by Bill Hoffman
A popular book with business leaders these days is Start With Why: How Great Leaders Inspire Everyone to Take Action by Simon Sinek. When I tell people about my running hobby/obsession, I am often asked the simple question, "Why"? Why run? Why do you do what you do? My best answer and the one that keeps me going is I run to be young.
Backaches and transformations
Ahhh-chooo, ouch, there goes my back. 20 years ago, when I was in my early 30s, I was in the kitchen grabbing some breakfast when a sneeze, yes a sneeze, threw out my back! Well, I thought, getting old stinks. I can remember, when I was growing up, my father lying down in bed with a bad back many times. Well, now it was my turn to be “old.” In my early 40s, I was 40lbs overweight and my knees hurt just walking around the office. Again, getting old stinks. Then an amazing thing happened. Inspired by the book Born to Run, I started to run, first a mile, then a few more miles.
Since then, I have lost 40 lbs and have run over 42 marathons and ultramarathons, including two finishes at the Leadville 100 mile mountain race, a race that takes place 2 miles high and climbs 15,000 feet over 100 miles. Now in my early 50s, I feel better than I can remember feeling for all of the rest of my adult life. The only time I remember being this resilient was when I was under 12 years old and could bike and play all day and get up the next morning and repeat. I don’t run to look good or to win races, I run to feel good and have the freedom to be active.
Body is not a machine
Since undertaking my journey from an average overweight office worker to ultramarathon runner, I have rethought what it means to be old. People like to compare bodies to machines, but our bodies are far better than machines in that they don’t wear out with use; they get stronger the more we use them. As an example, let’s take a look at the mileage on my shoes recorded in my Strava. The shoes with the most miles are my “Barefoot (No Shoes)” at 1,226.1 mi! My feet are almost like the day I got them (well, they are bigger and not as cute). The body is constantly repairing and rebuilding itself. However, it only rebuilds for what it expects it will need. The more I run barefoot the more adapted my feet become. To date, I have completed five marathons with no shoes at all.
I was not throwing my back out because I was old, it was happening because I wasn’t using it the way it has evolved to be used.
Giant Mountain Fitness Test
I think it was about 25 years ago when I climbed Giant Mountain in the Adirondacks for the first time. I remember it being an epic journey that took all day long, with our hiking crew of five taking many breaks along the way. I also remember being sore for the next week. The next time I climbed Giant was right around the time I started to run road marathons. I was in pretty good shape and running a 3:25 marathon at the time. My brother, who is an avid hiker, came to visit and I took the day off from work and we hiked Giant and Rocky Ridge high peaks. We had a great time, but I was still sore for the next week.
The next time I climbed Giant Mountain was a rainy spring morning a few years ago. I was headed up to my cabin near Whiteface to meet some contractors. I took Friday off, and since I didn’t have to meet the contractors until noon, I figured I would have time for a quick run up and down Giant. I pulled over with my dog at the rainy trailhead and made it to the top and back in about 2.5 hours, all before lunch. The next day I ran in the Patch Sprint trail race, which climbs four mountains over 13 miles. The day after that, I climbed Whiteface. I don’t remember being particularly sore the next week.
I am working on run/hiking all of the 46 high peaks with my 15 year old son. After two summers we have about 16 left. I find it incredible that I can keep up with a 15 year old and that the two of us can run/hike 15 miles in a day. It is an amazing blessing to be fit enough to share that experience with him, even as a 52 year old, soon to be 53. If I want to go kayaking, I can rent a boat and paddle away for hours. I have reached that feeling when I was 10 years old and the only thing holding me back from doing any activity is my imagination.
If it is cold and raining cats and dogs, I can leave my house and run a half marathon on the trails of Thacher Park. I liken it to the Southwest Airlines slogan, “you are now free to move about the country.” I am now free to move about my world. I can move in the heat of the summer and the freezing cold of the winter, from sunny humid beaches to tall mountains with thin air. That is my “Why.” I run to be young and free to live and move around the world.
Now that I have described my “Why” of running, I want to describe my “How” of running. My journey has been fast yet slow at the same time. I eased into running 1 mile at a time. 1 mile became 2, which became 5, and in a few years I was able to run marathons. I have not yet had a running injury that has sidelined me. I credit that to several things:
I might be faster at some races if I had fancy Nike shoes, but for an average guy I do well enough and the strength I am building from running in sandals or barefoot is keeping me healthy. I think my diet is also a key part of my fast recovery times. I eat plenty of anti-inflammatory foods, letting my food be my medicine. I have also been a consistent runner.
Much of my consistency can be attributed to a fear of losing my “Why.” I fear going back to random backaches and not being able to enjoy the mountains I have grown to love so much. I liken it to a ratchet. Each time I achieve a fitness level, I need to keep that level by continuing to run/hike and cover miles on foot. I try to take an evolutionary approach to running and always ask, “what would someone have done 50,000 years ago?” If they stayed in the cave every time they had an ache or pain, they would be dead. They moved every day, and that is what our bodies evolved to do.
In 2016, I traveled to Peru to run the Machu Pichu Marathon. During the trip at one of the tourist sites we paid this woman to let us take a picture with here and her alpaca. Our guide said she was in her 90s! She walks about 10 miles a day. She comes down from her house in the mountains to this tourist area with an alpaca about 5 miles, then walks around taking pictures with tourists, then walks back home another 5 miles at the end of the day.
If current me were to go back to past me, I am not sure I could convince myself that running 100 miles at a time is something that I could or would want to do, but I sure would try. I have been on an amazing journey from average overweight office worker to a young-again ultramarathoner. Using an evolutionary approach to my training, I have discovered a way to turn back the clock and be like a child again. I run up and down mountains all day, and get up the next day, and do it again. I don’t consider myself to be endowed with any inherently exceptional athletic abilities. I believe any average human being could do what I have done. You can’t buy it except with your time, but the results are nothing short of amazing. As humans we have inherited amazingly versatile, resilient, and powerful bodies capable of taking us on amazing journeys with our own two feet and a brain tuned to the wilderness.
Tales From the Trails Archive