On the list of stupid things I’ve done, running a 5K for my 40th birthday is either first or last.
That’s because I mostly sat still for the last two decades as I drank and smoked my way out of healthy coping skills, which might have come in handy during the string of family deaths, medical emergencies and dark thoughts that followed the birth of my son five years ago.
I just assumed I’d grow out of my bad habits and into better ones by virtue of aging, or that I’d snap into the shape of a responsible dad just by having kids — the cover model for a parenting magazine, with a cockeyed grin and a kid in a Star Wars T-shirt on his hip.
But it took a growing number of concussions, chipped teeth and lost nights for me to do something about my brain’s violent incompatibility with alcohol. The wall between my ideal self and real-world actions wasn’t crumbling fast enough. I needed a healthier coping tool, having grown sick and tired of feeling sick and tired, as people in my position tend to say.
Jogging, as it turns out, fit as snugly into my synapses as my pricey new Nikes did on my feet.
But it felt particularly intimidating to tackle in Denver — the capital city in the statistically fittest of all states, where people run in the same way they drink beer and smoke weed (all the time, everywhere) and whimsically named 5Ks seem to outnumber jam bands and yoga studios.
I used to hate people like me. “Oh, you’re jogging now? Bully for you. You sanctimonious twit.”
Now I don’t. Anyone can jog — just look at me! I have become an organically better human through honest-to-God exercise and toil, the sweat diluting my otherwise suffocating melancholy. Or something like that.
But training for a 5K was not the jubilant thunderbolt that I expected. I used to watch people run from the window of my bus every morning and fantasize about how self-satisfied they must be, the world streaking by in blobs of color, everything tasting and smelling better as a result. Virtue in motion.
Instead, getting there was a series of mundane, heaving steps. And, as time went on, a light morning jog in my Target-brand activewear.
I set Jan. 1, 2017, as my start date, spurred by my wife, who completed her first half-marathon not long before getting pregnant with our second child. But I actually started weeks later, following procrastination (don’t judge me yet) but also legitimate delays from having a newborn baby and a preschooler with Type 1 diabetes.
Despite my realistic sense that I would be inhaling lungfuls of lava for the first few weeks, I mostly looked the part, with starter Nikes from Runner’s Roost and a Couch to 5K app tracking progress on my iPhone, tucked into one of those rectangular armbands that makes everyone look like a fitness robot.
Mantras emerged as I chalked up days: I will work to demolish my expectations, the enemies of my motivation. This was because, despite my healthiest habits, I would come down with repeated colds while training, owing to the nasal pestilence my son brought home from preschool, which also hospitalized my 2-month-old daughter with RSV (a common but serious respiratory virus) and briefly brought oxygen tanks into our home.
Another: Running will feel nearly as brutal and dispiriting in its own way as trying to quit smoking cigarettes, which I did in the summer of 2016 and still deeply regret.
Thankfully, running also made me feel more connected to my North Park Hill neighborhood than anything I’ve done since moving there six years ago. I quickly came to anticipate where the sidewalks were cracked and bumpy, where I had to swing onto the road to avoid an unruly hedge, and which houses to sprint by so as to escape their growling, off-leash dogs.
I loved stealing glimpses of people’s lives as they fussed with their yards, glared at me from porches or made dinner in warm kitchens at dusk. Most urban runners have witnessed this. And I thought a lot about that, too — how I was a cliché from a back-issue of Men’s Health. How un-special I was, and how if I were to pass myself in a car, I’d probably chuckle at my dumb, puffy-red face. (I may have embraced running, but I’m still a cynic.)
Despite that, my heart did not explode like a hot grape. My rubbery legs did not fail me. The apps I used — Runkeeper, and the Couch to 5k program with a soft, female British voice — guided me through the gradually stepped-up intervals of walking and jogging until, at last, I ran without stopping for 10 minutes. I’d be furious when they lost their GPS bearings and failed to report my progress in maps and numbers. I was exultant when they told me something I wanted to hear (namely: “AAAAAAND… WALK”).
I began taking antidepressants for the first time in my life, thanks to a psychiatric consultation that helped me realize that if I could start running, I could try anything else, too. I began sleeping better, and doing push-ups and sit-ups in the morning, noticing that the doughnut around my midsection was shrinking.
And since I had identified the Colfax Marathon’s 5K in City Park as my inaugural run — scheduled for May 19, about a month before my 40th birthday — I had a deadline to meet. The carrot dangled and, having quit drinking and smoking, and started exercising, my appetite was growing.
Suicide, substance abuse and mental illness run strong in my immediate family, and I’ve struggled with all three, usually in a hazy, self-medicated way. My system failed me in September 2012, a few weeks after my first child was born.
My dad and stepmom had purchased plane tickets to visit us from Dayton, Ohio, and my mom was already in Denver, visiting her new grandson, when I got the call that my dad had died of massive, unexpected heart failure at the age of 63.
Watching my son being born, then celebrating what would have been my grandfather’s 100th birthday, then hearing of my father’s death — in that order, and all within a month of each other — felt like some cruel, Shakespearean joke, particularly because the four of us have the same name (with the attendant Jr., III and IV appendages).
There were external challenges, too, bundled for maximum impact: family addictions and hospitalizations, financial collapses, deaths of close aunts and uncles, buyouts and layoffs at work, all jockeying for starting position.
These forced my wife and I to confront every aspect of our lives that wasn’t built of stone. Having lived most of our 20s and 30s as if we were freshmen in college, it was probably time.
This lowly 5K had become increasingly larded with significance. I almost felt sorry for it. How could it possibly shoulder all this symbolic weight?
But I tried not to overthink it. I stumbled outside a few times a week, occasionally realizing how lucky I was to be able to still do this, despite my poor health choices in the past. I could run, and fast if I wanted to. I was being given something like a second chance.
The day of the race came, a feeling of quiet destiny and giddiness permeating my movements. My buddy Jim joined me along the dewy, chilly path in City Park, along with what felt like tens of thousands of other souls. Being one of the healthiest people I know, Jim was put into a much faster group near the front. I was in the back with the kids and dogs, which was fine.
I had been sick a couple weeks earlier and wasn’t exactly where I wanted to be. In fact, I had only gotten halfway through the Couch to 5K app in general. My wife and kids, smiling from the grass, wished me well.
And I did it. I ran five kilometers without stopping, even though I desperately wanted to several times. All the bromides about running — muscles aflame, breath ragged, eyes watering to the point of blurred vision — came true. Mental determination spurred me more than physical strength. It didn’t really matter if, in the past, I had never pictured myself doing something like this. Here I was, doing it, the wall crumbling into the background.
The weather was crisp and, at one point along a closed-off East 17th Avenue in front of City Park, I threw my head back, closed my eyes and experienced one of those glorious, slo-mo movie moments, the sun soaking my face as I passed by a traffic cop. I’ve never been a particularly earnest guy, but I felt present in that moment.
I want to say that I kept running, and I meant to. I was going to keep training for a fall 5K of some sort, and I ran sporadically over the summer. But then I just stopped. As much as I enjoyed reaching my goal, I realized I fundamentally don’t want to get up before my kids every morning. It’s hard fitting running in with my current lifestyle, and needs. And I don’t feel guilty about that.
I may start again. I’m not sure. The Nikes whisper to me when I open the closet. But knowing I ran a 5K at all will make it easier to do again. I may, one day, finish the Couch to 5K app, which remains frozen at the halfway mark. It will be there when I need it.