A life-changing date

Ten years ago today, I did my first race: On Oct. 30, 2005, I walked a full marathon (26.2 miles), the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C.

My life has since changed in numerous, wonderful ways. To be honest, it changed even before that date, as I embarked on months of training for the race. Committing to such a goal and working toward it provides motivation and reward at many steps along the way. And I shared so much of that with co-workers who also were training for the event.

Crossing my first finish line was a very emotional experience!

Crossing my first finish line was a very emotional experience!

The goal was daunting, to be sure, but with each longer-distance training walk, I felt stronger, more prepared and more sure that I could do it.

The race day itself remains one of the most emotional and fantastic days of my life, and the memory will never (I hope!) fade.

The Marine Corps Marathon certainly is a great experience for a first-timer — and a walker, at that — because 1) it attracts a huge participant field and you’re never alone on the course, 2) the spectators are plentiful and nearly everywhere, 3) the scenery is pretty impressive (U.S. Capitol … Washington Monument … Smithsonian buildings), and 4) a Marine puts your medal around your neck. How great is that?

Doing this race was life-changing for the obvious reasons — achieving a big fitness goal, learning about what I could accomplish physically, feeling oh-so-proud for doing it.

But that’s not all.

As someone who hated gym class, was never among the first chosen for a team, and finished pretty much last in every meet when I spent one season on the high school track team (javelin, discus and shot-put), I finally found a physical outlet that felt great and at which I could feel a sense of achievement.

I caught the race bug, to be sure. I did a full marathon each of the next two years and then tried my hand (foot?) at half marathons. Before each race, I still felt a few butterflies, but I also felt confident in my abilities. As each finish line came into view and I crossed it, I still felt the same sense of elation and pride. I returned to the Marine Corps Marathon in 2011 to do my fourth full marathon, and on Sunday I’ll be doing my 15th half marathon.

Lots of fun times with race friends!

Lots of fun times with race friends!

Doing races is a great way to visit new places and really see them. There’s nothing like a race course that winds around a city to help you get an overview of somewhere new. Races have taken me to (among other places) Oregon, the Outer Banks, Myrtle Beach, new parts of Pennsylvania, Las Vegas, Florida and Dallas. In some cases, I was participating and in some cases I was there as a team coordinator, but in either case the travel was a great bonus.

Becoming a marathoner has altered my career path as well. It led me to seek certification as a group fitness instructor so I could work with others who were inspired and motivated by the idea of training to walk a race. I can’t get enough of the great feelings gained from doing a race; I love to see others experience it too!

But probably the best part of my race “career” is the friendships I’ve formed with fellow walkers. Preparing for and participating in a race is quite the bonding experience — and it’s so much fun to share it with good friends.

So, I want to send thanks and love to Katie, MaryPat, Beth, Pat, Pam, Rebecca, Jane, George, Kim, Annie, MaryAnn, Lee, Mary, Megan, Lana, Robynn, Bim, Jes, Marianne and others with whom I’ve shared this journey. (Katie, MaryPat and Beth get top billing because they, too, were on that course 10 years ago today, even though I didn’t know MaryPat and Beth very well at that point. Pat and Pam were seemingly everywhere along the course to cheer for us, even though we barely knew each other.) I’ll always have a fond place in my heart, too, for Karen, Polly and Craig, the most organized spectator crew ever on that day in 2005.

Thanks and love go, too, to the guy I call my “personal cheerleader-slash-photographer,” Chris. He’s the most patient and willing spectator I know.

micheleAnd special thanks and love to Michele, whose idea to create a walk-a-marathon training plan and program started it all. Look at how much pride and joy you’ve brought to so many, Michele! THANK YOU, from the bottom of my heart (and feet).

What’s your sign?

When you do a half marathon or full marathon, any motivation along the way is welcome. One form of motivation that I always look forward to is the signs held by spectators along the course.

Some are simple: “Go, Joelle!”

Others are inspirational: “You are a rock star!”

Then there are the funny ones — and they are the ones that give me the biggest boost. In fact, I vividly remember a sign I spotted in my very first race, back in 2005. A young woman held it high, and it read: “Hurry up, Rob — the game’s on at 1!”

Here are other memorable ones I’ve seen:

  • Look alive — there’s a funeral home in the next block!
  • Run like there’s a hot guy in front of you and a creepy one behind you
  • Worst parade ever
  • Pain is temporary. Race results are forever!
  • Run like you stole something
  • Run like [insert dreamy celebrity of choice] is waiting at the finish line
  • 13.1 miles — you’re only half crazy!
  • Your feet hurt because you’re kicking butt
  • Run, Forrest, Run!
  • This seemed like a good idea 3 months ago!

And here are two I spotted at a race in Atlantic City a few years ago:


Share your favorite examples in the comments!


That’s why it’s called “race bling”


Bragging rights aren’t the only reward for doing a race. Having a finisher’s medal draped around your neck at the end is a wonderful feeling. A medal is a celebration … validation … a form of proof, if you will, that you not only completed the distance but also (unless you’re a freak of nature) spent a lot of hours preparing to complete the distance. Wear them proudly!

Walking for a cause

I’ve mentioned before that I’ve done full marathons (four) and half marathons (12) as a walker. I’ve never done a 5K — until now.

A very worthy reason presented itself and that’s what prompted my registration. One of my oldest and dearest friends is battling lupus, for which there currently is no cure. I am joining her in a 5K walk with the Alliance for Lupus Research, from which 100 percent of the proceeds will go toward research into a cure for this debilitating illness. The event is Oct. 18, just two weeks away.

I want to see my dear friend (and others with this diagnosis) feel less pain and less restriction on her quality of life; I want her to regain her good health. Lupus is an autoimmune disease that causes inflammation of and damage to the joints and other parts of the body, including organs. Learn more here.

Won’t you consider a donation, even a small one? It’s tax deductible and you’ll be helping fund research into a cure. You can find my fundraising page here.

Thank you so much!

Not so sweet

Pretty much anytime you read or hear about exercise as a means to a healthy life, nutrition is mentioned next. They certainly go hand in hand.

Mmmm ... brownies.

Mmmm … brownies.

And just as it’s not always easy to find the motivation to exercise, it can be difficult to always follow a healthy, nutritious diet. I sure can attest to both. In my adult years, I’ve lost a total of 50 pounds over time, but have battled with that last 10 pounds, back and forth.

And my exercise has ranged from a big fat load of nothing to a list of physical accomplishments that includes four full marathons, a dozen half marathons and a 10-mile race thrown in for good measure.

I know I’m not alone when I say that my best intentions don’t always win out. I never met a dish of ice cream or a brownie that I could easily turn down. On the flip side, I’ve been known to binge on fresh summer fruit, too. (Is it bad to eat two mangoes in one sitting? They’re just SO good.)

Boooo ... sugar.

Boooo … sugar.

I know many people who have tried a sugar-free diet, both as a constant way of living and as a way to reset their systems. In the latter approach, they spent several days with zero sugar — not even in natural forms, like fruit — and slowly reintroduced it to their diets. Ultimately the intention is to weed out as much added sugar as possible. Natural sugar is not a bad thing, the key word being natural. But added sugar has no nutritional value and no reason for being, other than making foods sweeter and setting us up for a lifetime of cravings.

It’s an understatement to say that there’s a boatload of research on how bad added sugar is for us. There’s a new study that not only links it to heart disease but to a higher risk for death. Another study found that fructose (a form of added sugar) can create a domino effect that causes our “I’m full” sensor to essentially malfunction. Yet another looked at the link between sugar consumption and decreased brainpower. And that’s just scratching the surface.

Research also shows that sugar consumption creates a vicious cycle. You consume it, you crave it, you consume more, you crave more… you get the idea.

So: How much sugar is OK? What kind of sugar is OK? The American Heart Association recommends that women consume no more than 100 calories a day, or about 6 teaspoons’ worth, from added sugars. (For men, it’s 150 calories and 9 teaspoons.)

OK ... in moderation.

Way more than a daily allotment!

For mathematical purposes when you’re reading nutrition labels, 4 g of sugar = 1 teaspoon. So if you’re eating one granola bar that contains chocolate chips that has 12 g of sugar (as I saw on a label of one today), there’s 3 teaspoons, or half your allotment for the day. From one 4-inch granola bar!

It can be hard to determine what portion of the sugars listed on a label are natural and what portion is not. The AHA offers great information about this and much more, here.

Aside from information sharing, my purpose in posting this topic is to share my experience in going sugar-free. For the past 6 days, I’ve been participating in a sugar-free diet test panel. I spent the first 4 days with zero sugar, natural or otherwise. Yesterday, I was able to add fruit back in, along with one serving of refined whole grain.

I had previously scoffed quite seriously at friends who tried this diet. I believe in all things in moderation, I said. Cutting something out just sets you up to really crave the taboo item, I asserted.

So what changed? I read more of the research. I took into consideration my friends’ raves about how great they felt. I realized that I needed a reset of my own — a final piece of the puzzle, if you will, in trying to live as healthfully as possible and eat cleanly.

Yum ... natural sweetness! / Photo by Chris M. Junior

Yum … natural sweetness! / Photo credit: Chris M. Junior

Do I miss ice cream? Yes. Surprisingly, I’m really craving some pizza. (Tomato sauce is generally loaded with sugar, and the white dough ain’t so great, either.) But I’m finding that I can survive without my daily Diet Coke, and that I can pass up the doughnuts and M&M’s in the office. I still love fresh fruit and consider it a yummy treat. And the more days that go by on my “eating clean” calendar, the better and more revved-up I feel. (The weight loss is a welcome side effect too!)

I still believe in “all things in moderation” — but I don’t think I was eating sugars in moderation. I’ll revisit the topic at the end of the test panel time period and let you know how I’m feeling then. In the meantime, I welcome feedback and/or comments if you’ve tried this way of eating yourself.

My first race (of 17 and counting)

We all have to start somewhere.

I started big — a full 26.2-mile marathon. Some people start with 5Ks and work up. Nope, not me! Ha!

And I started not with just any full marathon: My first race was the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C., with about 30,000 other willing participants and a big rumbling BOOM of a Howitzer or some such as a starting gun. Talk about race-day atmosphere!

To be fair, most of the details of my first race were decided by someone else. If it were left to me, I probably wouldn’t have become a racer at all! Or at least, I doubt it would have occurred to me. Who knew you could walk in a race?

You see, I worked at Prevention magazine. (If you’re not familiar with it, it focuses primarily on health and wellness.) In 2005, our fitness editor/director, Michele Stanten, came up with the great idea to publish a story encouraging readers to set a fitness goal of walking a half or full marathon. We printed training info in the magazine and reserved some registration spots with the race for our readers. Response was overwhelming! We had a handful of entry slots for staff members who were interested in participating, too.

Michele asked us to let her know if we wanted to sign up. (Here’s where you can refer to my previous post, Why I Race.) In short, I thought about my own health and wellness and decided to be proactive. I have to confess that there was a bit of ignorance in there too! I had no idea what I was getting myself into. But in the end, what I was getting myself into was utterly positive, rewarding and life-changing.

The MCM has a time limit that can be challenging for some walkers. It’s not about a finish time but about reaching and crossing a bridge three-quarters of the way through the course before the bridge is reopened to traffic — a.k.a. “Beat the Bridge.” Suffice it to say that it made us all be more committed to preparing properly for the event. Who wanted to train for months and months, racking up the mileage, only to be foiled on race day? It was a daunting thought. And that aspect served as a foundation for all my race training and preparation to come. Walking a race is one thing. Walking a race at a brisk pace that gets you through the course with support and across the finish line within established time limits so you can enjoy the atmosphere and the finish festivities is another.

During MCM training, we coworkers who were participating had so much to compare notes on and bond over as the months went by. I can’t imagine doing something like this for the first time all on my own, without a support system of fellow participants. It was reassuring to all of us.

The calendar ticked down and race day arrived. I could do a whole separate post on specific memories of race day (and maybe at some point I will), but I’ll share the highlights now:

  • A race-morning starting area is the biggest illustration of “hurry up and wait” that you will ever experience
  • Few things are better than seeing a familiar face cheering you on at about mile 13 or 19 when you could really use a boost
  • Walking a race is a great way to really see many neighborhoods of one city (and all in one day!)
  • Hiccup-crying for a whole mile is draining but cathartic (I beat the bridge, but wasn’t sure I would until I did!)
  • Cookies at mile 22 are the best cookies you ever ate in your life, followed closely by a celebratory bacon cheeseburger
  • Knowing you are going to cross the finish line after so many months of training and preparation is one of the most emotional things you might ever experience. It’s been nearly 9 years and it still makes me tear up even now.

Finishing a marathon is something no one can ever take away from you, and it’s an accomplishment to surely be proud of. Whether you walk it or run it or do a combo of both, everyone on the race course is entitled to give it his or her best shot and reap the emotional and physical rewards.


Why I race

OK, so it’s one thing to go for a walk. To set out around the nearby streets of your neighborhood for a 30-minute stroll.

But how and why does one progress from that to deliberately walking 13.1 (because just 13 would be crazy, as racers like to joke!) or 26.2 miles?

For me, it’s about my grandmothers.

No matter where you stand on the nature vs. nurture continuum, we all have both in our makeup to some degree. When the opportunity first presented itself to walk a marathon (more on that in a future post), my thought process turned to my grandmothers.

At that time (2005), one of my grandmothers was not in the best of health. She was 81. During her life, she wasn’t really an exerciser, and her primary form of physical activity over the years was gardening and yard work. Sometimes she did a little stationary cycling.

My other grandmother tended to amaze everyone who met her. In 2005, she was 84, and she went hiking weekly with a hiking club she helped start when she was in her 60s. Even before that, in her 50s, she took up downhill and cross-country skiing, and in her 60s she bicycled across New Jersey (from the northwestern corner to the southeastern tip) with a cycling group on a week-long trip a few years in a row. She was active and fit — and quite healthy.

So, as I thought about whether I could/should/wanted to walk a full, 26.2-mile marathon, I thought of two possible outcomes for my old age, at least in terms of the “nature” angle. And it was clear to me that I wanted to age like my amazing, inspiring active Gram — and to accomplish that, I might want to step it up (no pun intended!) while I was still relatively young.

I registered for the race. And I’ll tell you in a future post how my active Gram joined me on the race course a few years later.

Welcome to the world of walking

Walking is a terrific form of exercise, and it also can lead you to rewarding personal achievements — did you know that you can participate in races, such as 5Ks, half marathons or full marathons, as a walker instead of a runner? Some walkers, in fact, have a faster pace than some runners!

But whether you wish to train for a race or just walk a few miles a few times a week for exercise, walking has all sorts of health benefits. It can help you lose weight, strengthen your bones, lower your blood pressure and cholesterol, lower your risk for heart attack and stroke, fend off depression and anxiety, reduce your risk for some types of cancer, improve sleep, release “feel-good” chemicals in your brain and decrease stress hormones — in other words, any walk is good for your physical and mental health!

Few workouts are easier: Walking doesn’t require a gym membership or special equipment other than supportive shoes, and you can pretty much do it anywhere, anytime.

So… what are you waiting for?