Saturday Spotlight- Todd Rowley

I’ve noticed many of our stories involve weight or body image issues, and mine is no exception. I was the kid who swallowed the watermelon seed, the kid wih the “outie” belly button poking through his shirt. On my first day of tennis camp, the counselor poked at the red stain on my t-shirt and said, “Cut down on the Kool-Aid, kid.” In sixth grade I wore the same Wilson sweatshirt to school every single day because I liked the way the pouch hid my gut.


Not that I wasn’t active. Most mornings my friends and I disappeared into the woods and didn’t come home until sundown. Often the day would end with us being chased by neighbors, golfers, German Shepherds, etc. I ran, I biked, I swam (never with a purpose or all at once back then), but at the end of the day, I was still Fatso!

Then one punch changed everything. At age 13, I had to spar with my karate instructor as part of my green belt test. My Sensei happened to be short and bald, and clever kid that I was, as soon as the fight started, I jumped up in the air and slapped him on his shiny scalp. Wrong move. As soon as the fight resumed, Sensei struck immediately, a body blow that left me crawling around the gym floor searching for air.

A few hours later I was pissing blood and spent the next 2 days in Glen Cove Hospital. Ironically, that punch may have saved my life. Two days of tests revealed a hydronephrotic left kidney (grossly enlarged and fluid-filled), a chronic condition that had been building since my birth. The first specialist we saw recommended immediate removal. The 2nd specialist said he could reconstruct it. That summer I spent 2 weeks on hooked up to an IV at the Hospital for Special Surgery in NYC, recovering from the surgery. By the time I was discharged, my gut was mostly gone, and I left the hospital determined to keep it that way. That is when I became a runner.

Running quickly became a big part of my identity – high school cross-country and track – at age 14 (1984) my first Long Island Marathon (1:31). By senior year I made it to the state meet and finished middle of the pack, though at 175lbs, I’m sure I would have won the Federation Clydesdale Award had they had one. I was big for a runner, and proud of the way the other runners bounced off me as we funneled from the start line into the trails.

My bum kidney came back to haunt me. After graduating high school, I went to the University of Rochester on a full ROTC scholarship. At that point I wanted to spend my life in the Marine Corps, and I thrived on all the physical and psychological hardships we were subjected to during orientation week and the fall semester. But somewhere down in D.C., a medical officer reviewing my file decided he didn’t like my kidney x-rays and pushed through a medical discharge. By early November, I was handing back my uniform and all my gear. Particularly humiliating, an ensign berated me for losing my military issue dress socks.
My identity was shattered. I left Rochester that Thanksgiving and never went back. And although on the surface, it appeared I was regrouping and turning a negative into a positive – managed to talk my way into an acceptance at Dartmouth the following autumn – I was a psychological mess.

So I played rugby, an acceptable excuse to hit people. I was good at it and gained weight just to hit people harder. By senior year of college I weighed 215. I also developed a Kodiak habit, which morphed into a more acceptable cigarette addiction (pack plus a day) when I returned to Long Island after graduation. I smoked like that for close to 18 years. For many years I woke up every day thinking about how I was going to die rather than how I was going to live.

I have to credit my brother-in-law for the event that caused me to quit smoking. When I turned 36, Chris gave me a mix-tape for my birthday, and in the middle of the playlist was a song by Hank Williams that went, “Smoke, smoke, smoke that cigarette…smoke, smoke, smoke it til yer dead.” I was so angry I ejected the CD out of my car stereo and threw the CD and my cigarettes out the window. I’ve now been off cigarettes for 8 years.

At about that time I started running regularly and racing again. The point was to give me focus, an extra reason not to return to tobacco. One of my first races, in 2006 in Port Washington, I ate an extra cheeseburger the night before the race so that I would qualify as a Clydesdale. I still remember seeing Rick Secor milling aound the start line of that race, flipping his hair. I realized that day that there are certain forces of nature in this universe that should not be challenged. I dropped a few pounds so that I would never have to go mano-a-mano with Rick Secor again.

I did continue to enter races and regain that competitive spirit. I placed in a race here and there, won a race here and there. What seems so odd to me now are all those minutes I spent waiting for my age group awards, standing silently in a corner. I knew nobody, and being kind of shy at the outset, I just stood there as an obligation, feeling it would be rude to leave early.

I have to thank Steve Lutz, who took a moment to say hello to me at the Elwood Education 5K in 2009. At the time I thought I was just making small talk, but over the course of races we became fast friends. Then Sue FitzPatrick asked me if I’d be interested in joining GLIRC, and all my other running friendships have evolved from there.

Meanwhile, some of the sublime qualities of everyday running that I had lost over the years were returning to me. I’m not a headphone guy: generally I like the subconscious d-j to take over as I run, and sometimes a full-blown plot forms, and I am running toward something or from something dangerous. Or I’m actually running in something dangerous. Some of my best runs have occurred during blizzards and Nor’easters. I ran knee-deep in Huntington Bay water during Hurricane Irene – stupid me – and probably should have been electrocuted.

The sense of adventure and challenge is probably also why I am also drawn to events such as the Greenbelt Trail 25k, to the Survival of the Shawangunks Triathlon, and to the Selden Hills. If I lived closer I’d be in Selden far more, but when I make the trip, I have to say I try to make it worth the drive. I’ve never done less than a double loop, once a triple loop, and on my last visit for my 44th birthday, a quadruple loop of the four mile MEAT of the hills – Adirondack, Berkshire and that annoyingly steady loop in between. So I guess you could say “the hills are alive” in me.

More important though, I like that he hills inspire people to inspire each other to new feats of athleticism and/or ridiculousness, and friendship. Like running the hills, writing this spotlight has been pure therapy.

Thanks, Lou!

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