In the weeks leading up to September’s WVU Medicine Morgantown Marathon weekend, we’re featuring the personal stories of several runners in our community, as told by them. Though they share a common pastime, each of our guest bloggers has his or her own motivation that got them started and keeps them moving.

WVU Medicine is proud to be the major sponsor of the 2016 WVU Medicine Morgantown Marathon Weekend, which includes an 8K race, a half marathon, and a challenging full marathon. In addition, WVU Medicine’s annual Stride 5K is a popular family event for runners of all abilities. Click here for tips on getting your running habit off to a great start.


The Mental Game

I ran my first race in 1995.

I was 21 years old, and although the beers flowed after the race and not before, I don’t remember any of it. I had no training, no preparation. I’m sure I didn’t run it very well. I didn’t run again for 10 years. 

"Like a foot race, a sculptor must keep his eyes on the finish line," - Jamie Lester. Photo by Evan Fedorko

In 2005, I ran Gene’s Run for Special Olympics again. Like my first race, I had no training, but I was older. Maybe I was a bit stronger. I felt like I was going to throw up the whole time, and I struggled to breathe, but I finished the hilly four-mile course through Morgantown’s historic South Park and First Ward neighborhoods in decent time, at about an eight-minute mile. I was elated. I felt great. I was hooked.  

The next day I could barely walk. I had to go down the stairs sideways. Every muscle in my body was sore. My calves were locking up, and my quadriceps felt like they had tiny rips in them. My hamstrings seemed to have sustained a serious injury. What surprised me was how bad the other parts of me hurt. My neck was sore. My back was sore. My lungs were sore. My shoulders and my chest were sore. I didn’t imagine myself ever running a marathon, if a four-mile race hurt me that bad.

I have been told that running is a mental game – that running a certain pace or a certain distance isn’t restricted by physical limitations, but by mental weakness. I don’t know if there is any truth to this, but in my running, I have found a similar principle at work.

As I trained for longer races, I always hit some kind of barrier. My muscles weren’t strong enough. My tendons weren’t tough enough. My heart did not pump blood efficiently enough. Those are all physical limitations. When I hit the barriers, I always felt the same feeling: a kind of existential dread, a terrible feeling of weakness and limitation, as if I would die if I ran any harder.

Every time I pushed my body to break those barriers, it was like asking a small child to perform a task he has never done before. He may balk, complain, or cry. He might flat out refuse. But with enough persuasion, the child will trudge through the task, and the next time he will know what to do. It will be easier for him.  

My First Marathon

I ran my first marathon at age 41. It was the inaugural Morgantown Marathon, and I designed the medal for the race, so it was especially important to me that I complete it. I trained hard. Training for a marathon eats up hours and hours of your week. In the end, the longest run I made in preparation for the race was 18 miles. I thought I was ready.

The final concept for the inaugural Morgantown Marathon medal (2015) featured the West Virginia state quarter, also a Lester design. Image courtesy of Vandalia Bronze

The first 18 miles weren’t bad. I ran them at a pace of 8.5 minutes/mile, which was too fast, according to some seasoned marathoners out on the course. They cautioned me that the last six miles were equal to the first 20. I shrugged off their kindly advice and kept running my pace. I must have passed 100 runners. I was feeling strong. I was going to finish my first marathon in less than four hours.

At mile 18, I got my first hamstring cramp.

I slowed my pace and it let up, but when I increased my pace, my calves both locked up. Every time I increased my pace back up to where I wanted it, my legs would rebel. I understood the message that my muscles were screaming out to me – that I didn’t prepare them for this. They didn’t know what was coming next. They were in strange territory and were coping in the best way they could. They were like a small child, scared and out of their league.

They rebelled and stopped working for me.  

The final eight miles was a brutal two-hour exercise of bone-on-bone torture. My quadriceps muscles were flaccid, useless pieces of flesh. Men and women who looked twice my age passed me with ease. I had to watch at least 100 of the runners I had passed run past me, obviously better trained, more experienced, and wiser. There are very few experiences more humbling than that.

I had not trained properly, and no amount of mental toughness could have forced my muscles to continue to fire. I limped across the finish line at a 15 minute/mile pace, and though I was glad to have achieved my first marathon, I felt I had missed my mark.


Parallels in Sculpture

I have found the same barriers with my work in art, and especially with sculpture. When I encounter a problem I have never solved before, the barrier will fill me with the same kind of dread I feel when running a distance I have never conquered. I don’t know what the future holds, and there is nothing scarier than the unknown. The next run would be a little easier; the barrier would be a little further off.  

Some of the bronze sculptures I create with Vandalia Bronze take more than a year to complete. The steps can’t be rushed, and there are unique challenges along the long course. Like in a foot race, a sculptor must keep his eyes on the finish line, be mentally focused and tough, and maintain a careful, constant pace. Throughout the almost 20 years of being a freelance sculptor, I have encountered many of the same challenges I have in running. Pace, planning, training, technique, and focus all play a huge role in sculpture.  

If I have a problem that's plaguing me, I can often work it out doing a long run. The endorphins that rush through my body calm me, and wash away all the mud that obscures clear thought and exposes the true nature of the problem. If I feel like I don't have time to run, and I don't take the time, my efficiency decreases. When I have a good schedule of running, I am truly productive in the studio. The artist’s mind needs a healthy body in order to be effective.  

In sculpture, as in running, I am always trying to get to that next unknown, pushing on that barrier of resistance: trying new techniques, new tools, new ideas. The same motives that compel me to sculpt also guide my runs: the fear of failure, the drive for excellence, and the desire to be the best I can be.

Sculptor Jamie Lester, 42, lives in Morgantown. West Virginians may catch a glimpse of Lester’s work in their loose change, as he designed West Virginia state quarter (2005), in addition to prominent statues of Jerry West, Hot Rod Hundley, and Don Knotts, among several others. The Oceana native plans to run this year’s Morgantown Thirteener half-marathon on Sept. 18.