speed. But, that meant a big change for me. I needed to completely rebuild my aerobic system. My starting over needed to be from scratch.
The formula is 180-age plus or minus for various levels of health and fitness or lack thereof. Calculations put my maximum aerobic function (MAF) HR at 135 bpm. In pure numeric terms, it doesn’t seem that much lower than it had been. In practice, it was vastly different. I could only walk. Any amount of running caused my HR to exceed my MAF number. My C25K graduation run was at a 15:12 pace. My first MAF workout on September 23, 2009 was at a 23:22 pace. This was painful, painfully slow. It would take forever to get any kind of speed. It almost has.
For the past five months, I have been gradually building my aerobic base. It has been slow, both in pace and in progress. The vast majority of that work has been at a walking pace and not running. I was supposed to have already become a runner, but I wasn’t any more. I was a walker again, like I had been long ago as a teenager. I don’t quite have that distance yet. Though I did do fifteen miles this week, it was over three days. This is still much more than the 1.08 miles of my first MAF workout. My weekly and monthly averages are increasing. My RunningAhead Training Log has been very helpful for tracking this data. Seeing the changes I am making in the numbers is encouraging.
Compared with my high weight, I am now down thirty-two pounds to 205. I have much more to lose; my goal is to reach 150 pounds. If my calculations are correct, that is nearly two hundred thousand fat calories away from where I am now. I also dream of running a race, not just a marathon, but an ultra marathon, at least a 50k. When I started this journey of movement, I dreamed of doing this. I wanted to go from zero to 50k within two years.
Though I have had to retrace some steps along the way, these goals still seem possible. I really think I can make it. You see, I am on the verge of running again. My walking pace has been gradually improving, getting faster. Even with my now normal warm up and cool down included, it is currently at a 16:37 pace. This is not quite as fast as my C25K pace, which did not have warm up and cool down, but it is much closer than when I started this phase of the journey. I have also started adding brief running segments to my walking. It still raises my HR above my MAF number and I have to slow down to let it drop. Once it drops, I try again. Hopefully, soon, I will be able to keep running with a low HR. Then I can start running more quickly, building speed, and I will have once again become a runner.