Sunday, April 18, 2010

Runner of the Week: Christopher Wilno

Over the past year-and-a-half of writing this blog, I've interviewed some amazing runners, like Grannie Annie who started running at 50 and by 66 had run her 70th marathon and at least one in each of the 50 states! Then there was Noah, who lost 60lbs in 5 months and who's being an awesome healthy role model for his young son and thousands of others who've heard his story. And now there's Christopher Wilno. Christopher has turned hardship and family tragedy into an amazing life journey and has inspired many a runner. Read on to find out more about his amazing story.

RD: Where are you from?
Christopher: In my head I am from Atlanta but at 43 years old, I have spent most of my time in Los Angeles. I was born in Florida, moved to Chicago for one year and then spent 4th-10th grades in Georgia. I moved to Los Angeles in 1982 and still reside there.
RD: Share a little about yourself. What do you do for a living? Hobbies?
Christopher: Most of my career has been spent in Finance. I exited college in 1991 and entered the world of public accounting where I stayed until I was promoted to senior manager at KPMG. At that point, I left for a company that I helped to take public. From that point through 2008 I was always in a finance position as a controller, VP Finance or CFO. In April 2008, the company I worked for was acquired by Synnex, Inc. All of Finance was absorbed and, although I was offered a job within Finance it would have required a move to Northern California. I was not ready to uproot my family at that time so I turned it down. I was instead offered a position as Director of Product Management and have been in this role ever since managing a $1 billion portfolio of consumer electronics.

Outside of work, I love to run and bike. I am desperately trying to learn to love swimming but I am not there yet. I swim but it is work for me. I love all sports but primarily baseball, basketball and football.

Outside of work and my own training, much of my time is spent as a marathon coach for Team in Training. Coaching and fighting cancer is a big part of who I am. Since 2004, I have personally raised over $70,000 for Team in Training while completing 3 marathons, 2 Century rides and 3Triathlons (one of these was Ironman distance). I have completed more races than these but these are all the events for which I fundraised.

RD: How long have you been running?
Christopher: Depending on how you look at it, 27 years or 6 years.

RD: What got you into running?
Christopher: My very first exposure to running was in Atlanta as part of the wrestling team for my high school. It was very limited exposure but I mention it because it left a mark on me. I remember thinking there was a great deal of mental toughness needed to keep moving forward. When I later moved to Los Angeles, I dropped other winter sports and joined the cross country team. This move came out of nowhere but I think it ties to my exposure to the sport in Atlanta. Sometimes it only takes limited exposure to affect someone's life and a few miles in Atlanta made an impact on me. I ran cross country and track for my junior and senior years. In a short period of time, I was running 16 minute 5K's and sub 5 minute miles. As I think back, I am amazed at how fast a young body can adapt. I had horrible shoes and no idea what a good or bad time was. I just ran. I remember going out early into my running career with the more experienced folks on the team. It was a fartlek workout and about 5 miles in, these experienced runners turned around and I still remember the shock on their face to see I was still there. I remember that moment like it was yesterday. It was a moment that made me think I might actually be okay at this sport.

I wish I could say I stuck with running after high school but this did not happen. I stopped fairly cold turkey in 1984 and did not take up running again until 2004. I had always wanted to run a marathon and a series of events that hit my family over an 18 month period brought me the opportunity. In late 2002 my father was diagnosed with leukemia. I spent a lot of time flying from CA to South Carolina where my parents were to help support my Dad during this tough time. While he was battling, my wife became pregnant which was amazing. One unexpected blessing this news brought was providing my father another reason to keep fighting despite the torture chemotherapy was bestowing upon him. Unfortunately, on August 1, 2003, one day before the due date for Isabella Soleil Wilno and one day after my wedding anniversary, my little girl passed away before ever taking a breath on this planet. It was needless to say a awful day. My wife still endured labor knowing that the outcome was not going to be a happy one. I also had to make the toughest call of my life to tell my father that he would not be holding his granddaughter anytime soon. This marked a turning point for my father as he lost a little of that fight to live. Shortly after the loss of my daughter, my father was pronounced terminal and was given a few months to live. I quit my job and spent the next few months with my father. In January 2004, my father lost his battle.
Shortly after his passing, my wife became pregnant again with my son Jaden and shortly after this she was diagnosed with cancer. We had the tough decision of risking our baby or my wife. We chose to fight the cancer after my son was born. I am happy to say that a few years later, my son Jaden is very healthy, my wife and I have had another child, Thalia and, although the cancer returned in November 2009, I am happy to say she is currently cancer free.

To take this back to running...during the final few weeks of my father's life, I decided that I would run a marathon. I have no idea why. I think it is because it is something I wanted to do but was always afraid to do. My father was always amazing at sports so it was my gesture to attempt something beyond myself and do it to honor his life and all he did for me. To get started, I found a little store on Hilton Head Island, Go Tri Sports, and set off to buy shoes. When I got there, I walked in to meet the owner of the store. His name was Al...coincidentally my father’s name. I proceeded to tell him the story about my father and he handed me a purple and green flyer. This flyer was from Team in Training.......a program I knew nothing about. He was a coach and told me the program was to teach people to run a marathon while raising money to fight blood cancer....the disease that ultimately would take my father’s life. It was amazing. My desire to run a marathon for my father became even more meaningful now that I could raise money to fight back against this horrible disease. While a long story........this is my entry back into running after a 20 year break. I have been running and with Team in Training ever since. I am now a coach and try my best to give back and make a difference in people's lives and ultimately make a difference in this world.

RD: What do you enjoy most about running?
Christopher: There are so many things I like about running which ties to all the reasons that I run and ties to my coaching with Team in Training. From a personal perspective, I really feel whole when I am running. Running, and training in general as I try to stay Triathlon fit, really defines who I am. It is in many ways an escape for me...not an escape from reality but a way to work things out, leave stress from a long day on the road and be fit for my family. It is a sport that theoretically does not get easier because you are always pushing yourself to go faster or farther. It may get easier to run a certain pace, but when your body go faster so you are constantly challenged. Running builds mental toughness and really tests who you are as a person.

While this may sound a little odd, running keeps me somewhat connected to my losses. This was very true right after I lost my daughter and father. When I was running, I felt like I was with them. I felt like they would come join me on the road and keep me safe. It probably ties to the Team in Training experience because when I was tired or sore, I had my daughter, father and wife's battle to keep me in focus and drive me to push forward. I remember my first marathon finish line well. I was having a bad day and had to draw on every bit of my story to push forward. I crossed the finish line, found my wife and burst into tears. I felt like my daughter and Dad were there at the finish line to share the moment and to this day I like to think my Dad takes a break from some golf course in Heaven, grabs my little girl and comes down to watch me cross every finish line.

I also enjoy running because I think the community of runners is amazing!!! Everyone is so supportive of each other and supportive of those that are thinking about entering the sport. I think we are a welcoming bunch because we know the impact that running can have on one's life. As part of Team in Training, I have seen running change lives and even save lives. Yes, some of this change is tied to fitness and health but I think it goes well beyond this. I have seen running get someone off the couch that didn’t think they could make a difference in the world. I have seen running get someone out of the despair caused by the loss of a husband to murder. I have seen running teach so many that we are capable of anything we set our minds to. I keep all of this close to my heart every time I set out for a run. When I go around my neighborhood and see someone running that I know wasn’t running the month before, I like to think I might have had an impact on their decision to hit the road simply by seeing some else take those steps first.

People come to Team in Training for many different reasons and I think many of these reasons apply to running in general. Some come because they are overweight and need something to kick start their life. Some come because they are tired of hearing society tell them what can’t be done. Some come because of some personal hardship that they believe running can help them push beyond. Some come simply to meet new people. Running can meet every one of these needs. It can be the catalyst that leads you to a different lifestyle. It can teach you what you CAN do. It can help you work through and past hardship and it certainly can take you to some amazing people.

RD: What are your favorite training foods?
Christopher: I am probably not the best to ask about food because I am not the healthiest eater in the world. I have always been very skinny and struggled to gain weight but during my first Ironman this became exponentially worse. I was training so hard that I was losing weight. I compensate, I ended up eating 5,000 to 6,000 calories a day just to maintain. To this day, I still eat quite a lot of food and have not quite figured out how to eat that much and have all the calories be good for you. Don’t get me wrong…..I am not eating candy all day but I certainly am not afraid to pull out some Ben & Jerry’s S’mores flavored ice cream and down a pint.

When I am actually running, I train with Gu (Vanilla or plain flavor), Shot Bloks (all flavors), and Nuun sports drink. I also lose a lot of salt when I workout so I supplement the above with Endurolyte Electrolyte replacement pills. On the bike, the only thing I do differently is that I use Carbo Pro in my Nuun sports drink to supplement carbs and calories.

After a long workout.........I eat whatever I want. I will always get some type of strange craving on long runs or rides and will eat to that craving. During training for one of my recent races, the last 5 weeks of hard training lead me to a Chili cheese dog, fries and a root beer float. My son was very grateful for this craving!
RD: 5,000-6,000 calories...and skinny....a lot of people aren't liking you right now. LOL!

RD: Are you a lone runner or do you run with some buddies? What do you like about each?
Christopher: I lead a very busy life so most of the training I do for myself is solo and at very odd hours. I work 60-70 hours a week and I coach and am a Dad and am a husband so I try to train at hours that interfere as little as possible with the rest of my life. There are very few people that want to run at 11pm or 4am so I generally am on my own.

My group runs come on Sundays as part of coaching for Team in Training. Most of my teams are approximately 100 or so athletes and I try to spend time with everyone on the team.

RD: What’s the funniest or oddest thing that’s happened to you while on a run?
Christopher: When I am training for an event, I will not let anything get in the way of my workouts. During one season, I was scheduled to get in a 19 mile run but it conflicted with my friend’s wedding. This particular wedding was held on a Friday night and ended sometime around midnight. While my wife thought I was insane, along with everyone else at the wedding, I wore my running clothes under my suit. When the wedding was over, my wife dropped me off near the beach with a fuel belt and off I went for a long run home. My path home happened to take me past every bar in Southern California. Needless to say, between midnight and 2am there are a lot of drunk people at the bars. On this particular night they all seemed to be out on the patios as I ran by. I must have heard 'Run Forrest Run' no less than 50 times. It was the drunk battle cry of the evening.

RD: What’s your biggest running accomplishment? Why?
Christopher: From an overall perspective, my biggest accomplishment is being a coach for Team in Training. It is amazingly rewarding and a way to honor the losses and battles that brought me to running. To have the ability to affect lives is a blessing I do not take lightly. I have been a part of teams that in total have brought no less than 500 people across the finish line and combined we have raised millions of dollars to fight cancer.

From a personal perspective, I would say the slowest marathon of my career is my biggest accomplishment. It was part of my first Ironman. It was 100 degrees for the race and I do not do well in heat. I cramped so bad on the bike that I actually fell over from the pain causing me an inability to pedal. I sat for about 30 minutes with my bike and I only left at news that medical was on their way to see me. I was afraid they would shut down my day and I was not going to let that happen. I fled the scene despite horrible cramps and made my way to the bike finish. I remember heading out onto the run and hearing my wife offer words of praise telling me "You've got this Baby". I remember looking at her shrugging my shoulders because I really did not know if my future held an Ironman finish. I tried to run but it did not take long before my legs went into horrible cramps. A lot of folks were having bad days. The dropout rate was very high from the oppressive heat. I fell down on many occasions from the pain but I always managed to pick myself back up and keep going. I experimented with every run-walk interval combination I could think of and sadly ended up at a 30 second run - 2 minute walk......this was all my body could handle. It was pitch black before I could hear the crowds cheering letting me know I was near the finish. I remember some guy in the crowd yelling those infamous words you hear near the end of a race "Great job, you are almost done". I remember going right up to him, grabbing his shirt and asking exactly where the finish line was. I was very close to a complete collapse and was trying to make sure that collapse did not happen until I crossed the finish line. This kind gentleman clarified the location of the finish line so when I felt it was safe….. I started running it in. I gave a few high 5's but realized quickly this was a bad idea as I almost fell down from the impact. Four hours after I should have finished the Ironman, at just under 16 hours, I crossed the finish line and was crowned an Ironman. About 2 feet after crossing the finish line I collapsed and was carried to the medical tent. I remember a pain I didn’t think possible from cramps alone. It took four people to seize my muscles while I clung to an iron gate writhing around. My time on this particular day was not anything to be proud of but I did not give up when many people would have. On this day, I lost 16 pounds which is a lot of anyone let alone someone as skinny as I am. My body just shut down and, honestly, it was a mess for a few weeks into the future. It was this race that led me to preach that it is not always your fastest time you are most proud of.

RD: Do you have a favorite brand of running shoe? Which model? Why?
Christopher: I wear Saucony Grid Hurricanes. I have been through many shoes and this has been the best performer for me. I pronate and don’t have the best feet so I prefer both motion control and cushion. If I am not running but like to kick it in some running shoes I will wear K-Swiss K-Ona shoes.

RD: What’s your favorite race distance(s)? Do you have a favorite race you run each year
Christopher: Marathon is my favorite distance because of the mental and physical challenge it requires to finish. I coach both the half and full marathon and am proud of the finishers of both distances. I just find the journey to the marathon finish much more challenging and, as such, much more rewarding. On any given day you can kick the marathon's ass, but on any other given day, the marathon can kick yours. I truly believe that 26.2 miles can change your life!

RD: If you were speaking to a group of non-runners or runner wannabes and trying to encourage them to run, what would you say?
Christopher: I would first say to be patient when starting into the sport. It takes 4-6 weeks for your body to adapt and for you to see positive results. As a coach for Team in Training, the hardest part of the season is the first few weeks because of the initial struggle folks have in the transition from non runner. If your very first run is a struggle, how could you possibly finish 26.2 miles. This is natural conclusion, but far from the truth. The world is not a different place on your second run or your third run or even your fourth run. In 4-6 weeks, however, you will go out for a run and, 3 miles into that run, will realize that it was remarkably easier than that first workout of your running career. It is at this point that you will start to get joy out of running. It is also at this point that you can first see the affects running will have on your life. You ran 3 miles and your entire being was full of doubt but you pushed through that self doubt and made it happen. This happens time and time again over the course of training for any race. Doubt comes and you learn to shove it aside. This thought process begins to invade all that you are. People tell you something is not possible and you shove them out of the way to show the world anything is possible. If you trust that all this can come from running, why not start running today!

RD: Open Mike: Share anything you‘d like about your running experiences, past accomplishments, goals, dreams….anything you haven’t previously shared.
Christopher: The only thing I would like to add that although some of my circumstances above are tough to read and sad in nature, I am not one to focus on negative. The events above taught me that blessings come from even the worst of times. Yes my daughter passed away and yes it was and continues to be something that can bring a tear to my day but the event also gave my father comfort when it was his time to go. He believed that he would get to meet Isabella and that made his exit from this world much more tolerable. Isabella’s passing also led to a lot of tests that ultimately led to the discovery of my wife’s cancer. If she had not passed, my wife’s cancer could have kept growing undetected. This cancer could have ultimately cost my wife’s life. I like to believe that my little girl knew all of this and volunteered for heaven.

Cancer taking my father’s life was also a sad moment but also brought with it many blessings. It brought me back to running. It brought me to some amazing people and it brought me to an amazing organization where I have affected many lives. I like to think that cancer regrets it’s decision to attack my father because it picked the wrong guy’s son to mess with.
So, if some sadness or hardship enters your life, please be patient. The blessing or blessings may not immediately present themselves but I am confident they will appear. Keep your head up and your eyes open. You are where you are meant to be.
Thanks Chritopher for sharing your amazing story! You truly are an inspiration! Be sure to follow Christopher on Twitter at! For more information on Team in Training, [click here].


Johann said...

Another great interview! I really enjoy these and love learning about other runners. People have so much to share. Very inspirational.

Thomas Tan said...

Great interview! I follow Chris but didn't realize it and certainly was not aware of his stories. His Twitter ID "Run2SaveLives" now has new meanings for me. Bless him & his family.