At 38 years old, Brian Bender was smoking a half-pack of cigarettes a day, as he had been doing for 22 years. While Bender was a runner in his younger years, his life had recently veered toward a more sedentary pattern, and he hadn’t run a single mile in more than a decade.
Then, on March 10, 2016, that idle lifestyle would change dramatically.
Bender remembers that date as the day his sister, Leann, asked him if he’d run the Oklahoma City Memorial Half Marathon with her. His body and mind distantly remembered his love of running, and he immediately said yes, despite the fact his lungs felt weighed down by his addiction. There was just one problem: The race date was six weeks away.
The very next day, the Tulsa, Oklahoma, resident set out on his first run and made it 1.97 miles. “I thought I was going to die,” he says.
Doubt began to set in as his training runs remained difficult, but he persevered. As if almost in a subconscious intervention mode, his other sister, Dawn, recommended he try MyFitnessPal. She had successfully used the app to track her progress toward her own exercise and weight-loss goals, and she thought Brian might get a much-needed boost from using the app, too.
Bender took her advice and downloaded the MyFitnessPal app to stay on top of his daily food intake, plus the MapMyRun app to keep track of his race training.
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What first caught his attention was the MapMyRun You Versus the Year challenge and the associated Facebook group. “It appealed to me to connect with the people in the group whose posts were so inspirational,” he says. “I was hooked!”
The combination of his two sisters’ advice and being part of such a positive community motivated Bender to continue his training with a new level of dedication.
When race day rolled around on April 24, 2016, his first half marathon went off without a hitch. Spurred on by his success and more reflective about the path in front of him, Bender knew he would have to choose between running and cigarettes. At this point, he was still smoking, but the race seemed to make it crystal clear what he needed to do: Put down the cigarettes.
“I didn’t really even feel like it was a choice,” says Bender. “I knew that smoking and running didn’t mix, and my instant love for running made the choice obvious.”
By the end of April, he had quit smoking altogether, taking somewhat of a cold-turkey approach and picking up a new addiction instead: running.
Within three weeks, he noticed a profound difference in the quality of his runs. “The feeling I got every time I ran was amazing!,” he says. “Whether I ran 3 miles or 13, I always got that that ‘runner’s high’ I remembered from my distant past.”
He set his sights on running the top 25 trails in the U.S., a challenge Runner’s World magazine calls the “Crown Jewels.” In June 2016, he went on a week-long journey to hit three of them: Poison Spider Mesa in Moab, Utah; El Moro Canyon in Laguna Beach, California; and Dale Ball Trail in Albuquerque, New Mexico.
“Only my love of running carries me to victory from the urge to smoke.”
Bender’s next race, however — the Rock ‘n’ Roll Las Vegas Half Marathon, which was also going to be a big meetup for You Versus the Year members — surfaced some of his biggest challenges to date.
“The fast ways of Vegas, with its gambling and drinking, turned out to be my first smoking relapse,” he says. “I found myself at a blackjack table at 2 a.m. with a pack of cigarettes.”
But Bender’s dedication proved to be bigger than his demons, and before he’d even gotten home that weekend, he had decided the cigarettes would not win. He promised himself his unhealthy habit would not follow him home.
“Smoking had been embedded into my brain and lifestyle after being addicted for 22 years,” he says. “So many smokers fail in their attempts at quitting, and I knew I didn’t want my slip-up to be an excuse to start smoking again.”
His advice to others? “You have to identify that, to win the war, you may have to lose some battles,” he says with cautious wisdom. Bender points out that of all the methods he tried to quit smoking (gums, patches, lozenges, willpower), nothing stuck for more than a few days until he reconnected with his love for running.
“In the end, only my love of running carries me to victory from the urge to smoke,” he says. The icing on the cake is the more than $3,000 he has saved in the year-and-a-half since he’s put down cigarettes.
Now that he’s officially a non-smoker, Bender is ready to move on to a bigger challenge: his first full marathon. Luckily, he recently received notification that he was drawn for entry into the iconic Big Sur International Marathon in Central California in April 2018.
Next stop: California.
Written by Kim Westerman, a freelance travel, food, coffee and wine writer and a longtime writing teacher with an interest in mindfulness and contemplative studies. She lives with her wife and two young children in Berkeley, California.
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