How Running Helps Former Athletes Stay On Track

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The last advice the football team’s orthopedic surgeon gave me during my college athlete exit examination was, “Get healthy, and don’t get fat.”

At that point, I was overweight and had accumulated seven separate orthopedic surgeries and many additional less-severe injuries over my athletic career.

But, I knew what he meant.

He was referring to the many former athletes he had treated who, once ending their athletic careers, became unhealthy, overweight and sickly.

The transition from athlete to a "regular" person is hard to make, psychologically and physically.

Without formal workouts, training sessions and competition, many former athletes lose the motivation to stay physically active.

On top of that, the stressful post-grad life of attempting to build a career can make exercise seem more like a sacrifice than an asset.

In college, I was an offensive lineman, tipping the scales at nearly 300 pounds.

I had to eat several thousand more calories a day than the average person just to maintain my weight, all while logging several hours of training each day.

That was my life for years, and within days, I was expected to change; to become "normal."

The one advantage I had was I had seen some of my teammates poorly make the transition from lineman to former-lineman.

I watched as they would keep their excessive eating habits and then acquire the sedentary lifestyle of post-grad, white-collar job.

Before they knew it, they had become dangerously overweight.

With lifestyle diseases consistently lowering the average lifespan of Americans, I sometimes wonder how long they will last unless they change.

Determined to make a change as soon as possible, I started running.

I decided running would be an efficient way to lose the extra weight I had accumulated over my football career. How often do you see an overweight runner?

That said, at the beginning of 2013, I gave myself the New Year’s resolution to run one mile for every day of the year, 365 miles for 365 days. It seemed like a worthwhile goal.

Starting in the bitter cold January mornings, I ran. At the beginning, I could barely run a single mile without stopping to catch my breath.

My first mile-long run took me 13 minutes, my second 10 and my third 11. Then, on the fourth day, I ran 2.5 miles and it took me 40 minutes.

I was snail slow, and despite the below-freezing temperature, I finished my runs panting and sweaty.

But, I didn’t stop. I was determined to not be fat; I was determined not live a shortened life, disappointed in my own body.

Not before long, I was more consistent and slightly faster in completing 1- to 3-mile runs. I reached the point where I could run 6 miles, and the weight started to come off.

I ate healthier to lose weight, but then I started to eat healthier so I could run more.

That spring, a friend of mine, who knew what I was doing, told me I should try running on some of the local mountain trails. Running on trails?

I figured it would be a nice change from the mundanity of pavement. So, I asked him to show me a trail to run on and everything changed.

I fell in love with trail and mountain running. At that point, I had already lost 30 pounds, and I began to run farther and more frequently than ever.

Before I knew it, I had already run 365 miles and only in six months; I was unstoppable. So, I set the new goal to run 1,000 miles before 2013 was finished. I reached my goal with eight hours to spare on a snow-covered, icy trail. The fire had started, and there was no putting it out.

Since I decided to start running, I have lost 90 pounds, run over 3,500 miles, and finished 11th overall in my first 50K ultra-marathon without injury.

Today, I am nearly unrecognizable to those who only knew me as an offensive lineman in college.

Several times a month, I will see a former teammate or coach of mine, and I will have to reintroduce myself just so they can recall who I am.

“You look great,” they tell me.

Then, they ask, “What’s your secret?” I tell them I run in the mountains every day and I train for ultra-marathon races.

They look at me like I’m crazy, and sometimes, I wonder if I am. But, I just smile.

This weekend, I will be participating in my first 50-mile ultra-marathon.

As I think about how much I have changed over the last two years, physically and in my perspective on life and health, I know it is all because of my decision to run and to never stop running.

You can see all of Ryan’s trail running pictures on his Instagram account: @Trenches2Trails.