COLUMN: Fall: A season made for outdoor change

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I was up in Moore County on the north side of Seven Lakes many months ago. It is the setting of the murder mystery I wrote. I was there to deliver bumper stickers and signed books to old friends. A kid in his mid-20s operated the gate and now knew me by sight.

“Hey, Mr. Smith. I’ve got your pass right here. No fitness center today?”

“Not for a while, unfortunately,” I said.

“You okay?”

“Yeah, just no time.”

“No, I mean, are you okay?”

Whatever he saw in me, it wasn’t good.

“It’s been a rough few weeks.”

I waited until I got home and stared at the mirror.

Big. Tired. Haggard. Pale.

Damn.

In my worst shape post-divorce, I was over 190 pounds. I usually walk around at about 175. My knees hurt. My lower back screamed.

I began getting back into shape over the summer. After years of operating a one-person landscape company as a side hustle, I’m as close as you get to being impervious to heat and dehydration. North Carolina summers are intolerably humid, though, and thus not a particularly good time to get in shape from scratch.

Fall is the second spring of the South minus the pollen. The weather cools, and the daylight still lingers in the evening. This is the time to slip out the door and begin an exercise regimen. For me, it will be the season I take things to another level.

Running was no longer my thing when this mission began. I had zero muscle endurance — my legs were perpetually tight and tired quickly. The musculature around my knees needed rebuilding. Out of storage came my 17-year-old Trek mountain bike. For 30 minutes a day, I shot down a stretch of Old Cheraw Highway and back. There was one dog that waited. Like me, he’s white in the muzzle with a few extra pounds. But he is really fast.

My first training victory was getting past Cujo (I don’t know his real name — he didn’t tell me) without losing a foot. I took the bike everywhere and popped it off the rack whenever I had a few moments and a safe opportunity to ride. After a few weeks, I was riding for 45 minutes or more. Muscles returned. A few pounds dropped. I knew, though, that unless I began putting severe miles on the bike, the rest of the weight would only fall off via running.

I don’t have time for high mileage on a bike or foot. I have time for consistent, low mileage. I bought moderately priced Saucony shoes — a far cry from the $200-dollar wheels I wore in the late 1990s when I looked like a Lycra-covered, distance-running superhero. Now I look more like Brett Favre hobbling down the highway. But that’s fine. I’ve seen worse.

Mike Tyson is now in his late 50’s. In his worst shape — around 2009 — Mike waddled around at 315 pounds. Picture the film “The Hangover.” Phill Collins plays in the background as Mike knocks out Alan for stealing his Tiger. Mike was a mess.

On Nov. 20, 2020, he entered the ring against Roy Jones Jr., a solid 220 pounds. That’s pretty much what Mike weighed in his prime. Now he made a lot of changes, including becoming a vegan. I’m not going all in with that. One of his staples, though, was running.

He admits in many interviews that he could run only a mile when he began training in earnest. He ran that mile and walked another until he could run two and walk a third. By fight night, he was consistently running five miles.

Mike sometimes ran on the wide shoulder of a multi-lane highway as his handler followed behind in a car. I don’t recommend this, but I get what Mike found attractive: long, flat terrain with mile markers to gauge progress. Any inclines are gradual.

Selecting where you run is essential. I hate driving somewhere to run. I’m the guy who likes to bail out the front door and start running. However, safety and conditioning may dictate you do something different. Keep big hills out of your running diet until you get into some semblance of shape.

Until I returned to the roads, I ran Hitchcock Creek Trail in Rockingham. No hills, just a level knee-forgiving gravel trail with a tree canopy to protect you from the sun. It is a loop of about 1.6 miles, and I suggest running it without music. I suggest that all your early runs be sans headphones. Listen to your body, gauge your performance, and begin to understand what pace works for you. Moderate loops are good. If you must walk, you’re never too far from where you started. Hinson Lake is also a loop just under two miles. It, too, is flat with tree cover.

Stay off-road if you can. The state game lands are nearby; monitor the hunting seasons, though; you might end up on the news if you don’t. Game-land running is safer in the spring.

Golf courses are good. Stay off the paths during peak playing hours. Most establishments don’t mind the occasional jogger in the early morning or evening, especially if the course is the center of a residential community with houses along the fairway.

Some golf establishments mind runners a lot. When I moved here in the late ‘90s, I had a route that involved Pinehurst 1-4. A course ranger policed the fairways in a golf cart and attempted to ticket me. I’m pretty sure there was a makeshift wanted poster with my out-of-focus image for a while. But I was still in marathon shape then, and standard golf carts aren’t too fast.

If you must run on the road, make sure it is one with a generous shoulder and run on the left side to see the traffic as it comes toward you. Early morning/late-evening runners need lights. I have hats with built-in LED lights. I have no problems seeing or being seen. Some bike lights are cheap and fasten on the handle with a rubber clasp. That clasp also wraps and secures easily around a pair of your fingers. Forego headphones if running on roads with significant traffic and no sidewalk.

And bring dog biscuits. I’m not kidding. I’ve turned many perceived enemies into friends, including Cujo.

Don’t make any ridiculous changes to your diet. Your body needs calories because you are now making it do things requiring more energy. Eat better, not necessarily less.

There aren’t many hydration issues with low mileage running in the fall. Even when running marathons once upon a time, I did not often take water with me. What I did was make sure I regularly hydrated all day. I had a cut-off time for my caffeine intake; the afternoon was all water.

Ibuprofen. Buy some. Soreness is normal. If it is awful, take the day off. You might want to at least go for a short jog or walk to work out some of that soreness. I usually get back on the bike for the day to work it out.

Don’t time yourself. Don’t push the pace. Be comfortable and finish. Slog through the run if you must, even if you look like Rocky Balboa on his first run up the art museum steps, gasping and holding your side. There is no shame, especially in the beginning. Slogging becomes shuffling; shuffling becomes striding. Everything is a win.

Don’t falsely engineer motivation. Don’t make your resolution to get back into shape a competition among friends or a bet. Don’t even tell anyone about it. This mission is between you and you. Evolve your motivation organically and keep your routine simple and consistent. Motivation grows with little victories: the day your breathing becomes more relaxed; that day where one mile becomes two, the day your lower back is set free from tightness, that day you use the notch in your belt that you have not used in years or ever.

I’m not setting any speed records, but I am up to three miles and down to about 180 pounds. And then, of course, there was my July visit to Seven Lakes. Again I was dropping off more books, this time for a charity event. The same kid came out of the guard house.

“Sir, can I get your identification… Mr. Smith?”

“Yeah?”

“I didn’t recognize you.”

“New car, and I’m usually wearing a hat,” I said.

“No, your face…”

He made a gesture on his own face indicating that my jawline was sharper.

“You look solid.”

I smiled and nodded and thanked him as I drove on. Then I looked at my face in the rear-view mirror.

Defined. Relaxed. Clear-eyed. A bit of color.

Damn.

Sean Patrick Smith is a freelance columnist and author of “Three Miles of Eden,” a murder mystery set in Seven Lakes, in which Richmond County makes multiple appearances.