October 08, 2022 5 min read 5 Comments
By Ray Glier
In just 24 hours a difficult thing for Jim Leonhard, which was running, became a less difficult thing.
Then, in a matter of a few days, Leonhard's running became what we call in our trendy cataloging of phenomenon, a thing.
It happened that fast. It happened without drama. It happened without Jim being a particularly talented runner.
“Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” — Arthur Ashe, tennis great.
The man who lived across the street from Leonhard in his suburban Philadelphia neighborhood invited Leonhard to run with him. Jim barely made it to the end of the block. He was gasping for air.
Leonhard’s emotional command system scoffed at him, “You can do better than that.”
He nudged himself to try again and this time he went further than a block. Then Leonhard nudged himself again on the third day and went a little further still. He quit smoking in the midst of this nudging.
That was 43 years ago.
More significantly, that was 50,000-plus miles ago. It really was a thing.
Leonhard, 75, a guy who couldn’t run a measly block at 32, has run around the world twice. He has the data to prove it. An engineer by training, he understood the value of keeping track of numbers. He started counting his running miles, first with a simple pen and paper and then with a GPS-enabled watch.
10,000, 20,000, 30,000. 40,000….50,000.
A failed jog of one block had evolved into a lifestyle and expectations for himself.
That one spark outside the daily shelter of his job and cigarettes—running that block—started him on a gold trail.
That’s what this story is about. How can one chancy step outside of your routine make a life-changing difference? It is discovering treasure we weren’t looking for. You just have to turn over the first rock and you might find some thing.
“I really didn't even start focusing on 50,000 until I got to about 40,000 miles and I said, ‘Hey, 10 years or maybe less, I can get to 50,000,” said Leonhard, who lives in Boise. “Prior to that, it was the joy of running, health maintenance, and commitment to running mates.”
The numbers he kept had meaning. It wasn’t just progress to a goal; it wasn’t merely a record of accomplishment. Running was an emancipation from a laggard lifestyle, which included smoking two packs a day. Running persuaded him to be attentive to nature. It stamped on his consciousness that he needed to be mindful and not just plow through life.
“It sharpened my focus and helped me be more balanced in my life, both mentally and physically,” Leonhard said.
Leonhard, the guy who couldn’t run a block, has run on The Great Wall of China and has run nine marathons. He has run in many countries and U.S. cities. Leonhard ran The Dipsea Race, which started in 1905 and is the oldest off-road race in the U.S. Its stairs and steep trails along 7½ miles make it a challenge and the guy who couldn’t run a block has done it.
Along the way, Jim discovered that running could cure jet lag from his frequent long plane rides on business trips.
It all started with a failed attempt to run a measly block. He did what was possible. That’s all.
There are plenty of other runners who have accumulated 50,000 miles over the years, but what makes Leonhard’s story alluring is that not-by-design first step he took.
You cannot get to 50,000 miles running by just showing up. You have to feel a responsibility to yourself to put that one foot in front of the other. And you need a little bit of a plan. It helped that Leonhard ran mostly the same time of day, which built a habit. Running soon became lyrical. Miles piled up. His fitness grew, physically and mentally.
“Running can be boring, if you let it,” Leonhard said. “For me, it's a meditative thing. It gives my mind a chance to clear and helps me pay attention to my surroundings as opposed to being always in your head thinking about stuff.
“And you need a supportive family. Runners can be selfish when it comes to their running.”
But what really helped him stick with it was the steady cadence of numbers that he first started writing down in his Daytimer. The numbers spoke to him, fortified him. They were the canon of his fitness. The numbers tug you out the door because there are goals now.
Jim figured out he has run an average of 1,156 miles a year for 43 years.
The running was salve to the pressure of work and turmoil in his personal life, he said. Jim worked for an international company that specialized in coatings for the underbelly of vessels. The company also did industrial coatings for offshore rigs and platforms and for storage tanks. Leonhard managed 200 people in Houston. His career was full of clamor as a C-suite executive.
Running calmed the clamor.
Leonhard is not running to judge his ability, although he does run five or six races a year, he said. He does not put a lot of stress on his body by pounding the pavement and looking for a particular time and that has kept him from serious injuries, save one broken ankle, and a nasty fall in the Dipsea (see picture at the end of this story).
“Don't let injury stop you,” Jim said. “You’ve got to recover from it. I think a lot of people when they get injured, they don't go back to it. Maybe they've been off for a couple of weeks or months.
"I know it's always harder to get back because you can lose it. Two weeks of not running, and you're slower and it hurts again. You’ve got to work through it.”
Leonhard has adopted the Run Walk Run by the guru Jeff Galloway, and said it helps him stay on the trail.
Leonhard will get competitive with his running. Five years ago he won his age group (70-74) in the Race to Robie Creek, a half marathon in the Boise area that ascends to 4,700 feet. It snowed last year and the guy who couldn't run a block finished it.
Now, Leonhard is on another crusade. Jim and his wife, Mallia, became vegans two years ago. The impact on his health has been noticeable. Jim had his prostate removed after some discouraging PSA numbers. He is convinced—along with many scientists—that the vegan diet is thwarting any recurrence.
There is a chapter in the book “How Not To Die” that talks about prostate health. Leonhard recommends we read it.
Jim's pencil and paper to keep track of miles were indispensable. So is his wife’s support. He also leaned on fellow runners to get him going.
What mattered most, Jim said, came from within.
“My spirit is the inner driving force,” Leonhard said. “While the body ages, the spirit is forever young. That should be true for everyone."
Hold that concept tightly. What matters most to the man that counted to 50,000 cannot be counted.
Jim after his fall in the rugged Dipsea Race in 2006. Laceration, blood, and broken ribs. And he kept running. Photo by Pam Wendell.
Copyright © 2022 Ray Glier
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