Get Up, Get Out and Get Running

photography by Jason Stephens

Hello, my name is David. I am a runner. My mom says I ran before I walked — something about a large head and always falling forward. (Coffee tables were not my friends as a toddler; I have the scars to prove it.)

I first remember being fascinated by running while watching the decathlon of the 1976 Summer Olympics. I was amazed at how these guys could run and jump in the sand, hop over bars, and run around a track really fast — and for a really long time. I remember going into the field behind our house as a six-year-old and trying to emulate all those track and field events. I would spend the next few days jumping feet first in the sand pit, using a fallen branch to try and pole vault over anything I could find. Tossing sticks and rocks and jumping over stuff, trying to copy the javelin, shot put, hurdles, and sprints, and then the 1500-meter race. I don’t know how big that field behind the house was, but I ran around the border of it until I thought I’d be sick! I wanted to be just like Bruce Jenner (oh, the glory of a Wheaties box cover!). That was my introduction to running.

But I wasn’t a runner, yet.

As I got older, I ran for different reasons: tag, dodge ball, kick ball, prison ball. I ran
when I got caught TP’ing somebody’s house or playing capture the flag at 2 a.m. at a church youth group function. I played a little baseball (I was the worst second baseman in the history of forever). Then, I found soccer, and running was filled with the purpose of possession, passing, and scoring. I played midfielder, which meant I had to play a defense and offense, and that meant running a whole lot, for 90 minutes. Practices were brutal: doing wind sprints and all kinds of other sprint drills that left you gasping for air and ready to vomit at the edge of the field. I also remember that feeling in the middle of the game. I found the energy to continue running in order to beat the other guy to the ball. I realized that the pain I endured in practice was worth it because it gave me a love for being able to run. I loved what running allowed me to accomplish on the soccer field.

I was running, but I still was not a runner.

In my 20s and 30s, I found other activities to stay busy, active, and healthy. I played
recreational volleyball and basketball. If you know me, you should find it quite hilarious
because I’m 5’5” and, well, let’s just say that no one was worried about blocking my dunks or digging my spikes. I had a few gym memberships that were profitable for short periods of time. All of these were fun, but they came and went.
And I still was not a runner.

Six years ago, I got divorced, got sad, got cable TV, withdrew from most social activities, and got fat(ter). After a while, I slowly came out of my shell, made new friends, and began to be social again. Life was good; I had friends; and I had a life.

But I was most definitely not a runner.

So then, why would I start off this article telling you that I’m a runner? How did a partially withdrawn divorcé with a penchant for flipping channels and a decent social life turn into a runner? It was as simple as a friend inviting me to go for a run. This friend said it would be fun, and there would be lots of other runners, and beer specials afterwards. Oh?! OK. I was glad to be invited to go do anything, so I put on some old shoes and decided to give it a try.

When I arrived at the run, it was a happy beehive of activity. People were greeting and hugging each other, catching up on races, injuries, new shoes, the kids, life in general. This wasn’t a running club; this was a big family of friends that happened to run. After the run, it was more of the same happy activity. Most people stuck around for a drink and
maybe some food. There was lots of talking and laughter and people moving from table to table sharing information about upcoming races or races that had just taken place. Since it was a weekly activity, I decided to start participating whenever I could. I quickly made friends and slowly started running a little faster and a little longer (although, admittedly, I am a slow runner and never get very far).

We run to stay healthy, to stay fit, to be social, because it’s fun, to get outside and breathe some fresh air, to feel alive.

At the time, I had no idea, but these were runners. And they belonged to the Lakeland Runners Club.

My new friends started to ask me if I would be signing up for the next race. They reached out to me on social media. They asked me questions about my running habits. What app was I using on my phone to track my running? They suggested what my next pair of shoes should be and where I could get them. They gave me tips on my running form, how to deal with injury and soreness, and how to increase my speed or distance. I started buying shorts and shirts that were designed for running. I spent (what I thought at the time) was an ungodly amount of money on running shoes. I bought blinking lights and reflective gear for
my shoes and a hat so I could run at night and not get run over.

I remember finishing my first 5K. I was so happy that I came in under 40 minutes and I ran the whole thing! Before long, I had to hang a hook on my wall to store all of my finishers’ medals, and I had more race T-shirts than I knew what to do with. I also had a sense of pride in physical accomplishment that I had not felt since playing soccer. I started to feel stronger, not just physically, but mentally.

I was starting to become a runner.

Running has taught me that it doesn’t matter if you’re fast or slow, if you’re a beginner or experienced. In the end, we aren’t racing each other; we’re racing ourselves. Armed with the confidence we have in our minds, in our lungs, and in our legs, we race against
self-doubt. When we see a friend who sets a personal record, we all celebrate, because we know what it takes to better yourself. We run for many different reasons: some common and some personal. We run to stay healthy, to stay fit, to be social, because it’s fun, to get outside and breathe some fresh air, to feel alive. We run for practical reasons like wanting to stay in the pants you already own (that would be me) or to burn enough calories to earn the right to eat a cheeseburger (me, too!). Heck, running so that we can have a beer later and not pay for it in the waistline (me, again). We run with other runners, with laughter, and with encouragement.

I never feel better physically than when I’m running on a consistent basis, when I push my body, and watch my times get shorter. The mental and physical work of running also makes me very conscious of how I treat my body. I think about the food I eat. I think of how healthy I want to be for that race next month, the one in 5 years and even in 10 years.

There have been times when life gets busy, and there have been injuries, but I always want to come back to running. To me, running is a fundamental skill. I want to be prepared for anything. You never know when there might be a bear attack, the zombie apocalypse, or you might get offered as tribute in the hunger games.

I’ve been running for close to four years now, when and where my schedule allows. I’m a regular at the Red Door Wine Market and the Chop Shop pub runs. I run on Saturday mornings at Black and Brew or at Mitchell’s Coffeehouse. I run and/or volunteer at several of the Lakeland Runners Club’s great races every year. I travel around Central Florida to run in 5Ks. In these four years of running, I’ve made some of the best friends I’ve ever had. I’ve learned that, wherever I go, there will most likely be another friendly fammunity of runners — a community that feels like family. If you don’t believe me, just go to a weekly running club in a different town, or hang around at the finish line of a race. You’ll see friends laughing, eating bananas, guzzling water (and, possibly a beer). You’ll find friends sharing sweaty hugs and high-fives.

I am a runner.

With many sports, the athletes have a specific body type and an acute ability to play their sport. Football players have a certain look to them, as do hockey players (no teeth required), basketball players, and volleyball players. They all need a certain skill set along with body type to achieve success in that sport. But what do runners look like? They look like anyone and everyone. They look like you, and they look like me. They are tall, short, thin, stocky, old, young, novice, experienced. The only thing required to be a runner is to get up, get out, and get running!

I am a runner.

Founded in 1974, The Lakeland Runners Club promotes running and fitness for runners of all ages and abilities in the community through fellowship, education, and formal and informal running events. For details about membership an upcoming events, visit their website at lakelandrunnersclub.org.