Couch to 5k in Seventeen Years

Is there one thing you have been trying and trying without success? Perhaps you’ve been vowing to start exercising or get in shape. Spandex is calling your name. Feels doable. You keep protesting, I can do this. And yet.

Don’t give up. My story could be your tipping point.

Source: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Source: Rennett Stowe/Flickr

Even in college, nobody confused me with Steve Prefontaine. In the words of my Little League coach, “Mark, he may be small, but he sure is slow.” I was born to sit.

But I wanted to run.

Year One.

When I was 35, my family moved into a Virginia neighborhood that proudly hosted a Turkey Trot 5k each Thanksgiving morning. Our Turkey Trot sold out annually with more than 1000 runners. We moved in springtime in the early 90s and I declared boldly, “I’m going to run the Turkey Trot.” I had six months to prepare. I could not have been more resolute as my training began that summer. “As soon as I work up to running about two miles, I will pay my $35.00 and officially enter the race.” My training hit a wall at the one-mile pole. I watched the race from the sidewalk.

Year Two.

The next August I said to myself, Mark, this is ridiculous.  Of course, you can run. Last year was a fluke. Only thirty-six years old.  Generally fit. No reason I can’t train gradually to run the 5k Turkey Trot in three months. Failed again.

Year Thirteen.

This cycle of trying and failing repeated without variation for 12 consecutive years. After 12 years on the hamster wheel of failure, I sought help. I then discovered that I had been doing it all wrong.  Apparently, I was the last person on earth to unearth the ubiquitous Couch to 5k in two months plan. Seems there were millions lying on couches dreaming about getting up and running 3.1 miles and someone had perfected the way to do it.

Couch to 5k works like this. Over the course of 10 weeks you alternate walking and running three times each week. Follow an exact, scientific schedule of gradually walking less and running more. What a plan. I can do this! Failed again.

For the next five years, I reloaded Couch to 5k every summer with the Turkey Trot in my sights. I never could run more than a mile and a half without stopping. For 17 years I watched the race from the sidewalk. I was ready to burn my shoes.

I don’t blame you if you’re thinking I’m making this up. Scout’s honor. (I really was a Boy Scout. There was a merit badge for running. I didn’t get one.) The next September, brought my annual impulse to train for the Turkey Trot. I knew Couch to 5k didn’t work for me.

Year Seventeen.

I had an idea. What if I created a running ritual? I had spent much of my life researching the surprising power of both group rituals and personal rituals. I knew that a powerful personal ritual was made up of a precise routine plus some inspiring, symbolic, inspirational components. Inexplicably, I had never considered creating one to help me run.

On September 4th, I began training using my carefully crafted personal running ritual. My plan was exactly like the previous 17 years. Run three times a week. Work up to two miles. Then run the Turkey Trot on Thanksgiving. I was determined. I was not optimistic.


Powerful personal rituals include both physical and psychological components.

Something you move. Something that moves you. 

My first run was three blocks. Six weeks later, I was running eight miles without stopping.  I entered the Turkey Trot. (All the details of my Running Ritual are in Clutch: How Rituals Elevate Performance and Happiness.)

Source: JBLM MWR/Flickr

Source: JBLM MWR/Flickr

The Science of Rituals.

Recent mind/brain/behavior research shows that my running ritual success was far from unique. Simple rituals are a shortcut to changing attitudes, behavior and relationships. Rituals punch above their weight.

So, exactly what is a ritual? A ritual is a repeated, symbolic, inspirational routine.  Powerful personal rituals include both physical and psychological components. Something you move. Something that moves you. The routine component that you create should be practical, positive and precise. Baseball Hall of Famer Wade Boggs ran wind sprints to warm up on game days. He ran them at 17 minutes past the hour. Precise routines become autopilot routines. Your ritual isn’t ready yet. Now add something symbolic, inspirational or motivational. Be like Mike. Michael Jordan wore his North Carolina Tar Heel basketball shorts under his Chicago Bulls’ shorts to remind him from whence he came. Rituals are not just for athletes and exercise wannabes. A ritual can help tip the scales in your favor to accomplish most anything.

 Hopefully, this saves you seventeen years.

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