The Unlikeliest Marathoner
Guest Blogger Luis Bueno
Life has a funny way of putting you in places you’d never expected.
For me, that unexpected place was at the start line of the 2010 Surf City Marathon.
Anyone who knew me at any point of my life up until 2006 would have put my chances of running a marathon at 0.00 percent, and I would have said they were lower than that. You see, for most of my life I’d been overweight, obese for a portion of it. Running marathons and obesity go together like flip-flops and snow – they’re just not meant for each other.
Yet there I was on Pacific Coast Highway in Huntington Beach, Calif. on Feb. 7, 2010, a hydration belt strapped to my waist, energy gel packets safety-pinned to my shorts, chatting with fellow would-be marathoners and set for a 26.2-mile run.
It was not possible, was it? That I was primed for a marathon, one I’d actually longed to train for and run, was a bit unreal and completely unexpected.
In early 2006, I weighed more than 300 pounds. Over the course of 20 months, I lost 120 pounds. Throughout that journey, though, I did not run. I wanted no part of running. I would do anything to avoid the treadmill.
Running. Was. Boring.
Once I had gotten my weight under 199 pounds, my original fitness goal, I looked around for other challenges. During my weight-loss journey, I used the elliptical, stair master and stationary bike for my cardio, and I wanted something different; a new challenge. Enter running. I discovered intervals and soon I grew a close bond with the treadmill.
After seeing my running pay off in the form of wicked stamina during soccer games, my younger brother Danny convinced me to put my running to the test. In early 2008, I signed up for my first-ever race and although it was not until October of that year, I was energized. The event, the Camp Pendleton Mud Run, seemed daunting. Not only would I have to scale obstacles and crawl through mud but I’d have to run six miles. I was in awe and a bit fearful of the distance.
I wanted to see my training action, so I signed up for the Fontana Days 5K in June 2008. My first-ever race experience – pre-race electricity in the air, a mass of runners, a bib and, yes, even a medal – was spectacular. Pumped for the mud run, I plowed through my training. Race day came and I ran hard for more than an hour, crawling, dodging, scaling, splashing and ultimately finishing an actual 10K…. a 10K on steroids is more accurate.
Needing another challenge, I sought out a half marathon and soon I found myself training for the 2009 Run Through Redlands. I hit new milestones and I wound up running my longest distance to date in April 2009 and felt like a champion.
Except I also felt wiped out, like I’d crawled through the desert in mid-July without food or water for a couple of days. My body had nothing left to give at the finish line and I nearly fainted. But I had run 13.1 miles, proving once again to myself that nothing is impossible. With that as the fuel to my fire, I sought out the challenge of a marathon. However, I did not trust myself to train properly for it.
I searched for a running club and eventually I was a member of the Loma Linda Lopers. I was surrounded by marathoners and began running with the Lopers’ 11-minute-per-mile pace group. I felt official. Like a sponge I soaked up all the information the marathoners around me threw out and learned about the wonders of energy gels, the necessity for a hydration belt, how walk breaks can benefit you in long-distance running, how to run in the rain, etc.
Before too long, I was hitting new milestones – my first double-digit run since the half marathon, the first time I’d run 14 miles, the first time I’d run 15 miles. When our training plan called for my first 18-mile run in late November 2009, I was in Seattle on business. Determined to see that run through, I wound up running 18 miles alone on the Cedar River Trail in Renton, Wash., in pouring rain and 40-degree weather.
Having survived that run – which was, looking back at it now, my toughest training run ever – I was enthused. I ran 20 miles with my Loper friends and also finished 22 miles a few weeks afterward.
In early February 2010, I was a ball of emotions. I’d think about Surf City Marathon one second and swell with excited anticipation, then my stomach would sink so far I’d have to pick it up off the ground the next. But the emotion that arose the most from within was amazement. I was amazed at where I was, that I was really going to run a marathon in a few days, that I would cement my weight loss and lifestyle change with a 26.2-mile run.
I felt the need to share this last part. I felt as if I needed to tell the world just how far I’d gone, to tell people how far I’d fallen and how far I’d climbed, how much I’d struggled and how much I’d fought and mostly to send the message that nothing is out of reach, nothing is out of the question, that nothing is impossible.
So I took an old race bib, wrote a message on the back of it and pinned it to my back on race day.
With that on my back, I set out on a chilly February morning in search of marathon glory. The race started off great – as I was with many runners from my pace group, it seemed like a typical Sunday long run. I grew excited at each passing mile marker, and by the time the course took us out for our final out-and-back, at around Mile 16, I was excited. I felt strong. At Mile 20, still strong. At Mile 22, still strong. At Mile 23, a mess. Near tears. Questioning myself and my ability to get through the race.
Just then, my wife called me. I’d used my phone as my music player, and she’d called me several times prior. This time, she talked me off the ledge, her comforting voice re-assuring me that I would finish. Not entirely believing her, I put one foot in front of the other and trudged along. Right at Mile 26, she was there cheering for me. My girls, then 6 and 4, were also cheering for me. Tears slid down my cheeks and I slogged on.
I saw the finish line up ahead and could not believe that it was right in front of me. My mind wandered back a bit, and the last four years passed through me in a flash. From 300-pounder to nearly marathoner, my journey was all but complete. Now, imagine if I would have let my “impossible” thoughts get to me back when I first met my trainer in March 2006. I would not have set off on a weight-loss journey and wouldn’t have become a runner. I would have cheated myself out of my lifestyle change, out of the life that had become my own. I’d have cheated myself out of everything.
Instead, there I was, nearing the finish line with each painful step. I came to the finish line, threw my arms up and gazed straight ahead. I had done it. I had run a marathon. My legs felt stiff and heavy, my sides ached and I desperately needed food and water but I felt great nevertheless. I had just run a marathon after all; me, the same guy who four years earlier couldn’t walk more than a few minutes without feeling winded, the same guy who wore size 44 pants, XXL shirts and never thought that would change. That guy had just ran a marathon. And that guy, as of March 18, has now fun five marathons.
Now, I don’t think I’m special. I do think I’ve done some extraordinary things but I do not think I am extraordinary. In fact, I feel as ordinary as nonfat plain yogurt. But I know one thing – if you work hard, you can accomplish whatever you set your mind to. Nothing is impossible, and if you don’t believe that, just look how far an ordinary 300-pound man has come.