There’s a jogging trail alongside the Creek Turnpike in south Tulsa, Oklahoma.
It wasn’t there when I was a kid. Back then it was all woods.
My friends and I would sneak into the wilderness and smoke cigarettes and look at dirty magazines we stole from older brothers.
Once we stepped on a yellowjacket’s nest and had to dive into a small pond. I still had 15 or so stings and could only think about the tragic ending of “My Girl.”
Then in 1992 the wilderness was demolished and the turnpike took its place. The city built this jogging trail to the side, for those looking to enjoy both the hum of the road as well as the remnant wilderness.
We walked – and smoked – on it frequently, until my family moved out of town around 1995.
Summer, 2003. I was freshly graduated from college and newly married. I was also jobless in Tulsa, where jobs were hard to come by at the time.
Between sending out resumes, I decided I wanted to run. This was four years removed my athletic heyday. (“Heyday” is Spanish for “period of averageness.”)
You can be fat, or you can be bald. You cannot be both. So I returned to the Creek Turnpike Trail. This time as a nonsmoker.
5k seemed like a reasonable, modest distance to begin with.
Running is Hard
Hey, did you know there’s a difference between running and sprinting?
Whoo boy is there ever a difference!
Sprinting is what you do in sports like football and basketball. You sprint, you stop. Sprint and stop. Rapid bursts followed by slow recovery.
Running is sprinting, but at a manageable pace, and without the recovery.
I’d sprint my guts out on the trail for 20 seconds or so. Then I’d walk half a mile while my breath caught up. The process would be repeated a few times over the course of a single mile.
Then I’d reward myself with a dollar menu cheeseburger from McD’s.
After a few months I got a job and the running attempts stopped. For about ten years.
Here’s the point. While that piece of land evolved (for better or worse), I was arguably the same guy I was in high school.
Or worse. I developed a pessimist streak, got fatter, and blamed everyone but myself for it. Moving to Salt Lake didn’t help. Getting a couple of great jobs didn’t change anything. Having kids didn’t change anything.
I was comfortable and settled in to a negative, pessmist perspective. People who worked on self-improvement were masturbators (thanks, Fight Club) and I could never be one of those super fit people that worked out all the time.
I was stagnant and comfortable.
(Unless I had just walked up a flight of stairs, in which case I was sweaty and out of breath.
Side note: I worked out regularly, if by “working out” you mean “elliptical for 20 minutes, lat machine for 5, sauna for 10, and dollar menu cheeseburgers to celebrate afterward.”
Every story has an “Aha!” moment, when the protagonist realizes his own powers, or perhaps his enemy’s weakness. These sometimes happen with a great 45-second montage.
Not a Montage!
It doesn’t quite work that way in real life. In real life, montages stretch out across small moments over several years.
And that’s what I needed to discover. The way to get better is to take small steps and eventually become comfortable with being uncomfortable.
For me the montage begins when I took my current job with Access Development in 2010. It’s one of those companies where groups of people bike to work together and the executives run Ironman races on weekends.
My coworkers weren’t pushy about it. They didn’t boast or show off. But they’d ask if you want to go to pilates during lunch. Repeatedly.
And eventually I went (thanks, Steve!). And it felt…uncomfortable. Which was good.
I went back a few more times. I didn’t want to. My lizard brain was pushing against it hard. I kept moving.
I felt good about myself, and stopped rewarding myself with fast food.
A few pounds went off. I saw an ab.
Yes. A one pack.
I was ready to run again.
Couch to 5K
So running was still sprinting then walking a lot for me.
A coworker introduced me to Couch to 5K.
Life changer. (Thanks Kim!)
It’s a program designed around small steps. The first week is three sessions of short runs followed by long walks. The next week your run time increases, but so do the walks. Manageable. Kinda uncomfortable, but only incrementally so.
Over time the walks decline as the runs grow. You discover quickly that if you can do two minutes of continuous running you can do five. Then seven, and 10, and 15.
Nine weeks later you’re running 30 minutes continuously. Comfortably.
The 5K turned into 10K, which led to swimming and a bike. Three triathlons. I began counting calories and dropped from nearly 230 pounds to 160. It sounds quick because it’s all in this cozy paragraph, but it took six years of small, uncomfortable steps.
It wasn’t all physical, either. I decided that since I was so wrong on my perspective of fitness, then I need to try reevaluating everything else.
I started watching soccer. And reading business books. Self improvement podcasts. Meditation. Vegetarian diet. Journaling. Writing out goals and five-year plans.
I gave up checking Facebook and pulling out my phone around my family. I stopped driving aggressively. I gave up caring what political and religious beliefs others have.
Small changes that had a cumulative positive effect.
I’m not Tim Ferriss, but I’ve been an intentional guinea pig the last few years. Everything is on the table, and I’m open to anything.
I think of it as perpetual discomfort, or being comfortable with being uncomfortable.
Back to the Turnpike
Before I could mark myself down as completely happy, I needed to “catch up” with that turnpike trail. In October 2015, during my annual pilgrimage back home to catch an OU football game, I woke up early one morning and drove to the trail.
I had barely slept, and was hungover from a tryst with some good Oklahoma beer. My lungs burned from screaming at the football game and my stomach was destroyed by the Oklahoma diet.
But I ran that damn trail, covering every inch twice without stopping. The last half mile I sprinted, just for the hell of it.
The best part is I didn’t feel like I had accomplished anything. My story was still unfolding. I still have so much to learn, and everything is still in front of me.