Checking in to see how folks did on their fitness goals this past year

By Lenny Bernstein
Thursday, December 31, 2009; VA16

You've heard it a million times: Staying fit is a marathon, not a sprint. We all start fitness programs with the best of intentions, fired up about another way to burn calories or reach an athletic goal. But sooner or later many of us lose interest, or get too busy, or become bored with our routines, or hit a roadblock. And then we either stop exercising or seek yet another solution.

Because Vicky and I spend most of the year recommending sometimes exotic ways of toning up and slimming down, I figured it was only fair to check back and find out how some of the people I've talked to are doing.

The results of my limited survey, it turns out, are fairly encouraging.

The racewalker

When I met Tom Gargan last summer, he was looking for a low-impact outdoor sport that would help him maintain his cardiovascular fitness so he could continue to play tennis, ski and windsurf as he grew older. Running had wrecked his knees. So there he was on a beautiful summer morning, learning to racewalk at a clinic held by the Potomac Valley Track Club.

When I called him recently, he was proud to say that he'd stuck with it. He went to two more instructional clinics and concluded that he was "not going to get into it at the competitive level at all. . . . I don't think you'll ever see me on ESPN or in the Olympics."

But four and sometimes five days a week, Gargan said, he either racewalks or takes a more traditional walk for 25 minutes around Fort Detrick in Frederick, where he works at the U.S. Army Center for Environmental Health Research.

"The thing I notice [about racewalking] is that you can really get your heart rate up," he said.

Focusing on the technical aspect of the sport helps take his mind off work problems, said Gargan, who lives in Frederick. To racewalk properly, you have to follow two rules. First, you must maintain contact with the ground at all times. Second, the forward, or advancing, leg must be locked at the knee from the time it touches the ground in front of you until it passes the vertical position beneath you.

Gargan has purchased a balaclava and said he plans to keep up the routine through the winter. "It's so easy to miss one day, and then it goes into two days and then three days, and then it's a distant memory," he said.

The senior

Henry David had a different kind of goal when I attended his exercise class in July at Bethesda's Fox Hill independent living facility. David, 86, had not taken good care of his body and walked with the aid of a cane. He wanted to get rid of it.

And he did, at least indoors, though he still uses it outdoors as a precaution. He credits his progress to three-times-per-week classes at Fox Hill: one balance class, one session on the weight machines and one private session exercising in the pool with trainer Anthony Absalon. Recently, he said, the medication for a lung infection has made him wobbly again. But he is recovering.

"Now the trick is to get back into training and get rid of the cane once again," he said.

I asked David how he'd accomplished his goal, and he said: "Give the credit to Anthony. He is a very personable, deeply interested person who is loved by everybody."

I'm happy to do that. Along with a nod toward the marvelous adaptability of the human body, even in old age.

The ultramarathoner

Now my personal favorite: The story of Elton Horst, an ultramarathoner from Hagerstown, Md., who once held the record in the JFK 50 Mile race. Through a variety of circumstances, Horst, who turned 64 this month, found himself with a heart problem and no health insurance.

Word of his plight on the JFK 50 Web site brought in $5,000 to pay off his hospital debt. My column on Horst three weeks ago yielded $2,290 more, plus an offer of legal help (from a JFK runner) and some medical advice (from another).

A former student of Horst's at Eastern Mennonite University who hadn't heard from him in 30 years sent $100, saying that Horst had been instrumental in his understanding of the Bible.

Because of his preexisting condition, it was difficult for Horst to find traditional insurance, he said. He has purchased cut-rate coverage for $70 a month that guarantees him a discount of 20 to 60 percent on any health care he may need for the next year. The rest of the money will stay in a fund at the Cumberland Valley Athletic Club to pay for deductibles and other out-of-pocket expenses Horst may have until he qualifies for Medicare a year from now, according to Mike Spinnler, the club's president, who orchestrated the fundraising drive.

Horst is a private person, a man of few words who said he wants donors to know that he is "deeply grateful for everything that everyone has done."

The MisFit

No, I didn't forget my promise to tell you how I've done on my own fitness goals. If only I had fared as well as Gargan, David or Horst.

I wasn't too far off my goal of slicing 13 minutes from my personal-best marathon time of 4 hours 33 minutes through 21 miles of the Chicago Marathon in October. Then my hamstring cramped and forced me to slow down and ultimately walk some of the last miles. The result: another 4:33, my third finish in roughly the same time in seven marathons.

I haven't really done much of the strength training I'd hoped to work into my schedule. And I've gained a few pounds. Nor did I succeed in getting my 22-year-old daughter to exercise regularly.

Sound familiar?

I guess there's a reason we're called "The MisFits."

But I have a plan for 2010. Stay tuned. And let us know how you did on your fitness goals.

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