Sunday, December 19, 2010

Runner of the Week: Chris Wojtowicz

If you ask 10 different runners how they got into running, you'll probably get 10 different reasons. That's a big reason running is so appealing to me. People are drawn to running for so many different reasons. Some use it as stress relief, some use it to draw attention to a cause, some use it to build confidence, others use it as a means to stay fit, and still other use it as a means of working through the grieving of a loved one or to help them cope through a traumatic time. This week's Runner of the Week (Chris Wojtowicz) is a true inspiration and a true testament of what one can accomplish when they have the desire and commitment. Read on to learn more about Chris and his story.

RD: Where are you located? Original hometown or a transplant?
Chris: Born and raised in the Detroit area, which I still call home.

RD: Share a little about yourself. What do you do for a living? Hobbies?
Chris: I’m a 36-year old dad to three great kids and have been married to my wife for 10 years. Our youngest is not quite 2 years old and together, they keep us very busy. As a software sales executive, I work out of a home office and find myself on the road visiting customers almost every week. When I’m on the road, big business meals and bar time with co-workers isn’t uncommon at all.

RD: How long have you been running?
Chris: Less than a year. In the fall of 2009, I got an email from Rodale for a promotion for their Biggest Loser book, 30 Day Jump Start. My wife and I love the show, and thought that we’d give it a try in 2010. I started walking/running on January, 9th, 2010. At first, I could only go a ½ mile on the treadmill at 4.5-5.0 mph before I’d have to get off, out of breath and with lots of pain in my legs. I wanted to just give up and tell my wife “I’m just not a runner….let’s find something else.” But my wife and I promised ourselves that we’d stick with exercising and a better diet for THIRTY DAYS….no matter what. I’m a grown man! I can stick with something for 30 days, right? On days when I was too sore to run, I’d climb on the treadmill and walk instead. Sometimes for 20 minutes, sometimes for 2 hours while I watched a ballgame. Sometimes 3mph and flat, sometimes 4mph with incline. It dawned on me that if I was sweating, no matter if I was walking or jogging, it was good. I was tracking all running/walking activities at Looking back on my workout history, I was able to jog my first non-stop mile on day 10 (Jan. 19th). I did this mile in 10:57 and remember collapsing on the couch a sweaty, sore, PROUD mess! I did a mile! After a few more days of recovery walking, I tried again at the mile and failed! I gave up after ¼ mile! I was so frustrated and again wanted to quit. On Jan 27th, though, I completed my second 1-mile run, this time a slower 11:19. Then more walking, more jogging, more, more more. Through these first few weeks, I was beginning to learn that jumping off the belt was a conscience DECISION I was making! This realization allowed me to stay on longer. On Feb 1st (22 days after climbing on the treadmill) I finally completed my first non-stop, 5k jog, in 36:44. I was SO proud (sore and sweaty, too). From there, the confidence and determination was INFECTIOUS! Now that I knew that I could do this (seemingly) ridiculous distance, there’s no stopping me! I did another 5k the very next day in 36:30 (a new PR!). A few days off, then another 5k. I now had a base. A 3.1-mile run was my new standard! In just a month! WOOOOHOO!!! When our 30 day commitment was over, I was HOOKED! On days that I couldn't get in a run and a good sweat felt miserable, like something was missing. So we stuck with it. My wife and I signed up for a 5k in April. Having a date on the calendar allowed us to stay focused on making sure we were getting in our 4-5 runs per week. I ran my first 5k in 25:31! Since I was hooked, I needed my next event, Chicago’s Rock and Roll Half Marathon! The mileage increased and I was getting stronger and stronger. I finished my first half marathon on August 1st in 2:02 (9:18/pace). I had to put on my sunglasses as I crossed the finish line because I didn’t want my finish photos to show me crying! A September 5k was next and I came in at 22:04 (7:06/pace). Finally, in October, we ran the Detroit Half Marathon and finished in 1:50.  Next Event: We’re heading to New Orleans to run the Rock and Roll Mardi Gras FULL MARATHON on February 13, 2011!

RD: You’ve lost a great deal of weight. Did the running drive the weight loss, or did the weight loss drive the running?
Chris: On January 9th, I weighed 262. Along with climbing on the treadmill, we also made a 30 day commitment to watching and, most importantly, tracking everything we ate. It wasn’t easy, especially at first. We had planned a day trip to ski on January 9th and instead of enjoying a big pizza lunch with the rest of the group in the ski lodge, we brought our own salads and chicken breast. Tracking our input on was a fantastic way to set goals and track our daily and weekly progress toward those goals. Also, tracking our exercise (calorie burn) on this website helped bring the two most important numbers together….on one screen…for easy analysis. We learned quickly that if we monitored our food (for the first time ever) and made a commitment to daily exercise, then good things would happen. We weighed in every Saturday morning, and after one week, I had dropped ten pounds! After our initial 30 days, I was down a total of 24 pounds to 238. There is no doubt that without running, the weight would have been much slower to come off. Conversely, there is no doubt that without a conscience effort to eat more healthily and with reasonable portion sizes, the weight loss would have been slow. Combining these two practices, however, was like magic! Plus, carrying 24 less pounds HAD to make running easier. Easier running means longer distances and more miles. More miles means more weight loss. It was an exciting and very enjoyable cycle!

RD: What initiated the weight loss and a new life of fitness??
Chris: I carried my weight above 260 for a few years. I was waking up with ankle pain, sore knees, back pain, recurring gout attacks, etc. For SO long I just chalked this pain up as “…getting old…”. Getting down on the floor with the baby and (even more so) getting off the floor was very hard. Wanting a new body, more strength and energy was my primary motivation. Then the 30 Day Jump Start book showed up and the message was simple: Give us a 30 day commitment and see what happens.

RD: What do you enjoy most about running?
Chris: At first, the biggest enjoyment I got out of the daily running sessions was the “alone time”. For a few minutes or 1 ½ hours on long runs, I’m able to think about the kids (how can I be a better dad), the family (what can I do more for my wife and family), work (I get great work ideas when running), or simply create a great playlist and enjoy some tunes. Often, on the long runs, I get through all of these topics! Nowadays, we’re training for a full marathon and our training plan is defined from now until race day in February. So, I enjoy getting the “Check In the Box” after each day’s assignment. Some days, when I’m not in the mood to get on the treadmill or put on 3-4 layers and hit the street, I remind myself that there’s an empty box on my training plan. I hate an empty box staring at me, so I lace up and check off that box.

RD: Are you a lone runner or do you run with a group?
Chris: 90% of my runs are alone. On the rare occasion that my wife and I are able to free our work schedules and send the kids to friends/families, then we run together. Long runs with your best friend, especially after all those runs alone, are absolutely priceless.We chat about running articles or blogs that we’ve read, the latest running gear for cold weather runs, etc. It’s absolutely perfect. The best thing about running with someone you’re so close to is, in all actuality, hard to explain (but here goes): Running is magical in its ability to allow one person to give another person energy and motivation. Similar to reaching into my pocket and giving her a quarter, through chatting and pacing each other, I feel like we can give each other a few points of energy to keep running, to get through the rough patch, to fight through the pain, and finish the run. More often than not, I’m in need of the energy points, but on the rare occasion I’m able to talk her through a rough patch is nothing short of magical and a lot of fun to talk about over a post-run smoothie.

RD: What’s the funniest or oddest thing that’s happened to you while on a run?
Chris: On a vacation in Scottsdale, I was getting in my daily run (alone, because my wife had gotten ill) through mountainous/hilly neighborhoods when, much to my shock and surprise came a coyote….and his friend. I froze in my tracks, as did my new friends, about 20 feet ahead of me. Waiting to see what their first move would be, I had scanned the area for my ‘escape’, which would have been a sprint to a nearby 5 foot concrete wall that I’d have to scale and hope they weren’t very good jumpers. As luck would have it, though, it appeared that I scared them as much as they scared me and they took off in the opposite direction and out of sight! Phew! I don’t run across coyotes much in my Detroit suburbs.

RD: What’s your biggest running accomplishment? Why?
Chris: Even though my 2nd half marathon was 11 minutes faster, my 1st half marathon was my biggest/proudest running accomplishment. Running a 5k was a GREAT accomplishment in “becoming a runner”, but my view of a running a half-marathon seemed like a monumental feat….one that very few people can say they’ve done. When I crossed the finish line in Chicago, 13.1 miles and 2 hours and 1 minute of non-stop running, I knew that I did it….I was OFFICIALLY a runner and no one could dispute that fact. I was no longer “the biggest guy in the room” at 260+ pounds. I was a runner. I had a big, heavy finishers medal that I earned!

RD: Do you have a favorite brand of running shoe? Which model? Why?
Chris: My favorite running shoe is the Nike Lunarglide. They’re super light and provide lots of support. For training purposes, though, I’ve fallen in love with my Nike Frees and even the Vibram Fivefingers.

RD: What’s your favorite race distance(s) or favorite race?
Chris: I’ve run a couple of 5Ks, an 8K, and two half marathons. Of these, my favorite race distance would have to be the 5k. Now that I’ve built up a good base of fitness and running strength, I believe I’m finally learning how to race. My last 5K was completed in 22:04 and (for the first time ever) I even finished before my wife/coach!  It’s my goal to complete a 5K in less than 20 minutes in 2011. My favorite of all the races was the Detroit Half Marathon. Starting in downtown Detroit, the course crosses into Canada via the Ambassador Bridge. I’ve driven over this bridge so many times in my life, and here I was….RUNNING across it, high over the water below! Very neat. Then a few miles on the Canadian shoreline was great. Our Canadian supporters were so enthusiastic and encouraging that the miles seemed to fly by. Returning to the US is done via an underwater mile via the Detroit/Windsor tunnel. Again…I’ve driven this tunnel so many times, and it was absolutely amazing to run through it (although it never dawned on my while driving through that getting out of the tunnel was a serious incline!).

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?
Chris: “If I can do it….then YOU …. ANYBODY….can do it. It seems so simple to say, but running or not running is a choice. A simple choice to lace them up or NOT to lace them up. I tried to use the excuse that I couldn’t run (or walk in those early days) because I had to take care of the kids, or the house needed cleaning, or there’s just no time. But every day, I had time to watch Biggest Loser, or Wheel of Fortune, or the Evening News. Many times, I set the alarm at 5am to walk/run before everyone else woke up in the morning. Ball game on TV? Grab the Walkman and listen to it while I trekked through the neighborhood. A co-worker of mine, who ran daily, told me three simple letters. EFD. I asked, “What’s EFD?” He replied, “Every ____ Day….just get out there and run. Some days are easy and feel great. Some days are harder than others, but EFD. EFD”. He made it sound so simple and logical. Do you want to run and be a runner? Or do you want to stay in and wish you could be a runner? EFD. EFD.

RD: Open Mike: Share anything you‘d like about your running experiences, past accomplishments, goals, dreams….anything you haven’t previously shared.
Chris: I’m shameless on drawing motivation from any source possible and have become an avid reader of all-things-running. I read every Runner’s World from cover to cover. I use stories of other runners to get me pumped up. If they can do it, I can (at least) put in a great effort as well. I read running books, such as Christopher MacDougall’s Born to Run (which got me into the Vibram FiveFingers), Hal Higdon’s Marathon and Through the Woods. Also, Duel in the Sun was an amazing story of the 1982 Boston Marathon. I’m currently listening to Once a Runner by John L. Parker. I often refer to these stories, these amazing athletes and their accomplishments while I run…especially during a rough patch.

Thanks, Chris, for sharing your story. We will be rooting for you and your wife in February!


Detroit Runner(Jeff) said...

What a great story and from my town!

ewojo said...

I am so proud of you! You are such an inspiration to me and so many people around you!

Anonymous said...

This is great. Thank you for spotlighting a non-elite. What amazing improvement over a year!!!

RunnerDude said...

Hi Lesley! Put "Runner of the Week" in the search box on the blog and several other past Runner of the Week posts wil pop up. They're all so inspirational.

Mandy Brown said...

Great story, Chris! Very inspirational! Keep up the amazing work!