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Running off the stress of job loss

Michael Ward takes an early morning run through his Santa Monica neighborhood, training for a marathon to help manage stress.

Los Angeles Times

Michael Ward takes an early morning run through his Santa Monica neighborhood, training for a marathon to help manage stress.


Your foot strikes the ground about 1,500 times when running a mile. It strikes the ground about 39,300 times when running 26.2 of them. That's called a marathon, for which you need both training and a routine.

For 10 years, Michael Ward had a routine: Up at 4 a.m., breakfast, catch the bus to work as an editor at an aviation newsletter, then leave at 6 p.m. and back to his one-bedroom, one-bathroom Santa Monica, Calif., apartment.

But on May 1, 2009, when it was time to get up, Ward, 39, didn't. He had been laid off the day before. He lay in bed for hours, angry, scared.

His head told him he needed to be somewhere, that there was work to do.

Then it hit him: "There's nothing there."

Taking a positive step

He had to get out of the house. So he grabbed a pair of old sneakers and went to Clover Park near Santa Monica Municipal Airport. He took a step. Then he took about 3,000 more, running 2 miles, using a trash can as a lap marker.

He ran on adrenaline and the anger of being let go. He used long strides, as he had when he was a sprinter in high school.

When he finished, he wasn't tired, just hungry. He had skipped breakfast that morning. He came home and went through job ads. He wondered what to do.

In March, Ward joined more than 22,000 runners in the L.A. Marathon, many of them participating in their first marathon, just as he was. He finished in 5 hours, 6 minutes.

His story is not unfamiliar. He is part of a new group of marathoners: those who are unemployed and do distance running as a way to manage stress.

There are no direct statistics linking the two, but as job losses have reached historic highs, so too has marathon participation.

Running experts have found that during this recession, the number of new runners has surged, largely because it's cheaper than a gym membership.

It costs only a pair of shoes and time.

"It's a terrific sport for this economy," said Gary Smith, a marathon coach from Long Beach, Calif.

Group therapy

About 25 new marathons were founded in 2009, putting the total at more than 470 in the United States. In 1999, there were about 320. This past year a record 465,000 people finished a marathon in the United States, up about 10 percent from 2008. It was the biggest increase in more than 25 years.

The growth in marathon participation is not solely linked to the recession. There is the advancement of social networking, which makes it easier for people to train together and for race organizers to target specific groups.

But running coaches say during this recession, the unemployed have turned to marathons because they need a challenging goal that requires structure and offers control.

"That's a huge part," said Tom Holland, an exercise physiologist in Connecticut whose specialty is training people for marathons. "Especially in this time when so much is out of your control, you put on your shoes and you can go out when so much else in your life is crazy around you."

Ward trains with a group, as many do. Because of its nature, that method can be considered group therapy for the unemployed.

"There's the all-in-this-together attitude," said Dr. Adam Naylor, a sport psychology coach and director of the Boston University Athletic Enhancement Center. "And what's a job? It's people working toward a common goal."

Ward had that until he was told his last day would be April 30.

A week after returning from England, where he buried his uncle, who died of cancer, Ward was on the line with a department boss from the company's regional office in Maryland.

"As you know, the company is struggling right now, and we have to make cuts."

Ward sighed. Two years ago, when the economy started tanking, he started saving what he could because he thought this call might come.

"We're here to help you."

He laughed. A month before the call, he was asked to fill out a chart of his daily responsibilities and list who was most capable to be his backup. He knew then he wouldn't last much longer.

"We value you as an employee."

The call ended shortly after that. The 10-person staff was cut to four, and he was asked to train his replacement.

Importance of focus

Running became his routine after that, but he wasn't built for distance. The most he had ever run was 5.8 miles during "Hell Week" training in high school nearly 20 years ago. He hadn't run much in the past 10 years because he was too busy with work. But now, he had plenty of time.

"I just needed something at that time to focus on because I was so used to having the get-up-every-morning routine and having a structure — and all of a sudden there was no structure," he said.

He rose at 4 a.m. and usually ran a few miles every day. Week by week, he was able to improve 1 mile at a time. He lost about 30 pounds, from 190 to 160.

In August, he ran his first 5K. His anger started to subside. He started to believe that a marathon was possible.

According to Dr. Daniel Lieberman, a Harvard professor who studies the evolutionary biology of running, the fact that humans have long Achilles' tendons, short toes and the ability to sweat, among other features, gives humans an advantage at distance running.

"Pretty much every human being in reasonable shape can train and run a marathon," he said.

A new job

When Ward joined a local running group, he was given a 150-page manual as part of his membership. It told him when to run, how to run (he has since shortened his stride), when to rest, how to eat, how to stretch, how to walk. He found his new routine.

He bought $100 running shoes and a watch that tells him how far he has run. Always in the back of his head was finding a new job. But in October, he didn't have to think about it anymore.

Ward was hired to work at a parish in Baldwin Park, Calif., helping with social services and fundraising. The pay is about half of the $75,000 he made before. He now breaks even on his bills and is still able to cover his $1,215-a-month rent.

"The luxuries in life are gone at this point," he said.

When Ward ran the marathon, the route from Dodger Stadium to Santa Monica took him past his old building in Century City.

It was 325 days since he last worked there — and 8.7 miles from the finish line.

Running off the stress of job loss 04/17/10 [Last modified: Saturday, April 17, 2010 1:34am]
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