Reader Question: Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

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A quora user asks:  Why are so many marathon runners overweight?

NOVA had a great documentary a few years ago which followed several ‘novice’ marathoners through their training programs. Marathon Challenge — NOVA | PBS

(It looks like you can also find the full documentary on Youtube.)

It’s been a while since I watched it, but I recall that only one of the participants lost any substantial weight, and that was because she was purposely trying to lose weight. That meant she was being careful to watch her caloric intake and was doing a lot of supplemental exercise that the other runners were not doing. Some of the runners were surprised they hadn’t lost much or any weight, but as Bruno said, losing weight is hard even for runners.

You have to run a lot for it to affect your weight; for example, world class marathoners will put in sometimes 120 – 160 miles per week of running, along with strength training, cross training, and flexibility work. At that level, it becomes difficult for most people to maintain a healthy weight, that is, not lose too much weight. Very few people can withstand that kind of training. Contrast that with what ‘mere mortals’ do; novice marathoners usually run from 3 to 5 times per week, averaging 25 – 40 miles per week, and may or may not do some cross training and other exercise. Intermediate marathoners might do 40 – 60 miles per week, and more advanced but still not elite marathoners might do 50 – 70 at most (all gross generalizations, but about average). Most then go back to their sedentary jobs in an air conditioned office. As exercise science and obesity expert Steven Blair, himself a fit but somewhat rotund gentleman, has said, we evolved using a lot of energy to survive, but in modern society we no longer have to work hard physically to obtain our food and shelter. Instead we try to “graft on” a bit of artificial (non survival related) physical activity which we call exercise to try to stay healthy. If you think about it, most runners are sedentary 22 – 23 hours per day. That was a luxury our ancestors could not afford.

It just takes A LOT of physical activity to lose weight, which is why it is important to reduce calories in an intelligent manner; one that doesn’t result in lower metabolic rate, which is difficult to do while training. I recommend the book Racing Weight by Matt Fitzgerald for runners who could benefit by losing a few pounds in a sensible manner. Dropping weight by cutting too many calories too quickly will only lead to reduced ability to train, and possible injury, which defeats the purpose.

Keep in mind also, that a lot of those ‘overweight’ marathoners you see have lost a substantial amount of weight as part of adopting a healthy lifestyle, for which running is only one part. Some will have leveled off and some are still losing weight, but nearly all are generally more healthy than the majority of “normal weight”  sedentary people. It is more important to concentrate on health and fitness than weight loss per se when setting goals to improve one’s health and well-being.

Another factor is that marathons have become both more popular and less “elite” over the last couple of decades. The latter means that many races have extended the cut-off time for completing the course to 6, 7, 8 or more hours, which gives a lot more people time to finish. A few decades back when only a few hearty souls, nearly all men, ran marathons the cut-off might have been 4 hours, which today is faster than more than half of all marathon participants run. (For perspective, the world record for men is under 2:03 and for women is about 2:15.) The great thing about running is how inclusive it has become, and that fact that the elites cheer for and support the back of the pack runners. It’s a wonderful thing.

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Reader Question: How could I improve my weight and endurance?

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I’m a runner. How could I improve my weight and endurance?

I’m 34 years old and running 50 miles per week; I’m training for my next marathon and my weight is 52 kg (117 pounds approx ) and my Fat index is 4.3% (athletic measure option), 10.5% (normal measure option). [asked on Quora]

 

I’m not sure what you mean by “improve my weight”. Most of the time when people say that, they mean they want to lose weight, but at 117 lbs with low body fat, I don’t think that is what you are asking.

You don’t say how tall you are or what gender; I’m assuming you are male with a body fat percentage that low; if you are female then you have a whole other conversation about healthy body fat percentage you need to have with your doctor and perhaps a registered dietitian. 

 

Either way, you could benefit from getting a more accurate estimate of your body composition (I’m assuming you used bioelectrical impedance or a similar consumer grade device). You can have this done at most university exercise physiology labs for a small fee.

This would give you a better idea if you have any room to drop a little bit of weight to improve your performance; keep in mind that about 4% is essential body fat for a man. Go lower than that and you will be sick and hurt; even at 4 – 5% you might have problems, but it is an individual thing. Some thin runners perform better by gaining a bit of weight (eating more) because they have more energy to put into their training and recovery. If you find you are 10% or higher, you could consider bringing it down slightly (again, if male). With the wide estimate range you have now, I don’t recommend trying to lose any weight. A female with body fat in that range would almost assuredly perform better by eating more and increasing body fat.

Improving endurance is a matter of proper training. For most non-elite runners, 50 mpw is a good amount given all the other demands of life. If you can swing it, at some point in your training you can try some higher mileage weeks in which you reduce intensity. For example, go up to 60 – 70 miles every few weeks, but cut back on the tempo, reps, or intervals you would have done that week. That’s pretty general; best thing to do is find a good training plan that fits your current fitness level and the amount of time you have until the marathon. You improve endurance and speed-endurance (ability to hold a “fast” pace) with a proper combination of running volume and intensity – more miles plus tempo, interval, and rep work at the right pace, etc. 

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part II – Jogger, Runner, Revelation

Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown.
Andy Warhol, Grace Jones, and other Celebs Jogging in Central Park in 1978. Photo credit unknown. 

 

In the last post [Part I – The Weird Kid], I discussed my early childhood quirks, weight issues, orthopedic shoes, lack of coordination, being picked last for every team, and my early awakening to the possibility of something better. In this post, I continue the story, including my embarrassing attempts to play big time basketball, designing my first workout sessions, my inauspicious entry into high school track, and a life changing revelation..

 

Bad Basketball

I formally began my health fitness journey in 1976 as an overweight 13 year old 7th grader. I was somewhat less physically awkward than I had been in grade school, thanks to physical education class (absent from the grade school curriculum), my discovery of softball, and by this time basketball. Regarding the latter, I learned to shoot pretty well, as long as no one was guarding me. In other words, I was an okay H.O.R.S.E. player on the hoop above the garage door. I would sometimes spend hours by myself just taking shots when I had no H.O.R.S.E. opponent, or my brother wasn’t beating me in a lopsided game of one-on-one.

We had a gravel driveway at the farm, so quite often the ball would ricochet off a rock and go careening down the big hill. My brother and I would nearly always fight over whose turn it was to run after the ball before it ended up a quarter mile away. I’m pretty sure this was not the way Michael Jordan’s basketball career began. I did learn to dribble the ball using the concrete floor in the garage or in the basement. As with shooting, I was pretty good as long as no one was guarding me. However, with the gravel driveway situation, I rarely was able to effectively practice coordinating my dribbling and shooting. I did try, and have the scars on my knees to show for it. 

In keeping with what would become a lifelong theme for me, I did not let my near total lack of skills keep me from trying out for the 7th grade team. The state religion of Kentucky is, after all, Southern Basketball, so I was convinced my life would only be complete if I could become a big star, win a high school state championship, and play for the University of Kentucky Wildcats. Or the Louisville Cardinals; I was conflicted about which team I liked best. Indiana was right out, though.

Not surprisingly, at tryouts when I got my turn to play one-on-one in front of the coaches, all I could do was turn my back on the other player and keep dribbling in a feeble attempt to back up towards the basket like I had seen real players do on TV. This would continue until the opponent either knocked the ball away, I dribbled off my foot, or the coach got frustrated and ended the drill. On my turn to play defense, the other player either was as bad as me and we had another dribbling stalemate, or he was much better and just dribbled past me to the basket. I appreciated the coaches’ ability to keep their eye-rolling to a minimum.

The next day, the head coach posted a list of the 30 or so players that had not yet been cut. Needless to say, my name was not on that list. At the time, I thought this was a great injustice; “they’re just going to cut me instead of teaching me to play basketball?” I remembered the feeling from grade school of not being picked at all for schoolyard games, only this time it was adults letting me know I wasn’t good enough. This being the first real sports team I had tried out for, I didn’t fully grasp that the purpose was to pick the best players and teach them how to win against other schools. This was serious business in Kentucky, a state which has only one boys’ and one girls’ state champion each year (the plot to Hoosiers occasionally plays out in Kentucky.) 

Given that nearly every boy in the class had tried out, and nearly all were cut, an intramural basketball league was formed, with some very nice teachers giving their own time to “coach”. Coaching in this context simply meant being sure every boy got a chance to play in each game, and with only three teams there were a lot of us on the bench. The games themselves were unorganized free-for-alls, but I got a couple of rebounds and shot the ball once or twice, despite my own teammates’ attempts to wrestle the ball away from me. These were low-scoring affairs, usually something like 10 – 8, but my team won the tournament and I received my first blue ribbon for something other than an art contest.

Part of my motivation for getting fit now involved making the basketball team, but I did not try out again until high school. The largest part of my fitness plan motivation remained to lose weight and improve my health. Deep down, I knew I wasn’t very gifted in terms of sports, and unlikely to actually make the basketball team. I briefly considered trying out for football, thinking my extra heft might be an advantage, but my mother refused to let me break my neck playing that foolish game. My father made only a faint hearted attempt to intervene. My parents had grown up during the Great Depression, so they had no time for something as frivolous as sports; if it didn’t put food on the table then what was the point? Ironically, they did later convert to the state religion and become college basketball fans, after my brother and I started regularly watching games on TV.

 

The Jogger

I was a bookworm, so once I decided I needed to get fit I absorbed everything I could find on the topics of diet and exercise. There was no internet in those days, so most of my information came from health and fitness articles in newspapers and magazines, books from the school library, and the occasional fitness segment on the local TV news. One great resource was a weekly newspaper column by an exercise science professor from the University of Louisville.

The first “running boom” was underway in America in the mid-1970s, which brought along a great deal of advice on how to be a “jogger” and all the benefits it would bring. So, naturally, I made jogging a part of my exercise program, with no thought yet of becoming a “runner”. Jogging was just part of a well-balanced routine. I learned that one was never to get out of breath while jogging, but rather one should go at a pace to be able to carry on a conversation. (This is still good advice, in regards to running for health and for ‘easy pace’ training runs.)

Jogging was such a craze that People Magazine ran a feature story on celebrity joggers, including the likes of country singer and actor Jerry Reed, 1945 Miss America Bess Myerson, Batman’s “Penguin”, Burgess Meredith, and even crusty old Senator Strom Thurmond, then age 75 (1). The cover featured 1970s power couple Farrah Fawcett and (Eastern Kentucky alum and Six Million Dollar Man ) Lee Majors in jaunty jogging togs (fig. 1). These celebrities spoke of  jogging as a means to look and feel better, and while the word ‘running’ was used interchangeably with ‘jogging’, the word ‘racing’ never appeared. This information will be useful to you later in my story.

 

Fig 1. Farrah and Lee People Magazine Cover, 1977
Fig 1. Farrah and Lee Looking Jaunty, People  Magazine, 1977

***

As an aside, let me clarify the actual difference between “jogging” and “running”. In the broadest sense, there is none. From a biomechanical standpoint, if you are ambulating on foot, you are either walking or running (or skipping, hopping, or galloping, which most of us don’t do often in adulthood). In walking, one foot remains in contact with the ground at all times, and at one point in the gate cycle both feet are in contact with the ground. When a race walker is disqualified, it is nearly always because he or she was seen multiple times with both feet off the ground at the same time, which is defined as running. The running gait cycle has a “flight” phase in which both feet are off the ground; also, unlike in walking, both feet are never in contact with the ground at the same time.

From a practical standpoint, the difference between jogging and running is in the eye of the beholder. Jogging and “easy paced running” for a given individual are probably conducted at the same pace. The difference, then, is merely one of intention; people that say they are joggers are usually doing it only for health fitness reasons, while people that say they are runners are doing it for something beyond health, usually to prepare for a race or to otherwise improve their running ability. This dichotomy was quite strong in the 1970s, but one very rarely hears people refer to themselves as joggers anymore. It is very well accepted today that if you run, even if you don’t race or run fast, you are a runner.

***

Dynamic Tension and The Exercise Plan

Part of what I had learned in my early study of exercise was the importance of strength training. In addition to the jogging craze, body building had entered the mainstream. Prodded by a comic book advertisement featuring a skinny dude getting sand kicked in his face by a bully (fig 2), I sent away for more information on the Charles Atlas Dynamic Tension program (which is apparently still a thing). I found the description of the program seemed kind of silly, and not much in keeping with what I had been reading, so I put it aside. I did first take a good teasing from my Dad and my brother about my apparent Mr. Universe aspirations when they saw the envelope on which Atlas’s brawny 1950s Speedo-clad picture appeared. I was still primarily interested in what strength training could do for my health, my weight loss goal, and possibly my basketball abilities. If I happened to get all muscled up, that would be a bonus. (I wasn’t yet familiar with the difficulty and specificity of muscle hypertrophy training.) I bought a 110-pound plastic coated concrete weight set with a $20 gift certificate I had won in a K-Mart coloring contest (the solid bar from that set is still in my arsenal). My father had purchased several rough hewn wooden benches when a Ponderosa Steak House closed down, so one of those became my weight bench. With these tools and my exercise knowledge in hand, I set about designing my own workout program.

 

Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a man out of you!
Fig 2. Charles Atlas wants to make a real man out of you!

 

I recently found some of the papers on which I had sketched out my program tucked away in a running memorabilia box. The list includes such items as “lift weights” (using the basic exercises described in a booklet that came with the weight set), “jog to the barn and back” (about one mile total, sometimes making multiple trips), “ride bike to end of road” (still amazed my Stingray and I didn’t get crushed on the one lane country road), and “do exercises”, by which I meant static stretching (I became quite a contortionist, a topic for another post), and some P.E. class style calisthenics. By high school I had added jumping rope, and became pretty good at doing cross-overs, single leg hops, and other tricks I had seen fellow Louisvillian Mohammed Ali doing on TV.

I dutifully recorded my weight on 3 x 5 cards and watched it go down a little at a time, which I had read was (quite correctly) the healthy way to do it. I also limited my dates with Little Debbie and her friends, and began seeing more of her neighbors, fruits and veggies. After a while I didn’t miss the sweet treats, but I did have one occasionally. I had read that moderation was the key to good diet, and an occasional indulgence is fine, which is as true today as it was then. And while I didn’t crave those snacks, I still liked them. With all the fad diets I have seen come and go and come again over the last 40 years, I realize that having learned this dietary wisdom early on prevented a lot of heartache and yo-yo dieting.

 

A Little More Bad Basketball

I had kept to my new healthy lifestyle through middle school, and continued playing lunch time softball and bad gravel driveway basketball. While I was fitter, I was still a bit chubby when I entered high school, and I had not specifically trained for basketball. I was about average in height for my age and had, probably, an 8-inch vertical leap at best (indicating very little fast twitch muscle fiber, I now know), so not exactly the raw tools for basketball stardom. But you know me; I went out for the basketball team anyway, having decided once again that the path to Nirvana passed through a high school championship, and then either the Kentucky Wildcats or Louisville Cardinals. My high school did win the state championship that year, and had a player win a scholarship to Kentucky, but of course I was not on the team. My freshman basketball team tryout went pretty much the same as 7th grade tryouts, with the exasperated coach calling time on my dribbling stalemate with another not very talented player. A student sitting in the nearby bleachers, there to volunteer as team manager in order to get a varsity jacket, no doubt, smirked, shook his head and asked me why I had even tried out. “Why are you just sitting there”, I replied as I walked away.

One thing was very different this time, however, for which I am grateful to the coach. At the end of the tryouts, after stating that most of us would not be moving forward in the process, he gave a pep talk reminding us that there was more to life than basketball (a heretical statement if ever one was uttered in the state of Kentucky). He told us that in just a few weeks time, there would also be baseball, golf, tennis, and track & field (and probably that we should study hard and become good citizens or something). He noted that, in particular, the track team usually allowed anyone that came to practice every day to stay on the team. He also indicated that many of the events didn’t require the types of skills one would need for basketball, a polite way of saying we uncoordinated kids could probably at least run without falling down too much.

 

The Runner

After the pep talk from the basketball coach, I gave up the hoop dreams and decided to join the school track team. I approached the first day of practice with great trepidation. I had never been on a real sports team before, and in my mind all coaches were mean Army drill sergeants that yelled and made you drop and give them twenty. It didn’t help that my brother was also on the team, and had been for a couple of years. He inherited any athletic skills that were to be had in our family, and I sensed he might not want his “tag along” little brother embarrassing him at practice. Whether that was true or not, it was in my mind, along with the idea that the other kids were going to think I didn’t belong on the team.

But that first day I put on my jock strap, my P.E. uniform, and my Sears The Winner™  jogging shoes (fig 3) and went nervously to the track. (Those were some really terrible, rock hard, stiff shoes, by the way, and helped me learn all about “shin splints”.) I had reasoned I was already jogging several miles per week, so I wasn’t completely out of my element. I also remembered having watched the ‘76 Olympics, and thinking that distance running thing didn’t look too hard. It surely didn’t require much agility or coordination, as the basketball coach had insinuated. In addition, as a kid with chubby thighs, I was amazed you could see the runners’ sinewy leg muscles. I decided I wanted legs like that, not like those of Charles Atlas. Of course I had no idea just how fast those runners were moving or how much training they did. I had been learning about exercise and jogging for health and fitness, not for competition.

 

Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.
Fig 3. Sears The Winner™ jogging shoes, circa 1977. Mine were a spiffy green and yellow.

 

Believe it or not, I briefly gave thought to throwing the shot that first day, using the same faulty logic as I did for middle school football; that my extra weight would be useful. After all, shot putters were really big, and most of them looked pretty fat. But once I saw the older guys throwing I knew that would be folly for me; I had neither the strength nor agility to do more than drop the shot on my foot. The coach was experienced and knew better anyway. He sized me up and did what coaches do with most kids with no signs of sprint speed or the agility needed for field events; he put me in the mile. I assume this was because the race was long enough for the non-sprinters to have a chance, while being short enough that the slow pokes wouldn’t hold up the track meet’s rolling schedule too much. After a couple of weeks of practice, with me falling behind on every training run, I was allowed to run the junior varsity mile in our first home meet. This was an over-crowded affair, with all the kids that had yet to quit their respective teams piled into one massive heat. I was nervous but ready, because I had read all that literature on jogging. The gun went off and … 

 

The Revelation

I finished last in every race that first season, and was actually lapped by most of the field  during each of these four lap events. It wasn’t until the end of the season that I realized I was supposed to run as fast as I could. As ridiculous as that sounds, I had read so many books and articles about proper “jogging for health”, I thought the guys running all out and getting out of breath were “doing it wrong”. I was still kind of a weird kid.

At a practice just before the last meet of the season, one of my sprinter friends asked me to run some of his 220 yard (half lap) repeat sprints with him. I doubt he thought I would be of much help with his pacing, but he had come to practice late and didn’t want to do his workout alone. I was nearly finished with my assigned workout, so I agreed. I still don’t know what triggered this response, but somehow when he took off I decided to stay right on his shoulder most of the way. I mentally locked on to him and let him “pull” me around the curve and down the home stretch. I did a few of the sprints with him and managed to run them all just a few seconds behind him, and this was a sprinter. Not that he was running all out, but still, a sprinter! This was the first time since that relay race in grade school, the one in which I was shed of the orthopedic shoes, that I understood what it was to run as fast as I could. It hurt, but in a good way. During one of those sprints the epiphany hit; “I’m supposed to be running the mile like this, at the fastest pace I can for that distance!” I wasn’t just jogging for health anymore; I was a runner.

While I would like to tell you I tore up my final mile race of the season, the truth is I was over a hill behind the track helping with a field event and did not hear the calls for my race. I looked up at the track and saw my race was underway and my heart sank. I had blown my chance at redemption. That was the end of my freshman track season; three last place finishes and a DNS (did not start).

The next opportunity I had to try out my new strategy was in P.E. class. We were doing a module on track and field, and while I was pretty bad at most of the events we had to try – falling over hurdles, tossing the discus into the cage, long jumping short of the sand pit – the final event was the mile run. It was my opportunity to finally see how fast I could go. I did not record my time for any of my mile races, and I’m not sure I even knew that was done or what a good time would be. The best I can estimate is that, having been lapped by people running anywhere from under 5 minutes to about 6 minutes, I probably ran 9 or 10 minutes at best.

The P.E. class mile was perhaps the most dreaded activity of the entire school year for nearly every freshman, but of course I was ready to show everyone what a member of the track team could do. The mile was my specialty, you know. It didn’t hurt that the teacher was also the girls’ track coach, so it was my chance to show her that what she had seen out of me at our meets was no longer the runner I had become. It was a chance to undo some of the embarrassment I now felt over my athletic naivety. Once we were underway several boys took off like it was the 100 yard dash. These boys flamed out by the end of the first lap. Most of the other students quickly became red-faced and began panting for air, and many began walking. I and another member of the track team, a pole-vault specialist and sometimes sprinter, went to the front of the pack in the second lap and pulled away from the few students left that were still focused on running instead of puking. This pace hurt, and my legs were burning over the last lap and a half, but I realized this is what it’s like to race the mile. My pole-vaulter friend beat me to the line, but finishing a close second to a very good athlete was no shame, and certainly better than getting lapped. I don’t exactly remember my time, but I think it was around 6 minutes or 6:15, and considering nearly all my training had been at “jogging” pace, that wasn’t too bad.

Despite the minor redemption of the P.E. class mile, I was still peeved about missing the last race of my freshman track season. I remember the emotions that welled up the day of the last meet as I realized I had missed my chance to put my new found knowledge and motivation to the test in front of my coaches and teammates. But I soon realized that I had the entire summer to train for fall cross country season, and I was determined to make the most of it. By this time I was beginning to think that I might be better at longer distances, and cross country races were 5 kilometers (3.1 miles).

The fuse was lit.

In the next post, I will continue the amazing true story of my metamorphosis through high school In the meantime, feel free to send me any running questions you would like me to address in future posts.

 

1. Jogging for Joy. Lee Majors, Farrah Fawcett and Other Stars (Huff, Pant) Are Latching (Wheeze) Onto the Great American Joggernaut. People Magazine, July 4, 1977, Vol 8, No 1.

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From Orthopedic Shoes to Track Spikes: Part I – The Weird Kid

Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.

 

 

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Today’s post contains the first part of the story of how an awkward, uncoordinated, sedentary, overweight, slowest kid in his class became a collegiate cross country and track athlete, and beyond. The moral of the story is, “if this kid can do it, you can do it”, or perhaps, “don’t let fear and a lack of talent keep you from trying things”.

In the near future I will write more about running science, but first I hope sharing my story provides some motivation, especially for those contemplating taking that first step out the door.

 

Orthopedic Shoes, Coloring Contests, and Ding Dongs

In my early grade school years, I was put into just what every child wants; clunky, stiff “Thomas heel” orthopedic shoes (fig. 1). The intention was to correct my flat feet and duck-walk gait. I don’t know if it was the shoes, my poor coordination, or both, but I sprained my ankles frequently, so I usually had a slight limp. I was later fitted for some super cool over-sized plastic framed glasses, which perpetually slid down my nose. Metal-framed glasses were in vogue at the time, but my mother knew I would just break those (by 6th grade she relented). Debonair I was not.

 

Fig 1. These are similar to the Thomas heel orthopedic shoes I wore. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).
Fig 1. Thomas heel orthopedic shoes. I wore these from preschool through 3rd grade. (Photo courtesy M.J. Markell Shoe Co., Yonkers, NY).

 

The regular hobbies of my youth included reading, drawing, arts & crafts, fishing, and competing in the Sunday Cappy Dick newspaper cartoon coloring contest (fig. 2). I also watched a lot of TV and ate a lot of Ho Hos, Ding Dongs, Nutty Buddies, and other treats. The combination of too much sedentary play time and too many dates with Little Debbie resulted in my becoming quite fat early in life, and sometimes enduring taunts of “fatso” from other kids. I suffered the indignity of wearing euphemistically labeled “husky” sized clothing, and I tended to outgrow them quickly. My older brother sometimes got the bum deal of having to wear my JC Penney “hand-me-ups”, which fit in the waist but not in the length. This did come in handy for him during rain storms. You’re welcome, big brother.

 

It should come as no surprise that the husky, klutzy kid with the orthopedic shoes and thick glasses was picked last for every schoolyard game, usually kickball, tag, or shuttle relay races. Illustrative of my social awkwardness, I didn’t even realize that I had been picked last; since no one ever called my name I just dejectedly concluded that they didn’t want me to play at all. Somehow, the default nature of the last one left going to the team with the last pick had eluded me. Eventually, I became upset enough at this perceived slight that I just put myself on one of the teams. About half the time that team would, of course, tell me to go to the other team. It took me a while to put the clues together.

 

Fig 2. Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning national coloring contest.
Fig 2. Husky Matt, age 12. From newspaper article after winning a national coloring contest.

 

The Relay Race, Softball, and an Amazing Discovery

The relay races were especially difficult in the orthopedic shoes, which were ridged, heavy, and made the distinctive clopping sound of a herd of Clydesdales. One day, perhaps because the orthopedic shoes were muddy, or perhaps because I begged mercilessly, my mother let me wear a pair of my brother’s gum-soled suede leather chukkas to school. They were a little too big, but oh so comfortable and flexible. I rarely got into trouble at school (I saved my little hellion routine for home), so I was mortified when the teacher scolded me for putting my feet on the wall. She had no idea I was simply marveling at the lack of orthopedic-ness of the shoes, which seemed magical to me. Later at recess, it was relay race time and I was anxious to see what I could do in these magic shoes. Before that day, my relay leg always went one of three ways; my team was behind and I got us further behind, my team was even and I got us behind, or my team was ahead and I got us behind, all while my teammates loudly scolded me for being so slow. This day would be different. When my teammate slapped my hand both teams were dead even, and I took off running as hard as I could. For the first time ever, I ran side-by-side with the other kid all the way to the next exchange, all the while my amazed teammates cheering wildly. That was the first time I felt the rush of running fast, and of being competitive in something physical. A seed was planted, but it would be a few years before it sprouted. 

 

Before my fourth grade year, my father decided that Green Acres was the place to be, so we moved from the suburbs of Louisville to a small farm in a neighboring county. The rural public school was 25 miles and a world apart from the suburban parochial school I had attended, and it took me a while to adjust. One of the adjustments was the realization that these kids had never heard of kickball or relay races, and instead spent recess playing an exotic game called “softball”. That first year I either went to the playground equipment or just sat and watched the others play the game, since I didn’t know what was going on. But the next year I decided to try it, and while I never learned to hit very well, I did learn to catch the ball (and then toss it to some other close-by kid who actually knew where to throw it next). By the middle school years I was playing softball well enough to not be picked last. By that time I was long rid of orthopedic shoes, and was instead wearing “tennis shoes” to school like almost every other boy.  My glasses were still sliding down my nose, though.

Having discovered during middle school that I could enjoy doing something sport-like, and also that girls did not, in fact, have cooties, led to the conclusion that it was time for me to lose the extra weight and get in shape. In the next post, I discuss how I did that, and the unlikely journey to becoming a competitive runner.

 

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