In Feb 2013, Joe Lugiano toed the line at the start of the Iron Horse 100 Miler in Florida…at the ripe age of seventy. Since he started running in 1979, Joe has run the Boston Marathon 8 times (with a best of 2:49!), the Shamrock Marathon 18 times, the Marine Corps Marathon 15 times, the JFK 50 Miler 10 times, and the Vermont 100 Miler 18 times. You could certainly call him a serious runner, as his resume is about as impressive at it gets. More impressive is that at 71 years of age, he’s still running and still active, while many of his contemporaries are simply…not.
I first heard of Joe’s story from his daughter, my friend Kat Lowe here in Crozet. He was visiting their family and came into our running store. Kat later told me “You know he’s a big ultra runner…and he used to be obese! He could barely walk, let alone run around the block without gasping for air!” I asked if he would mind if I interviewed him for this column, clearly there’s a story here…
“Unfortunately, when people know that I run ultras (ultramarathons = anything longer than 26.2 miles), I think they feel intimidated and don’t feel we can talk on the same plane. What they don’t realize is that I came from where they are and know what they are going through as they attempt to get more fit.”
Joe got married when he was 20 years old, had twin boys at 21, and a daughter at 26. He weighed 125 pounds when they got married and managed to stay active with the kids when they were young. His story begins when he and his family moved to North Carolina. “I was in a high pressure job, working 120-hour weeks, drinking coffee, and snacking out of machines. I was working at the computer on little to no sleep for days on end. I would do this for months on end, seeing the family to shower, change clothes, and nap. It was extreme”.
“The weight ballooned and the blood pressure went up. My anxiety over the job, the stress, the feeling of being overwhelmed, unreasonable demands…this all created a situation where I had to go to a doctor to get my blood pressure under control. I also had high levels of triglycerides and cholesterol. My doctor recommended that I begin exercising and change my diet or I was going to experience the same issues of heart problems that my father had at a young age. At the same time, I was forced to get on a regular 40 hour work schedule until my condition improved. This required some serious meetings with management and company medical personnel to get the proper recognition of the problem.”
“My wife has always been the big motivator for taking care of my health, getting me to the doctor, helping me with my diet. But getting out the door to exercise was up to me. I decided to try to run for exercise.”
“I had no idea how far I could run, or whether I’d have a heart attack when I started. I was 50 pounds overweight. We lived in a hilly neighborhood. I thought the best way to start was to try to run around the neighborhood. Easier said than done. I started by walking up the hill to the top of the street, went over the next street, then started to jog down the hill on a parallel street. That was fun until I hit the uphill section which quickly reduced me to a walk, gasping for air with my heart pounding. Back to a walk to recover, and then a little more running until it became necessary to breathe again and get the heart back down. I continued this pattern until I got home, then sat down on the front porch sweating and gasping for air. The kids wanted to drag me in before the neighbors saw me.”
“I tried this routine for a while until I could run a little farther and walk a little less. Until my heart rate began to rise slower and my breathing became easier. I experienced some initial knee pain, but as my weight declined, the knee pain seemed to resolve. It was easier to run more steady. Within the first couple of months there was a change in how I felt physically and mentally. My health reversed. I lost 50 pounds. My cholesterol and triglycerides went back to normal. As I lost weight, I felt so much lighter and just began to feel better – and that’s what its all about.”
And his family noticed the change as well. “I don’t really remember him being very involved when I was younger”, tells his daughter Kathryn. “He worked long hours and when he did get home, I don’t remember much other than watching TV together. But after he made such an amazing transformation, his whole outlook changed. He became more active in our lives. My memories from that point on are of us running together, having great conversations in places other than a chair or a sofa, and seeing him in the stands watching us play sports. I also have great memories of races, both mine and his. He became an inspiration, not only with his running. He was the walking definition of putting your mind to something and achieving it. He taught me perseverance and steadfastness.”
Joe wasted no time getting his health back together. After slogging that first mile in Feb 1979, he lost 50 pounds over the next few months and incredibly, within 9 months he ran a sub 3 hour marathon in October in Greensboro, NC. And the rest is history.
“You know, we get busy with our lives, making a living, consumed with work, and never thinking of fitness. Then you’re forced to go to a doctor who tells you ‘you need to change or your going to die’.”
“With running, you get to ask yourself, ‘what are my limits’. At first, I thought ‘I can get away with just a few miles here and there’, but I began to realize that wasn’t good enough. It wasn’t good enough just to run a few times a week. I had to change fully and keep testing my limits. You can always do more.”
So where are your limits? And what’s keeping you from testing them? What if Joe had stopped after his first run around the block, when he was collapsed on the front porch gasping for air? Joe’s story is truly inspiring, yet is incredibly simple. We can go back to that time on the porch and create two different endings. One of living and one of dying. Many of us are sitting down, gasping for air on that porch right now. Its time to ask yourselves, “Living? Or Dying?” When I spoke with Joe, I spoke to a man who was living; you could just hear it in his voice and in his spirit. We’ve got one life to live folks, and this is it. Let’s start living!