I celebrated National Running Day in Schenley Park: remembering how I began to run 13 years ago

Schenley Park

Today I celebrated National Running Day by, uh, going out for a run. Here in Pittsburgh, I have come to like most to run in Frick Park, but today I decided to run in Schenley Park instead, as I was in a sentimental mood.

I ran the out and back Pretty Good Race course on the Panther Hollow Trail in Schenley Park, as I have done at least several dozen times in the past thirteen years. My favorite part is always the long downhill return back to the start, during which I try to really fly down fast, feeling the wind rush past me. It’s the reward for having run uphill in the first half of the course!

Pretty Good Race 5K course

I was not always a runner. I only started to run at age 29, during a turning point in my life. And it turned out that Schenley Park played a vital role in getting me out the door and on my feet.

(The details of my story are distilled from my emails and daily journal I kept in 1999-2004.)

Why and when I started to run

In early 1999, weighing 30 pounds more than I do now 13 years later (and being probably prediabetic, in retrospect), I decided to change my life by trying to fulfill a childhood dream of becoming a runner. You have to realize that I was completely out of shape at this stage of my life, barely able to run ten seconds without stopping!

I set a concrete goal to work toward in order to motivate myself to improve little by little. It turns out that Carnegie Mellon University has for decades sponsored a 5K race called the Pretty Good Race (the name inspired by Pittsburgh’s Great Race 10K), held every year on Friday afternoon of the final week of the incoming computer science graduate student orientation program. A good number of incoming graduate students (as well as faculty, staff, and anyone else who is interested) take part in this race every year. The fast runners are very competitive, of course, but many run the race just for fun; there is a party afterwards for everyone who participates.

I decided to aim to run in the Pretty Good Race in September 1999. I had many months to prepare for it.

My progress in running: recruiting my friend John

Progress was quite slow, because I had decades of poor conditioning to overcome. On February 10, 1999, I went for my first run with my friend John (a graduate student classmate of mine) for the first time. John was not much of a distance runner (he could sprint), but at least he had run in the Pretty Good Race in 1998 (and finished at the back of the pack). He was patient with me because I had rest quite frequently. I owe John for encouraging me and accompanying me.

Unfortunately, I was so out of shape that I could only “run” for ten or fifteen seconds at a time before getting chest and leg pains and having to walk for minutes before starting up again. I had no idea what I was doing. Also, we did this irregularly, not on a daily schedule or anything. So progress was slow.

Failure in 1999

It turned out that I was dealing with various personal problems in the summer of 1999 and also still not fit enough to run continuously for a mile. So in late August, I decided to give up on my goal, and did not run in the Pretty Good Race in 1999

A new motivation in 2000: 30th birthday

In May, on my 30th birthday, I decided that I was going to get serious about running. I could not just continue to do my low-yield unsystematic run/walking with John. The very next day, I pushed myself harder than I had ever done before, running with John.

Then I shook off my “dependency” on John, and decided to run every day, even if it meant doing it alone. I made extensive use of Frick Park near home.

Scientific training

I started reading “The Runner’s Handbook”, recommended to me by my sister Linda months ago. Exactly nine days after my birthday, I wrote Linda email telling her that I planned to run the Pretty Good Race in September.

The book said that a beginner should run at least twenty minutes, preferably thirty minutes, and at least three times a week, preferably five. This was much more than what I’d been doing.

I wrote in my journal:

I think I will aim to successfully run my Frick Park route for a few weeks, till I can comfortably run 20 minutes. Then I will invent a new addition in Frick Park in order to make the run 30 minutes.

Progress became more noticeable as I focused on putting in the time and distance, going as slowly as required to avoid going anaerobic (my problem when running with John). Learning the science of distance running definitely helped a lot in making my training scientific.

Really committing to running the Pretty Good Race in 2000

I managed to get some friends of mine to commit to also running in the Pretty Good Race for the first time, and we did a little bit of running together.

Some warmup races

I ran the first races of my life right before the Pretty Good Race, in order to get a feel for what it was like racing.

Run Around the Square 5K

My actual first 5K race was the Run Around the Square in August 2000, just some weeks before the Pretty Good Race. It was “disastrous”, because I was completely inexperienced:

I guess I went too fast, because before I reached the park entrance, I wasn't feeling so well, and my right side was beginning to hurt already. I didn't think of myself as going fast, because so many people were going faster and obviously way ahead. There was no crowding problem, because people were getting spread out. Worse, when I reached the park entrance, I dashed down the steep, curving hill, passing a lot of people, and almost fell off the trail. When the uphill came, people started passing me. I knew I was in trouble when it took me 9 minutes to get to the 1 mile mark. As the race progressed, I saw all kinds of people pass me: middle-aged women, high-schoolers, old men. It was embarrassing. I was just trying to avoid getting sick. I was moving my feet slowly, and not pushing off. The feeling of people passing me was not encouraging. I ended up grabbing water three times. I took 18 minutes to get to the 2 mile mark. At this point, I believed I would probably take 27 minutes total, and I felt bad. I didn't even bother to get in an extra kick when the end was near. I just didn't feel well. I believe my time was 27:xx. I took my pulse right after I ripped off my chip and handed it to someone. It was 200.

In fact, my time was a very slow 27:23, and I was overambitious in my first race. But that was OK, because the point was to get experience so that in the race that mattered, the Pretty Good Race, hopefully I would do better. I was afraid of finishing dead last in the Pretty Good Race.

(For the record, a year later, 2001, I ran 23:19 in this race.)

Montour Trail 5K

A week before the Pretty Good Race, I ran in my second 5K race of my life, the Montour Trail 5K. I did it in 25:30, being much more experienced as a result of the Run Around the Square.

(For the record, a year later, in 2001, I ran the Montour Trail half marathon instead, in 1:47:23, five days after running a 5K race in 21:39. Do the math: in one year I got my 5K time down from 27:23 to 21:39!!)

Moment of truth: Pretty Good Race 2000

My friends all beat me in the race, some pretty significantly.

I finished in 26:26, in agony, in 27th place out of 32 (including the guy who ran backwards the whole way). OK, so I didn’t finish in last place after all!

I silently vowed to beat my friends in 2001. I did. I came in 18th place out of 45, after training really hard for a year to improve my running. My time in 2001 was 22:33, over four minutes faster than in 2000.

Here I am outsprinting my friend Sungwoo at the finish:

Pretty Good Race 5K, 2001, closeup of Sungwoo and Franklin

A mutual friend asked me why I was so intent on beating Sungwoo, and asked whether I had something against him. I said no, not at all. It was just a personal challenge, a goal, just like when I first starting running in races, and got beaten by a certain 70-something hunched-over old man repeatedly, I made him a concrete target to surpass in the future, and eventually I did. In this case, I had earlier judged that Sungwoo was closest in speed to me, and therefore I would aim to beat him.

Other years of running the Pretty Good Race

The future

This year, 2012, I aim to get back under 24:00 in the Pretty Good Race, to return to my fitness level of early 2007 before my life was disrupted for half a decade during which I had trouble staying healthy.

I have done less running so far this year than I would have liked, unfortunately, but just being on the Pretty Good Race course again and feeling great to be out there reminded me to return to a regular running habit. I have three months before the next Pretty Good Race!

But why??

In this blog post I haven’t explained why I wanted to run, what my goals were, how they have changed over the years, and why I run now. I will write about those topics in detail later.

For now, I’ll just say that I love to run. I wouldn’t do it if I didn’t. (I know people who run but do not love it. I think that is a mistake.)

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