More Than Just Running By Riley Hebdon on September 09, 2016

Imagine stepping out of your house just after sunset, admiring the bright, full moon for a moment, and then running eight miles through unpaved roads with a group of people as different as they are skilled in running.

This is exactly what Ken Nafziger does once a month on his moonlight runs with Eastern Mennonite University colleague Jim Smucker, who introduced the late-night runs at his former workplace.  These runs became popular with Amish runners in Bird-in-Hand, Pennsylvania, and were even featured in Runner’s World. At every full moon, Ken, Jim, and other runners from varying backgrounds meet after dusk donning their headlamps, ready to run. The group runs a set path through the country and gravel roads north of Eastern Mennonite University, where Ken works. Ken remarks that sometimes the moon is so bright, they turn off the headlamps and run only by the light of the moon. They stop at the end to celebrate with some chocolate milk, naturally.

Ken is a runner, and he enjoys these moonlit runs as he considers himself more of a social runner. He has also found that as he’s gotten older, he prefers to run longer distances at a slower pace. But no matter the pace, Ken has almost always been running. He first became interested in the activity when he ran in track and field day in ninth grade and really enjoyed it. Then, as a senior in high school, Ken joined the track and field team. While he played soccer in college, he still continued running as a way to be with his friends, improve his health, and maintain his overall well-being.

Ken says that he did a lot of his running while he worked and coached track and field and cross-country at Broadway High School from 1979 to 1983. He would run with the team in various races during the off-season as a way to stay in shape. Then, from 1983 to 1986, he taught secondary school in Kenya with the Eastern Mennonite Missions and coached a Kenyan boys’ track and field team. As he entered his 30s, Ken began doing half-marathons and 10k’s in Illinois and Indiana during his graduate studies in counseling psychology. While working at Penn State for six years and the University of Iowa for three years as a counseling psychologist with a specialty in sports psychology, Ken continued running as a way to relate to the athletes. “I always had a reason to run,” Ken tells me.

Aside from his moonlight runs, Ken also participates in 5k’s, running two per month with the Shenandoah Valley Track Club that holds meets at EMU in the summer. He also likes to run with his wife, Judy, so his runs have a lot of variety. When their three children were in middle school and high school, his family would regularly run the Bridgewater Turkey Trot, where the winner in each age group wins a turkey. “So instead of bringing home the bacon, you’re bringing home the turkey,” Ken remarks with a laugh.

These types of 5k’s are common in Ken’s life; even half-marathons have become second-nature to him. Less common, however, are the full marathons. To date, Ken has only run two marathons. His latest was in 2012 at the D.C. Rock ‘n’ Roll Marathon when he was 56 years old. Before that, he ran in the Philadelphia Marathon in 1982 at the age of 26. This year, Ken will be participating in the Richmond Marathon, where he hopes to run a BQ (which he teaches me means Boston Qualifier) and participate in the Boston Marathon in 2017. For his age group, that means that he will need to run the entire 26+ miles in less than three hours and fifty-five minutes just to get the opportunity to apply to run in the race. Ken is currently training to do just that, but knows that you can never be too confident. For instance, if the day of the race ends up being hot (over the 50 degrees he’s hoping for), his time could differ dramatically. Ken says that his “first goal is to finish, then to finish strong, then to BQ.”

Despite this, Ken definitely runs competitively. He is always working to improve his time, competing with himself in every race. His best marathon time was three hours and eleven minutes, which he achieved at that first marathon back when he was 26. Ken says that he didn’t really train much for that marathon at all, and he was totally unable to go fast after 20 miles, what marathoners call “hitting the wall.” He tells me that you have to get your body ready for the marathon distance, or expect to be in intense pain.

So why does Ken keep running? He is a psychologist, and running, for him, is therapy. He says that he runs to clear his head after a hard day of work. If he is running alone, he uses the time to talk to God and process what’s happened in the day. Running gives him the chance to think about different issues and challenges that are touching his life in one way or another, and he finds that he can discover more creative solutions to his problems at the end of a run.

Not only that, but running is a family affair for Ken. All three of his kids ran in high school, and his daughter Rachel and son Dan both did cross-country and track and field in college. Dan even received a college scholarship for running. Running helps Ken keep his knees and hips doing great so he can stay in shape and stay active with his kids. He loves to go hiking with his whole family and relishes the fact that he doesn’t get winded. Ken hopes to keep running well into his 70s or 80s.

If you want to get into the running life, Ken has some excellent advice. He says to first choose an activity that you enjoy and look forward to. It can even be something like walking the dog. Find something that will get you moving and find a consistent time to do that activity at least three or four times a week. At first, just walk. Then start mixing walking and running. Start slow, just a little running at first. Then, slowly, make running a bigger percentage of that active time. Run more and more and walk less and less until you can spend the whole time running. Make this a fun and social time. Don’t just push yourself to do something that’s painful that you aren’t going to enjoy or feel rewarded by. After two or three months, running will become a “positive addiction.” Ken says that you’ll start to think “Oh, I need to go out and run to clear my head,” or “Oh, I need to go out and run to make my legs feel better.” If you need to mix it up, do some cross-training like swimming or biking, but make sure to have weight-bearing activities to keep your knees and hips in good shape.

We all have passions. For Ken, running helps bring meaning and clarity into his life. One of the best parts about working at Smiles for Life is getting the opportunity to meet dozens of unique and interesting people every day with different callings and gifts. We hope that when you stop by, you’ll share your interests with us and let us know a little bit about what’s going on in your life. We truly feel that our patients are part of our dental family and love to hear about who they are.

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