My Path To Getting ‘Serious’ About Running

by Chris Illuminati
First Organized Race in 2015

People remember firsts like the first time playing an instrument, rock climbing, riding a motorcycle, sex of course, but I can’t recall the first time I purposely left the house with the intention of running.

I remember the first time I was forced to run at the first tryout for freshmen baseball.

The assistant coach told the collection of hopefuls to be considered for the team, a player had to run under an 8-minute mile.

I wasn’t sure I could run a mile or how long it would take because I never ran a mile on purpose, never timed myself running for any reason, and had zero idea how long it should take to run a mile.

I didn’t even know how many times around the track made a mile.

“How many times around the track is a mile?”

Another player asked.

Thank god.

In the middle of my second lap came the realization that a mile is far, eight minutes is fast, and I probably wasn’t going to finish anywhere close to eight minutes.

A kid named Adam lapped me on the second straightaway. I didn’t know Adam was a baseball player, or that he could run so well, or that he was even an athlete.

He was actually none of those things. He was just trying to make an impression.

I finished my third lap at the same time he completed his final turn around the track.

He completed the mile in well under eight minutes, immediately vomited in the end zone, and didn’t return to practice that day or any other days.

This early experience convinced me that exerting any type of effort while running would result in projectile vomiting.

I made it to the final day of tryouts, never completing better than a 10-minute mile, and didn’t make the team.

On the way back to the locker room to retrieve my stuff and chug some Gatorade to wash down my pride, the head coach of the track team asked if I made the team.

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The track team has open roster spots and, “if I could throw a baseball, he could teach me how to throw a javelin.”

He obviously didn’t witness my desecration of his track that week.

I agreed to try out, not to run, but because throwing a sharp metal stick sounded like an excellent way to spend my afternoons.

The coach ended up being wrong about throwing a javelin. It’s an entirely different motion than throwing a baseball and throwing it like a baseball leads to nothing but wounded pride and spectators.

“Can you sprint?”

“Can’t everyone?”

I huddled with the sprinters, practicing alongside the wide receivers and cornerbacks who ran track in the offseason. I could run fast but not as fast.

“How about the 800?”

I offered to try but first asked how far is eight hundred meters. It’s as fast as possible, twice around the track.

The results varied.

One enjoyable aspect of being on the track team was practicing.

Most practices involved running long distances in the neighborhoods around the school.

I could run at my own pace, take in the sights, and come up with stories for the people who lived inside each house.

One of my first short stories involved a peeping Tom peering into the windows of strangers, not for a perverted reason, but because he liked to make up stories about the people inside.

I ran one season of track and didn’t run for years unless it involved playing a recreational sport or being late for something.

In both cases, the pace barely broke into a power walk.

Running occupied a negative space in my mind for years when, in my mid-twenties, a high school classmate dropped dead after completing a marathon.

I didn’t hear the specifics and don’t know if he had a pre-existing condition, but death was enough to scare me into never attempt to run more than a mile.

My mind decided that running fast for short distances equaled vomiting and pushing my body long distances resulted in immediate death.

I stuck to lifting weights. Lying flat while pushing 250 pounds above my chest, neck, and head felt like a much safer way to exercise.

Running crept into my life. The ex-wife is a runner, and it became a tandem activity for the first couple of years of our relationship.

An alternative to going to the gym and pushing around a massive amount of weight just to break a sweat, running always feels like exercise.

Sweat is involved along with elevated breathing, a better night’s sleep, and a sense of accomplishment.

Hundreds of times I’ve gone to the gym, worked every body part multiple times, spent close to two hours, and didn’t break a sweat the entire time.

The birth of my son led to more running to escape a newborn and to get in a quick workout without leaving mom alone for long.

I suppose if pressed to pick one singular moment when running became an essential part of my life, I’d discuss the time I ran myself away from a panic attack.

I stupidly agreed to take a full-time, work-from-home writing job without quitting another full-time, work-from-home writing job.

It is foolish to think that working an 80-hour week, simultaneously, is physically or mentally a wise decision.

The prospect of making $140K a year without leaving the house is enough to make a sane person do crazy things. It was just one more instance of chasing money thinking it will lead to happiness, but it leads to only more misery.

Neither employer knew about the situation. I likely would have been fired immediately from both jobs. Both were under the impression I was working only for their website.

The stress of doing double the work without either company figuring it out only added to the anxiety, and by the third week, I felt utterly overwhelmed.

One afternoon, both managers requested work – same day and same deadline – and my body tensed like being soaking wet with sweat and then walking into a meat locker.

It felt as though an avalanche erupted inside my body, every internal organ violently caving until there’s nothing left of me but a pile of snow.

A pile of snow suddenly overcome with the need to scream and cry.

Unsure of exactly what was going on inside – I’d never experienced this sensation – my reaction was to just run.

I bolted out of the house and down the street, Gump-style, and ran for over an hour. No headphones or music or apps to measure exact distance or pace.

I ran until I didn’t feel stress, or at least not as much, and returned home.

I showered, put on old clothes, and wrote an email to one of my employers explaining that I’d be leaving at the end of the month.

A few months later, retelling the story to a friend, I was clued into the fact that I was a couple minutes away from a full-blown panic attack. He’s prone to panic attacks, he’d experienced way too many in his life, and explained how I did really the only thing that could keep it at bay.

run my first race

Running my first 5K with the kids cheering me on.

After that experience, running became a way to deal with stress, and I’m thankful I found a path to running because a life’s worth of anxiety and anguish was on the horizon.

It was a brisk February morning, two months into a 2017 resolution to run more and lift less weight.

One of those days that makes it evident that spring is slowly approaching in the next few weeks.

It’s not frigid, but an additional layer is necessary if you’re going to be outdoors for an extended period.

I dropped my youngest off with my mother for the day and hit a trail through a park not far from her house.

A mile into the run, my wife called. She wasn’t at work. She said everyone was okay, but I needed to come home.

I sprinted to my car. The only thing running faster were the thoughts in my head.

Two minutes after walking through the front door, she brought up the idea of a trial separation.

We both agreed to work on the relationship.

By the end of the summer, the marriage was over.

After moving into my own place, I became a “serious runner,” in the words of Haruki Murakami in his memoir “What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.” (A book I recommend to both writers and runners)

He considers himself to be serious, logging over 130 miles each month.

My output not quite as high but coming close. Running became a habit to kill time, clear my head, and save money.

Funds were low, and I couldn’t afford a gym membership, so running became the primary means of exercise. (Besides push-ups in my living room and pull-ups on any vacant playground.

My apartment sits just a light jog away from a protected nature preserve with miles and miles of stone and dirt paths snaking through high grass, acres of trees, and random gaggles of wildlife.

During these long runs, I discovered that nature is pretty fucking awesome if you observe and listen.

Gazing into miles of woods that will long outlive me and my stupid problems is humbling and a fantastic way to get over yourself and temporary issues.

Living alone on a writer’s fluctuation salary means not always eating the healthiest of food. Unwanted pounds hang around like autograph seekers at on-location movie shoots.

My time rarely improved, so the only way to burn more calories was to run farther. The standard three or four-mile run a day expanded to five or six miles, at least six days a week.

Numbers suddenly found importance. Miles per week, miles in a month, distance over a year. RunKeeper, my preferred exercise app, kept tights books on all the miles, milestones, and personal bests.

As of this writing, I’m averaging about 120 miles per month. I’m not training for any specific event, but a few sanctioned runs are on my radar for the Fall.

I set personal goals.

A 10K under 50 minutes.

A 5K breaking my personal best of 21:30, though that run deserves an asterisk since I stopped the timer after each mile to walk the track once and take a breather.

Another accidental half-marathon.

A marathon.

Yes, a marathon.

I’m no longer scared of what might or might not happen. I’m leaving it to the law of averages.

Millions of people, many in worse health, run and survive every year.

I’m going to run 26.2. If I die at the finish line, it was just my time to go.

If I die mid-race, I’ll instruct friends to drag me the rest of the way.

The ultimate running goal for 2019 is based solely on ego.

A few years ago, during a trip to St. Kitts and Nevis, the ex’s co-workers stood in the wake on Pinney’s Beach. Each bragged about their spartan runs, triathlon finishes and weekend warrior escapades, most of which are rewarded by the company with monetary bonuses.

An employee of a California branch of the company remarked that he ran a total of 1,000 miles the previous year. The crowd oooh’s and ahhh’s at the number.

The idea of running a thousand miles in a year never left my head.

My total miles run is 603 at the time of this writing, shattering my total of 572 in 2018. A thousand miles is well within reach, and I’m already crunching the numbers to estimate what it would take to hit 1,500.

A thousand miles or more might move me from semi-serious to a serious runner. Honestly, I don’t care.

A millennium worth of running is personal feat which I never imagined physically, or mentally, possible.

Maybe I’ll have a bumper sticker made.

That seems like a thing serious runners do.

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Traci Dean Walters August 9, 2019 - 5:48 pm

I love to read what you write, Chris; it’s always really good and this is no exception. I hope to one day watch the feature film whose screenplay, you wrote. Hint, hint.

Chris Illuminati August 9, 2019 - 5:49 pm

Thanks, Traci!

Deepti August 10, 2019 - 6:06 am

Try to participate in Vancouver Sun Run 2020.(10k)

Chris Illuminati August 10, 2019 - 11:18 am

So many people are suggesting runs across the country, I might just do a tour and run them all, and write about it. 🙂


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