Back to Fitness: The First Step Is the Toughest

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By John Andersen

Matt Banning and John Andersen at Blackrock Summit
Matt Banning and John Andersen at Blackrock Summit

Several months ago I was on a run with a few friends up on the Appalachian Trail. It was an easy-paced run and we were all enjoying the views and the good company. At one point, my friend Matt Banning told me how not too long ago he used to be really overweight and out of shape, not a runner at all.

I would not have guessed that. I met Matt a few years ago because we run all the same mountain trail races. He has run over 20 mountain ultramarathons over the past three years. In fact, we were out on this run training for a 100-mile trail race taking place this summer in the Rocky Mountains of Wyoming.

As Matt went into his story, I was inspired at just how much people can change and get back to fitness if they simply commit to it. Matt agreed to share his story for this column, and I hope you will find it as inspiring as I did.

John Andersen: Did you ever run in high school or college?

Matt Banning: Nope. I grew up playing soccer and played in high school. I was also really into basketball from middle school until my 11th grade year. But I pretty much lost interest in all competitive sports around my 11th grade year.

JA: OK, tell me about getting OUT of shape.

MB: I was always super active as a kid and as a result was really skinny and never worried about what I ate. In my 20’s, I didn’t exercise and I smoked. This, plus a diet in rich food, led to weight gain.

I started smoking in 11th grade but in college I was smoking at least a pack a day or more. I was drinking several days a week in college and continued to binge drink after college. I would get drunk Friday and feel like crap the rest of the weekend. I try not to do that anymore.

In my early 30’s I realized I had put on weight. It had happened over time and I really hadn’t noticed. It wasn’t until I went to the DMV to get a new license and I had my photo taken that I realized I had gotten fat. I still have and use the ID.

JA: Let’s hear about when you first started getting back into shape. You told me that you wanted to run at first, but it hurt too bad, so you had to find other ways of exercising? 

MB: I’ve lost a total of 50-60 pounds. So at first, when I was 60 pounds heavier, I tried to run because it’s a cheap way to lose weight. But after a 30-minute run I’d just hurt and I struggled to just walk up and down stairs for days after. Seeing that running wasn’t in the cards for me right away, I decided to get a gym membership.

I started going three to five times a week and getting on the elliptical for a solid hour. I made it a habit to go to the gym. It didn’t matter how I felt; I just went. That was really important for me, getting into the routine of exercising. I had tried and failed a number of times to run, bike or whatever, but always seemed to make excuses to not do it. It was awful at first because I was so out of shape, but I just kept going. I felt good when I left and I was soaked with sweat.

Over the course of a few months, I lost maybe 30 to 40 pounds. I should mention that I cut out all fast food during this time. I still went out to eat and didn’t restrict my diet, I just decided not to eat fast food. I also ate the same breakfast and lunch everyday. For breakfast, coffee and cereal, and for lunch a PB&J, yogurt, fruit and pretzels. I also didn’t drink soda or juice and limited my alcohol intake to almost nothing. Basically, I drank, and still drink, a lot of water. I’ve become more flexible with the breakfast and lunch because after three-plus years of the same food I got sick of it.

JA: Sounds like that was really tough, getting yourself motivated to start that whole process.

MB: Yeah, the elliptical didn’t hurt as much as running, and I found that I could get in a groove and knock out an hour. It was making myself go to the gym that was the hardest part. But I was determined to get in shape. I was motivated to lose weight and be fit again.

JA: So what got you interested in running, and in particular distance running?

MB: I got interested in running because of the book What I Talk About When I Talk About Running by Haruki Murakami. It really got me excited to run and make that a part of my daily life. Distance running started off for me when a friend asked me to run the Richmond Marathon with him. I finished, but it hurt a lot and I haven’t run a road marathon since. After a month of recovery from the marathon I decided I would run a 50 miler. I didn’t know any ultra runners at the time and the only information I had about the sport I had picked up from Born to Run. My first ultra was the Bel Monte 50 miler. It was awful, I went out too fast and blew up, but I finished. But I’ve been running them since.

JA: So what’s next? 

MB:  I believe running has definitely helped to improve my health and fitness. But I’ve also started to get interested in cycling and recently purchased a road bike to begin exploring that sport. As a kid I was super into BMX and I’ve loved getting back on a bike as a new activity. If I want to continue to be active, I need to find different ways to get exercise that doesn’t beat me up as much as running all the time.

Thank you so much, Matt, for sharing your story!

There you go. The hardest part is getting out the door. Make simple diet changes, don’t make excuses, and be determined!

Matt running in the Hat Creek Trail run this summer.
Matt running in the Hat Creek Trail run this summer.

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