Monday, December 23, 2013

Josh’s Story: “I Wanted It Too.” A Romance with Running, from Basement Treadmill to Detroit Marathon.

Josh_performing with sax

I’ve known Joshua James for a long time.  We attended Albion College together and shared a social circle.  We even dated briefly, which makes me smile now when I think back on “that one time I dated a musician.”  After college, we lost touch as we moved in different directions.  Today, Josh is a musician and music teacher, performing and teaching in the Detroit area.  He’s a self-made runner who ran his first marathon in October, the Detroit Marathon.  Josh finished in a super-speedy 4:02:58—smokin’ fast!  We reconnected via Facebook because of the marathon, and he was kind enough to do an interview with me about his newfound love for running.

Our interview is a long one, but I think Josh tells a great story.  So grab a cup of coffee or a glass of wine, maybe some Christmas cookies, and settle in for a good read. 

Rose-Anne:  I'll start. What sparked your interest in running?

Josh: Well, here's how it REALLY started.  About two years ago I was in terrible shape, and I had some pretty bad health issues.  A combination of stress at my job (teaching) coupled with a musician's lifestyle (late night gigs, food runs at 3 AM, drinking until the sun came up) left me pushing 267 pounds with terrible blood pressure and a heart arrhythmia.

I had a treadmill in the basement (from the previous homeowner), and I forced myself to start getting on it every day.  When I started, I could barely do a 12-minute mile for 10 minutes...

Rose-Anne: Yikes!  Yes, musicians are kinda famous for the health hazards of their work.

Josh:  Indeed, we are terrible with our bodies…so as I started forcing myself to get on the treadmill, I started seeing some great results.  The weight was coming off (fast), and I was sleeping MUCH better at night.  I began eating healthier compared to musician standards.  I got down to 220 after about eight months, and I stayed there for a long while.

At this point my doctor noticed how, despite my [healthy] upswing, the previous years of "hard-livin" had taken a toll on my ticker, and I was placed on some pretty serious blood-pressure meds that I didn't like.  I had some bad reactions to [them].

Rose-Anne:  Ah, no!

Josh:  I realized at that point that if I truly took my health—mental as well as physical—that I could beat this thing without the meds.  (I HATE taking meds unless ABSOLUTELY necessary.)

Rose-Anne:  That must have been a powerful moment for you—that feeling of complete responsibility.  ABLE to respond to this challenge.

Josh:  Oh, for sure. Because of those positive side-effects [from running], I redoubled my efforts on exercise, added some mild meditation, and just began a general push towards "chilling out."

But again, Rose-Anne, I was still just running on a treadmill; I hadn't ever run outside, let alone with people, until late March of this year.

Rose-Anne:  Let’s back up a moment to the challenges of being a healthy musician when the default model is “work hard, play even harder.”  Was it easier to back off of drinking when you started exercising?

Josh:  Regarding the drinking, yes, exercise curbed it considerably.  I'm not dry by any means, but I find now I drink a lot less.  There was time I laid off of beer for eight months.  I really lost weight during that time.

Rose-Anne:  I'm not dry either!  I'm definitely an everything-in-moderation person.

Josh:  Me too, now.  It's taken me a long time to learn that lesson.

Rose-Anne:  But you have, and you did it by adding stuff first.

Josh:  For sure.

Rose-Anne:  Which is always interesting to me--the idea of changing habits by starting something good rather than cutting back on something that can be...well, too much.

Josh:  I decided one day to sign up for Cranbrook's "5k/10k Fun Run" in April.  [The experience was] exhilarating because it felt amazing.  (And it was a trail run, too.)  But I had only prepped for a 5K, and the stupid kids working the course sent me to the 10k path instead of the 5K split.  Those bastards!

Rose-Anne:  Haha!  They knew you were a marathoner-to-be!

Josh:  I never knew what my time was; I ran like 4.5 miles and left in frustration!!

Rose-Anne:  Oh, man!  That sucks!  That kinda sounds like my first cross-country race.  Except I got myself lost because I was so damn slow.  And dumb, apparently.

Josh:  But on my way home I realized how much fun I had, and that I actually could run outside, in races, with people.

Rose-Anne:  Did you feel at all nervous about running with people at the race?

Josh:  I was nervous as hell!  But I wanted to see what all these people could do, and if I could do it, too.

Josh in running gear

Now here comes the cool part.  So [my wife] Kat came across this post on Facebook of some mutual friends who were thinking of starting a Ferndale runners’ group.  They were calling all ages, all paces.  Kat felt I should maybe join them, at the very least for advice and some experience.

Rose-Anne:  What did you think?

Josh:  I did, and I realized I could actually "hang" at something athletic.  I immediately fell in love with it.  [And they] are now some of my best friends.

Rose-Anne:  Aw! That is awesome.  How was your first group run with them?

Josh:  My first run was similar to my Cranbrook fun run; I got lost along the way! But that's how I met my friend Brian, and we've been bosom buddies ever since. 

Rose-Anne:  It must have been so refreshing to leave the basement and find camaraderie in sneakers.

Josh:  Shit yeah!!!  Brian encouraged me to run my first 10-mile race.  That was a great experience...

Rose-Anne:  It's funny how we start running for the health benefits and we stay for something deeper.  Running involves too much pain and inconvenience to be worth it for one thing only.  So which race did you choose for the first ten-miler?  Crim?

Josh:  No, the Kona in Northville. That Hines Park hill was a bitch!!

Rose-Anne:  Oh, shit. Northville is a brutal place to run.

Josh:  So dig this...I had only run for 10 miles the week before, on my own, visiting Kat's mom in Florida.  THAT was brutal!  Brian practically peer-pressured me into signing up last minute for the Kona.  Humid as a rhino's...well, you know.

Rose-Anne:  Heh. Running friends are the worst…(and the best!)

Josh:  So on the Kona, I told Brian..."I'm just gonna ride your hip."  Brian and I helped each other out on that race.  He helped me, and I helped [him] get past those hills.

Rose-Anne:  Ah, so you're a hill runner!

Josh:  Hey, what can I say, I love self-abuse!

Rose-Anne: YES!  Your masochistic streak found a new outlet!

Josh:  When July came around, I decided to just go for the FREEP.

Rose-Anne:  Wow!

Josh:  That's it exactly!!!  A fellow music teacher/cellist friend of mine has run a ton of marathons in her life.  She is a very dear friend.

Rose-Anne:  So you had about three months of serious time to train for the marathon.

Josh:  Yes.

Rose-Anne:  And a good running base to support you.

Josh:  Yes, for sure, but it was more than that.  I remembered how she (my friend Jen) spoke of running...I remembered your experience with running...

Rose-Anne:  Romantically?

Josh:  I looked around and saw all of my friends [and their] relationship with running...Yes, it was and is a romantic view.  All these long-term relationships, and I wanted it, too!

Rose-Anne:  It really is.  "I want what they have!"  That is beautiful.

Josh:  Yes!!!!!

Rose-Anne:  It's a good metaphor, too.

Josh:  Here's the thing; now I'm hooked!

Rose-Anne:  That's the risk you run...

Josh:  It's like a drug!!!!

Rose-Anne:  Wearing ridiculous clothes, spending too much money on races...Getting up early to run?  WTF?!?

Josh:  Haha, yeah...


Rose-Anne:  We are ridiculous.

Josh:  I know, right!?  We surely are...but we're also a deep community!

Rose-Anne:  The highest of highs, the lowest of lows...

Josh:  Dig this…I was thinking a lot about the marathon yesterday...about everyone who's been[our friend] running crew...and everybody else...

Not one of us...I mean, if we're really into this...not one of us is ever competing against each other.  We are only ever competing ourselves.

Rose-Anne:  It's true.

Josh:  And all of us...the community of trying to help everyone else take that first step...and then the next one.

Rose-Anne:  I feel nothing but admiration for our community.  Running is HARD. Even after all these years, it's still hard for me.

Josh:  Rose-Anne, that is the one thing I love the most about running...the community.

Rose-Anne:  You're going to make me cry...Our community is incredible!

Josh:  I LOVE seeing all of the different people on races. And even just out and about in the neighborhood.  I love running past another runner, giving them a nod, and getting one in return.  It IS incredible.

Rose-Anne:  I love waxing romantically about running!  Hearing someone else do it is wonderful.  So tell me more about your marathon training.  How many days a week did you run?

Josh:  Four days a week.  I did the Higdon novice II schedule.  Mon/Wed/Fri/Sat.  [Check out Josh’s marathon schedule here.]

Rose-Anne:  Ah, awesome.  How did you feel the first time you ran more than 10 miles?

Josh:  Yeah...I felt amazing!!


Josh:  I couldn't believe I could run that far!  Heck yeah!!!

Rose-Anne:  I know, right?  How well did your body respond to the increasing distances?  Any bumps along the way during training?  And how often were you running with your running group?  Did you have marathon training buddies?

Josh:  [My body] was doing okay.  At times I had some lower back pains.  But then my massage therapist hipped to running thumbs-up…that helped with the hips!  I ran with the group all during the summer...Mondays at 6 PM, and Wednesday and Friday mornings at 6 AM.

Rose-Anne:  My hips are my weak spot too.

Josh:  I even corralled my sister-in-law to run, too.  Thumbs-up will help a ton!!!  I was always on my own for long runs.

Rose-Anne:  Thumbs-up posture-wise?

Josh:  Everyone had their own thing.

Rose-Anne:  For alignment, maybe?

Josh: forces your arms to move like a locomotive engine.

Rose-Anne:  Ah!  Good form.  Did you like the solo long runs?

Josh:  At first no, but then yes!  I love coming up with new routes.  The old Albion [College] Midnight Runners gave me a great idea, too…cemetery runs.

Rose-Anne:  Gah, the idea of running at midnight right now strikes me as more insane than a marathon.  I am an old lady.

Josh:  I run down to Woodlawn Cemetery in the Palmer Woods neighborhood. Never past 7 PM, of course.  I'd get a shiv in the back if I ran at midnight down there!

Rose-Anne:  Yikes!

Josh:  I'm more of a morning runner.

Rose-Anne:  Less of a shiv-in-the-back runner?

Josh:  Uh, yes.

Rose-Anne:  Ha!   What was your most memorable training run during the marathon cycle?

Josh:  Most memorable...Kat and I were vacationing in Traverse City for my birthday in August.  I woke up super early and ran along the T.A.R.T. trail from Traverse City to Sutton's Bay.  Kat met me there and picked me up for breakfast.  15 miles.  That was a great morning.

Rose-Anne:  Oh, that sounds great.  A perfect morning.

Josh:  It was actually on my birthday, too. It was a great memory.  I drank some good beer later that day, too. 

Rose-Anne:  Aw!  What a way to celebrate.  Beer's good for recovery from long runs.  Right?  Refill those glycogen stores.  Okay, one last question: what was your favorite part about the Detroit Marathon?

Josh:  Oh boy...

Rose-Anne:  Obviously you had an amazing finish, but before that...

Josh:  Brian and his friend Jeni, the three of us, we're all trying to run a four-hour race.  So we're running together…and despite the fact that Jeni and I lost Brian behind us around 12 miles, and I lost Jeni behind me around mile 18, the three of us were constantly looking out for each other.  That was my favorite part.  Oh yeah, and crying like a toddler when I saw the finish line after I turned the corner.

Rose-Anne:  I do not blame you!  I almost cried too, but it was from the pain!

Josh:  I had no tears, of course, but you know what I mean.

Rose-Anne:  I do.  If I had started crying before the finish, I wouldn't have been ABLE to finish.  I'm so proud of you, Josh!  Your story is amazing and deeply inspiring.  I kinda want to go for a run right now...

Josh:  Rose-Anne, I 'm proud of you, too!!!!!

Rose-Anne:  Aw!  You are very sweet.

Josh:  I'm jonesing to get back into training mode again.

Rose-Anne:  Me, too. (But don't tell anyone!)  I struggled through my training this year.

Josh:  Toronto 2015 sounds great!

Rose-Anne:  Yes!  JD is PUMPED about Toronto.  If I plan to run it way in advance, I can probably make the scheduling happen.  So that's good.

Josh:  I saw the web traffic about that spill you had in Texas. Man, Kat and I were sending positive vibes your way.

Rose-Anne:  Yeah, that was freaky and terrible.  [You can read about that accident here.]

Josh:  But hey, chica, you beat its ass the moment you ran across the start line!!!

Rose-Anne:  The worst part of it?  Thinking I'd have to give up the marathon.  Because I wouldn't be able to train for it in the Texas heat/humidity.

Josh:  Just showing up is amazing.

Rose-Anne:  So I power-walked most of my "long runs."

Josh:  I'm glad you kept it going.

Rose-Anne:  And it worked!  I finished!  [You can read my marathon race report here.]

Josh:  You're a trooper training down there!!!  Geez louise!!!

Rose-Anne:  Aw! I just wanted to experience the marathon.  You know?

Josh:  I do indeed.

Rose-Anne:  Thank you so much [for the interview].  You are terrific.

Josh:  Thanks for asking. Let's keep in touch.

Rose-Anne:  Toronto 2015...get it tattooed somewhere

Josh:  I'll run if you do.

Rose-Anne:  Yes, awesome!

Josh:  Hahaha...I'll do it...

Rose-Anne:  And yes, let's keep in touch.

Josh_racing image

* * *

Remember how I said earlier that Josh is a self-made runner?  I’m not so sure about that after this interview.  In fact, after the marathon, he said to me, “Rose-Anne Meissner, it’s ALWAYS we.  If running a marathon has taught me anything, it's that one immutable fact.”

Maybe we take that first step by ourselves, tentative and hoping we’re taking a step toward changing our lives.  But if we’re lucky, we find our running communities, on-line and at races, around town and in runners’ groups.  Once you start feeling a connection with someone because hey, they run too! then you know you have made it.  You have become a runner.

Congratulations, Josh.  Not only did you smoke the Detroit Marathon, you are officially a runner.  I am so very proud of you.

(Toronto 2015!)

All photos courtesy of Josh James and his Facebook page.


  1. I think your last two paragraphs hit the nail on the head. Although we all might start out running alone, the truth is that you are never alone on that course.

    1. Aw, JD! I think you may be the king of finding community--you're the friendliest guy I know :-)