For about a year prior to the Fittest Loser Challenge, I ran as a way to bolster weight loss.
I used to think of it as a simple sport. I'd slip into a pair of jogging pants and a sports top, slap on a pair of weathered athletic shoes and hit the pavement. Of course, I often returned home dripping wet, with achy feet and not a real good idea of how to monitor or improve my speed or endurance.
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I didn't know that there were measurable ways to track my progress and to build up my heart rate. At most, I might've taken a pedometer with me to mark mile points.
As part of the Challenge this season, we received a few goodies. Among them was a Polar Heart Rate Monitor.
What a tool.
I'm sure I don't know all of its capabilities yet. But at the beginning of the challenge, my trainer Joshua Steckler had me run on the treadmill while I was wearing the monitor to figure out my target heart rate, the rate at which my heart works at its maximum.
Once that number was determined, I used it to measure how hard I was working at the fitness studio, in my zumba class, on the treadmill, on elliptical trainer and elsewhere.
But I found that it was most useful when I run, as it is then when I can tell if I am just jogging along effortlessly or giving my heart a workout.
This season, boot camp instructor Brad Parotto doubled as running coach, too. He helped us to prepare to participate in the DuPage Human Race 5K Run this past weekend.
Parotto outlined running "homework" for us to complete weekly that showed minutes to run, rest and walk in order to build up our speed and stamina.
I never had fitness homework before, so I was curious as to how this, along with my now-intense workouts at Push Fitness, would benefit my run time during the race.
Before the challenge, I had participated in two 5Ks. The first I ran in 42 minutes (a 14-minute mile) and the second in just under 39 minutes (13-minute mile).
While this most recent score wasn't record-breaking, my time improved. I ran it in just over 35 minutes (11.5-minute mile).
I would say another goody, my new Brooks Glycerin 11 Women's Running Shoes deserve some credit. I picked up these new runners at Dick Pond Athletics. I can attest that my feet were comfy in these airy, mesh-topped shoes and felt like they were floating -- most of the time during the race.
But the biggest difference between this race and all others was having my trainer by my side.
Steckler kept time, watched my pace, informed me when hills were approaching and really made me want to push myself further than I had before.
Yet that didn't make the task easier. The hills were killers.
I ran faster than I would've liked to at points, and that darn finish line never seemed to appear when I was slowly losing steam after embracing a second wind. (In fact, I was certain that my legs were going to crumple beneath me before I got there.)
Once I passed the digital timer, I knew that I had beat my last 5K score but that it was not quite the 10-minute mile Steckler and I were aiming for.
It was only because of him, the contestants and all of the other trainers running alongside us that really encouraged me to fight through to the end.
Afterward, yes, my body ached, and it took a few minutes to catch my breath. But immediately the race became a bright spot, another fascinating memory to catalog about this fitness journey.
• Still a little achy, freelance writer and substitute teacher Lisa Jones Townsel is not deterred; she is already looking forward to beating her new time in another race.
Starting weight: 198
Current weight: 175
Weight lost: 23 pounds, 11.6 percent