Running Hater to Avid Runner

by Jeff Burtka

My morning runs often reward me with sunrises like this.

I never considered myself a runner, let alone an avid runner. I always felt it was trite when I would see someone describe themselves as an “avid runner” in their bio on a company or law firm website.

I hated running when growing up, probably because it always was the punishment for screwing up in the sports I liked. I had a rough time finding myself and fitting in in high school, and I shied away from organized sports, despite being an active kid who loved playing sports. Even though I stayed in decent shape, I never considered track or cross country. I was tall and gangly, and it seemed like all the good distance runners were short, compact endurance machines.

My first experience with running as something other than a punishment came when I joined my college rowing team at the University of Michigan. Even though rowers sit on their rears while racing, leg strength and endurance are the most important attributes for rowers. Although we trained our muscles for grueling 2,000-meter races mostly through rowing, we ran to cross-train and often ran hills or Michigan Stadium’s 90-something rows of steps. During my four years of college rowing, I went from one of the slowest runners on the team to at least the upper half. I was even better at the stadium runs (one loop around the stadium, running up and down each exit row), probably because I would voluntarily go to the stadium once a week during the summer before my senior year to run the steps. However, these voluntary runs were for the love of rowing, not the love of running.

After college, rowing was a time-consuming and expensive option, so I ran to stay in shape (and to be able to eat without gaining too much weight). I did some 5Ks for fun. I ran a couple of miserable marathons, following training plans that focused on surviving a marathon but not conquering goals. Instead, I survived and was conquered at the same time. Then kids came along, sleep became more valuable, and running became a once- or twice-per-week activity . . . on good weeks.

I hit my 40s and had a couple of strange health scares that turned out to be nothing, but the doctors told me stress was probably the cause. I made a goal to walk 30 minutes or run 20 minutes every day in 2016. I eventually started walking less and began running more often and farther. I decided to run another marathon that fall but made the mistake of following the same survive but be conquered plan. I set a PR, but I didn’t feel like a runner.

A morning run on vacation in Florida

I then turned to the Hansons Marathon Method, which includes some interval training and longer runs at or near goal marathon pace, instead of just piling up miles at slow paces. As I pushed myself to run faster, running became kind of . . . fun. In my next marathon about eight months later, I took nearly 40 minutes off my PR. I then set a goal of qualifying for Boston and moved up to the Hansons advanced plan. Six months later, I missed my goal by about 15 seconds and decided that my marathon days were over.

Within two weeks, I realized I loved running and that I wasn’t done with the marathon distance. It wasn’t just about setting goals, but goals still help me get through the tough days. I realized I was an avid runner.

I took another shot at qualifying for Boston and achieved that goal six months later, but achieving that goal didn’t make me an avid runner. I already was an avid runner because I knew that lacing up my shoes and hitting the open road or trail was a necessity, but not an obligation. Each run is now an attempt to find those transcendent moments when everything flows and I seem to be soaring over the earth.