Allen Leigh says running saved his life, not once, but twice. Read this Good4Sports Q+A about his remarkable journey, and post a comment about why you think the pursuit of a sport can make such a huge impact on someone’s life?
Allen Leigh turns 74 years old on Thursday, and he’ll no doubt go for a run to celebrate. For one thing, it’s a habit. For another, the Salt Lake City grandfather credits running with keeping him alive.
Leigh has been running for close to 40 years, stubbornly sticking with it even after suffering a near-fatal car crash, and more recently a blood clot condition. He’s never been an elite racer, but he’s logged enough miles to know the ins and outs of the running game. He’s developed a following online with two websites for runners that you can find more about in the Good4Sports Q+A:
G4S: In 2004, you suffered a car accident that left you in a coma for 3 weeks. It would be months before you recovered and were able to even walk properly again. Two years after the crash, you ran a half-marathon – a one-way on a causeway across the Great Salt Lake to Antelope Island. What went through your mind when you crossed the finish line?
AL: I had been running for two years after the accident and before the race, and I had forgotten about the impact of the accident on me. I was concerned with how fast I would run the half marathon. I had run the 13 mile distance quite a few times as my weekly long run, so I wasn’t concerned with my ability to finish the distance. My fastest training run for 13 miles was about 2:40, and my goal for the race was 2:30 or faster. I finished in 2:21:16 and won first place in my age category of 70-74. Of course, my son reminded me that I also was last in that category since I was the only one in it :) I threw in a kick at the end and sprinted for the last 100 yards or so. I was glad I did well in the race so my 1st place wasn’t just a default gift. My friend, Bruce, had come up from Las Vegas for the race. Another friend, Ben, from work was in the race, and a girl named Beth, from Chicago, was in the race. She was visiting in Utah and had contacted me via my oldmanrunning blog. I was anxious to meet with them and get some pictures of the four of us.
G4S: You had to learn to walk again after the accident, first with a chair and then with a walker. The rehab team sometimes noted, “oh ya, I heard you are the runner,” when they learned that you had about 30 years of running under your belt. What impact did your running history have on your recovery?
AL: My 30 years of running gave me a strong body that literally saved my life. I went into the hospital as a Code Blue, the most serious way to enter a hospital. Twice during the three weeks, my family was called in because the doctors didn’t think I would make it. I was literally almost dead. My wife said my breaths were seconds apart and made the “death sound” of gasps. For the first time my family was called in, my wife couldn’t be with me because she was in a different hospital recovering from her injuries (suffered in that same car crash). Her brother stayed with her that night while my children stayed with me. Because of my strong body, I did make it both times. After the three weeks, I was transferred to another hospital for therapy. It was there that the new nurses would come in and say, “So you’re the runner.” Even now, after four years, doctors are surprised when they learn that I’m not taking many medications. After my attack 10 months ago by blood clots (more on that below) I was put on Wayfarin as a blood thinner, and that is currently my only medication.
G4S: The first time you ran after the accident, you were only able to cover one-eighth of a mile. How did you convince yourself that you would eventually develop your stamina?
AL: That’s a good question, Bob. I never doubted that I would regain my stamina. I had peace of mind about the whole issue, and when I started running I followed the 10% and heavy/light rules to regain my ability to do long distance running. In fact, I progressed at a faster rate after the accident than I had before the accident. During the year following the accident, I had surgery for a double hernia and six months of surgery for 10 Basal Cell skin cancers (the largest one was the diameter of a golf ball and 1/4 inch deep). The hernia surgery only took me off running for two weeks. During the skin cancer surgeries, I was able to run at least once a week, except for June 2005 when I only ran once that month. But, I maintained my distance of 7 miles through all of those surgeries. I just progressed week by week until I did a long run of 15 miles. I could tell I wasn’t ready for that distance, so I dropped back to 13 miles and ran that distance weekly for a few months until the GSL Half Marathon. In looking back on it, it seems my recovery from the accident made my body stronger than it had been before the accident. I don’t understand it, but it’s a blessing I’ve been grateful for.
G4S: You grew up in Cedar City, Utah where your father was a sheep and cattle raiser. You didn’t play in organized sport, in part, because you were born with a stiff skeleton (what your doctor described as the | opposite of being double-jointed). What impact did that condition have on your character as you were growing up?
AL: I knew that I couldn’t run and jump like the other kids, but nobody made fun of me, and I just figured that was the way it was. During my early childhood and grade school, I had to wear work shoes in which the top covered my ankles and gave support to my ankles. If I wore oxfords, I would walk on the side of the shoe, literally. Finally, I was in Jr. High School when I discovered that I could wear low-cut shoes and not walk on the side of the shoes. Even today the heel of my right shoe compresses more on the outside than normal, about 1/4 inch difference in the heel thickness between the left side of the heel and the right side of the heel. When I ran my first marathon in 1981, I didn’t know that running shoes existed for persons who pronated or supinated. I used my glue gun to build up the thickness of the outside of the right heel, thinking that would solve the problem. I learned later that it caused more problems. I began having pain in my right knee, pain that started after about 45 minutes of running. I ran my first marathon with that pain. Fortunately, the pain didn’t progress to an injury. I tried stretches for the knee, but that didn’t help. After several months, I replaced my shoes, and presto, the pain was gone. I read about running shoes and learned about shoes made for pronators, and those shoes solved my problem. The quality of running shoes is much better today, and I’m currently wearing neutral shoes with no problems. My civilian shoes, however still have heels that are compressed on the outside.
While in high school, I played basketball with the neighborhood kids. I couldn’t move very fast, but I was a good shot when shooting from a stationary position. My neighbor, Craig, who was one of the star players for the high school would choose me to be on his team. He would do the fast movements to get the ball. He would pass the ball to me, and I would shoot it in. Craig and I were a winning team :) Had the kids in school or my neighborhood made fun of me, my handicap could have been a serious problem in my life. As it was, I was accepted by my school and neighborhood friends, and my stiff skeleton made no difference to them or to me.
G4S: You’ve said that in Jr. High School, mountain men like Jim Bridger, and Leif the LuckyNorwegian Viking (son of Erik the Red) were your heroes. Why do you think that is?
AL: That’s a good question that I’ve never thought about. I think it was probably the idea of adventure. I would read about those men and their adventures, and then my friends and I would roam all over our town and the fields and mountains and have our adventures. Crime was non-existent then, and we had a lot of freedom to do exciting things. I remember the day we pushed our bicycles up a mountain road and coasted down. When we got to the bottom, grease was dripping from our coaster brakes. The road was a steep, one-lane, dirt, narrow road with lots of blind curves, and it was exciting to go down on our bikes.
G4S: What did you learn about the value of sport from watching other people take part?
AL: Hmmm… I don’t know. I listened to baseball games on the radio (no TV then) and attended school games. I probably daydreamed of doing those things. I never had feelings of guilt or regret about not doing those things. I was just a young kid who enjoyed being who he was. My school had no track program, and I had no knowledge of track or interest in it as a kid.
G4S: You began running in your thirties after a specialist suggested you do anything you can to strengthen the muscles in your feet. You were so new to the discipline that you ran in army boots for a time. What was the hardest part about getting started?
AL: The hardest thing was just that, getting started. Running in boots wasn’t a problem, because while in the Army I wore them daily. Before I visited the specialist to find out why my feet were hurting, I had done some running in a couple of summers, but I didn’t continue with it when I returned to college. After my visit with the specialist, I began jogging in place in my family room in Phoenix. After a while, I was jogging in place for half an hour, and that got to be boring, so I ventured outside and began going around the block. In looking back on it, it seems that I was finally ready to be a runner, and I did it, not only to strengthen my feet, but because I enjoyed it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but I had finally found my “thing” sports.
G4S: Once you began to run on a regular basis, how did you begin to see yourself differently?
AL: Running has given me a lot of self confidence. I was a very shy kid (I still am that way) and didn’t do things in school that would bring me into public view. I discovered that I was good at running and that I liked it. This feeling of liking it has carried me though my years of running. I discovered that I no longer get colds, unless I skimp on sleep or push too much in my training. I liked having a stronger body. I felt that if I could be successful in running, then I could be successful in other things. I think it worked the other way too. My successes in my work and family and church told me I could be successful in running.
G4S: In what way did being part of the running community change the way you see the world?
AL: The running community is like having a big family. I participate in a couple of running forums. I exchange comments with runners who visit my blogs. Before I retired, I did a lot of running at noon while at work and visited with other runners in the plant. I’ve found that runners are very supportive and friendly. They are like family to me. In fact, I’ve found that people in general are that way. The world is full of great people!
G4S: From the early days, you have championed the cause of running injury-free, and have for a long time given advice about that online. Why did that become one of your areas of interest?
AL: I never thought about injuries until I moved from Massachusetts to Utah in 1992. As I heard other runners talk about their injuries, I realized one day that I had never had a running injury. Before then I had just assumed that all runners were injury-free. After I realized that many runners got injured, I decided to create a web site to help people avoid injuries. For some reason, I have a natural desire to share with others and to help them in what ever way I can. I felt that through my experiences of being injury-free I could help others be that way.
G4S: You are very active online, and have another blog that teaches the basics of running. Why is it important for you to reach out to runners through cyberspace?
AL: Most of my working career was with computers, and using the web to teach people was a natural thing for me. As a Software Engineer I had been on the ARPA net and its successor the Internet for about 17 years when the web was invented, and I realized that the web would be a great way to teach running without injury. The thing I like about the web is that anybody can put a site up. No censorship, no editors. I realize that I am a nobody as far as famous runners go, and that my site will be successful in helping others only if I have good content in the site. My RunningInjuryFree site was initially a traditional web site. I later converted it to blog format so people could leave comments. The comments I’m getting tell me that people do appreciate my suggestions, and that gives me great satisfaction. I’m getting 400-500 people per day who visit the site.
When blogs were introduced to the web, I began (January 2004) keeping a blog of my running experiences (http://oldmanrunning.org). My goal with the blog is to teach others through my personal experiences. It’s the “do not what I say but as I do” type of thing. I’m getting a lot of positive comments in the blog, and they more than pay me back for the countless hours I put into the two sites.
G4S: You’ve run four marathons, countless half-marathons, and too many shorter races to keep track of. Yet, you count your simple runs for pleasure as perhaps even more important than the races. Why is that?
AL: I run for pleasure. It makes no difference whether I stop running to watch the ducks or a deer in the river or run as fast as I can in a race to set a new personal best. I enjoy all of it. I would probably do more races except for the fact that racing involves speed, and speed frequently leads to injury. My one and only running injury came a couple of years ago because I had spent the past six months increasing my Long Slow Distance (LSD) speed, and I didn’t allow enough time for rest. I thought I was leaving enough time, but my body needed more. If I had been younger I probably would have been OK. I really hated that injury, because it stopped my injury-free streak of about 35 years, but that injury was a good learning experience for me. It caused me look at myself and decide what was really important to me. I decided that enjoyment of running was the most important thing, and that enjoyment comes at any speed. So, now I’m back to what I did for 35 years of running without injury — running for enjoyment and letting speed come automatically as my body gets stronger. When I ran marathons, my LSD pace was 7 minute miles. That translates to about 1:31 for a half marathon. My PB for a 5K was 19+ and my PB for a 10K was 40+ My 5-mile time was 33+. I just assumed I was average in my pace, and I didn’t realize until just a few years ago that my speed was above average. The nice thing is that I reached that pace with no explicit effort to do speed work. Well, not quite. There was one summer when I did intervals with some friends at a local high school track. I finished the summer with a PB for 1 mile of 5:59. So, speed will come as our bodies gain strength.
G4S: You experienced a setback last January when a condition causing blood clots (not related to running) had you hospitalized for a significant amount of time. Your doctor says your running probably helped you with the immediate recovery. Why is that?
AL: Well, Bob, it was a little bit different than that. I asked the doctor if my running could have caused the blood clots. He said, “No, the running should have helped prevent them.” Meaning, I think, that my running improved my blood circulation, and that improvement in circulation makes it harder for blood clots to occur. My recovery from the blood clots involved two things: Wayfarin to help prevent future clots, and a clinic at the Intermountain Health Care in Salt Lake City. The blood clots shut down my lymphatic system, and I gained 38 pounds in one week — all water. The clinic taught me how to get rid of that water.
G4S: The problem has reduced the amount of running you can do, and at the outset, caused a long layoff. What was the hardest part about not being able to run?
AL: I mentioned that I had a relatively fast recovery after my auto accident, and that recovery was after 3 weeks of being in bed 24/7. I thought my recovery from the blood clots would also be quick, but that hasn’t been the case. It has been eight months since I left the hospital, and my distance is only up to 2.75 miles, and half of that is walking. Nine months after I started running after the auto accident, I was doing 6 miles, and that was all running. I don’t think that anything was particularly hard about not being able to run, or making a slower recovery. I just accept that condition as part of my life, and I go forward from that point. Today I added 10% in distance and did the 2.75 miles. Reaching that goal was as exciting to me as my running my first marathon. I’m very left brained, and I focus on what ever is immediately in front of me. Twenty eight years ago, finishing my first marathon was immediately in front of me. Today, reaching the 2.75 miles was immediately in front of me. Both goals were exciting. If I can’t run for some reason, maybe an extra rest day, I jump into one of my dozen web sites and make some changes that need to be done. My sister, who is 80, is our family genealogist, and she and I are putting our Leigh line on the web. We have everything documented back to Ralph Leigh in Wales in 1590. I run when I can, and I do other things when I can. Retirement for me isn’t a time to sit and watch TV all day :)
G4S: Now that you are turning 74, what goal have you set for yourself?
AL: My running goals are to continue to enjoy my running until I turn over three digits in my age, and then why quit so soon… I want to return to a long run of 15 miles, and if I can do it to run another marathon.
But I’m in no hurry to do those two things. My body will determine how fast I reach those goals.
G4S: And, finally, what is the good that comes of sport?
AL: Appreciation for life and for others. Confidence. Enjoyment of letting the real “me” come out of my shell of shyness. Enjoyment of the sport. Enjoyment in watching others achieve their goals. Better health. Less sickness. Opportunities to help others.
Allen Leigh’s running blogs: http://runninginjuryfree.org