Just Start


Story & Photos by JD Dotson 

It is hard to believe that I spent most of my adult life as a heavy smoker. I smoked a pack and a half to two a day throughout my late twenties and thirties, trying and failing to quit many times. Applying patches to the back of my arm (too itchy), nicotine gum (they didn’t last), taking medication (made me sick), even hypnotism (just fell asleep) all failed to make me a nonsmoker.

I remember standing on the street with a friend watching the runners for the Ketucky Derby Festival miniMarathon and Marathon pass and saying, “I would like to run a marathon someday.” My statement was met with laughter. “You will never be able to run 26 miles,” said my friend.

At that moment, something clicked in me. Being told I would never be able to do something lit a fire. It was then I realized all the tricks and remedies hadn’t failed me: I had failed myself by making constant excuses. I decided then and there to quit and run.

I decided on a date to quit and I was determined. I couldn’t and wouldn’t fail again. The date I chose was the last day smoking was legal inside bars in Louisville, June 30, 2007.

I started my running journey with the goal of finishing a marathon at some point just as soon as I quit smoking. “Running” might be a bit of a stretch. I was hacking a bit, lungs aching and my pace was just above a brisk walk. But I was out there. Every day. For a year and half, I ran 5Ks and 10Ks and a half marathon all the while thinking “someday I will run a marathon.”

My hacking and aching decreased while my speed increased. A buddy of mine mentioned he was applying to the New York Marathon. Out-of-state runners can apply and potentially be picked lottery-style. The odds were slim, but I filled out the application anyway. Not too long after, I received a notice that I was entered to run in the 2010 New York City Marathon! I won the lottery! I really didn’t think it was actually going to happen, so I had made no plans, but I knew well in advance so I had plenty of time to prepare.

Preparing for a race is different for different people. I had been running for a couple of years, yet never considered myself a runner. I thought of myself as a smoker who runs so he doesn’t start smoking. I also considered myself a guy who ran so I could reward myself with extra dessert. I knew that I would have to change the perception of myself if I was going to get through this race. So, I enlisted help through the downtown Louisville YMCA’s training program, led by Lesley Kinney and Andrea Thomas.

The group met twice during the week for group runs, and early Saturday for the long run. We were given a schedule that broke the mileage down by day and information on nutrition and stretching. Our group runs would take us all over the city, the parks, across bridges and back. Some runs consisted of nothing but hill repeats, always different and always new.

I know that I needed, in the beginning at least, a group to commiserate with and support. It helps having running coaches that challenge and support all types of runners. The group consisted of seasoned runners, people like me with some running experience, absolute beginners, people coming back from injury, and even walkers. We began our miles with Lesley and Andrea’s guidance and encouragement and there they were at the end offering support and cheering us on. I needed that and I know I was not alone.

In November 2010, on a cold but sunny day, I completed my first marathon in New York City. It was an emotional experience, especially when I could see the end of the race, thinking of my recently passed father, getting a call from Mom as I stepped across the finish line, seeing my husband’s face and finally feeling like a runner.

I’m not a competitive person. I know I am not the fastest runner. But, I am faster than the person who isn’t doing it because they didn’t believe they could. I am faster than I was as a 2-year-old smoker. If I could offer the best advice to someone preparing for any type of race it would be to just start. Just start.

It helped me to sign up for races way in advance, and tell people I was going to do them. I never wanted to waste money or have to tell people that I bailed.

Join a group. There are running groups all over Louisville and Southern Indiana. Kentucky Derby Festival offers a training program for the races and it’s free.There are running groups for all levels and ages; find the right one for you. Being accountable to not only myself, but to other people kept me going.

Invest in a good pair of running shoes and let an expert help you pick them out. I go to the running experts at Pacers and Racers in New Albany. They are really good at finding the right fit for me, the right shoe for the way I run. The wrong shoe and fit could really cause problems.

I listen to music when I run and have found a few playlists that get me going, but always be aware of your surroundings. I have been busted once or twice “run dancing.” I don’t recommend it for safety reasons (but sometimes the music moves me).

Map My Run running app is great because I like to see that recorded progress. The app will give you a rundown of your mile splits and map out routes. I can also follow the progress of fellow runners and friends that use the same app.

Running is a perfect sport for me. I either do a lot of thinking and planning when I run, or I sometimes just get lost in it. Other than good shoes, I don’t really need a lot of equipment to run, and I don’t have to wait on other people. Running buddies are great and I definitely have some that make me a better runner, but I can be alone just as easily.

I view running similarly to the way I view a cross country road trip. The destination is important. I want to get to the destination for sure, but I am going to enjoy the trip. I have a tendency to stop both a run and a road trip to pull over and take a good picture. Enjoy the trip, mix up your route, run everywhere and soak in all the scenery. We live in a beautiful part of the country. Get out and explore!

Finally, the biggest bit of wisdom I can pass along to anyone getting out there is to be good to yourself when you’re running. Drink water, recognize aches and pains and care for them, realize that you may not be the fastest, but you’re there – you are a runner!

Follow JD Dotson at @runstheuniverse on Instagram.


screen-shot-2017-12-05-at-2-09-17-pm screen-shot-2017-12-05-at-2-09-34-pmNORTON SPORTS HEALTH TRAINING PROGRAM KICK-OFF

The official Kentucky Derby Festival training program 

6 p.m. Jan. 11

Kentucky Derby Museum

This FREE Kentucky Derby Festival Marathon and miniMarathon training program features 14 weeks of organized group runs, training tips and preparation. Trainees have the opportunity to talk with professionals about nutrition, training tips, injury prevention and education.


Pacers and Racers in New Albany has a great race calendar – and more – on their website.

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