CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- At 6 a.m. on his 50th birthday Friday, Brad Deel started running in Huntington. "Four years ago, if you'd told me or any of my friends that I was going to run 50 miles on my 50th birthday, we all would have laughed," he said.
Seven hours and 50 miles later, he sprinted into the University of Charleston to the cheers of about 40 of his students and friends.
"I'm hoping a few people will think, well, shoot, if that guy can whip himself into shape, maybe I can too," he said, high-fiving his students.
Deel started running six years ago after he went to the store to buy pants and discovered his waistline had expanded to 42 inches. That same week, he tried his first run. "I told myself, it's time to do something. No way was I letting it get to 44.
"I'd never played sports, and I'm uncoordinated, but I thought, well, maybe I could run."
On his first try, he made it about a half mile. "I was an overweight, chain-smoking couch potato, and there I was, puffing down the road, thinking, 'This is going to kill me.'"
But he stuck with it. In the past four years, he has dropped 60 pounds. He brought his total cholesterol down from 200 to 135. "He's a transformed person, physically and mentally," said his father, retired Methodist minister Bill Deel.
His resting heart rate is now 60, compared to 85 four years ago. He has qualified for next spring's Boston Marathon. "I'm living proof that an out-of-shape person can turn it around, even at this age," he said.
Deel grew up in Southern West Virginia "thin as a rail," he said, "but somewhere along the way, I ballooned up to 230."
Then he started running. "I got hooked on it," he said. "Now, when I miss a couple days, I get crabby. I'm itching to get out the door. My wife'll say, 'You need to go run.' Sometimes I run at 9 or 10 o'clock at night. It takes the edge off."
He quit eating Double Whoppers. "I eat pretty healthy food now," he said.
When he first started running, he injured himself. "I thought I should run harder and faster every time, so of course, I hurt myself and couldn't run for about four months."
Beginners should check with their doctor, he said. Ease into it, he advises. "Most runs should be done at a slow jog.
"Most days, I run between seven and 10 miles, but I start out slow. I also do one or two hard workouts a week. Last Saturday, for instance, I did hill sprints, where you find a steep hill and sprint up it for 8 to 10 seconds, then walk back down, then do it again."
Six years ago, a half-mile took him six minutes. Now he can run a mile in five and a half minutes.
"I sleep much better at night. I can keep up with my kids now. When I run, I can think for an hour with no interruption, and I come up with decent ideas. If I'm in a foul mood, I can blow off steam.
"You get addicted to running," he said. "I was addicted to cigarettes 30 years. Now I'm addicted to running. As addictions go, it's better for me.
'Charleston needs trails'
Deel wants to see more running and walking addicts.
"Charleston could be a great running town, but Charleston needs trails," he said. He ran facing traffic on Route 60, but even the safest roads are more dangerous than trails, he said. "Almost every day, I run back streets in Kanawha City, but I'd rather run trails." Kanawha State Forest is 20 minutes away, he noted.
A lawyer, he teaches constitutional law, debating and political science. Sometimes he has his students debate obesity. "It's an important question for the political system," he said. "Doctors say, if we don't get a handle on obesity, diabetes will overwhelm the health-care system 20 years from now," he said.
Running and other exercise can help with that, he said. "Government can encourage more people to get fit by adopting policies that encourage healthy behavior."
He likes it that Charleston City Council has committed to build 100 miles of trail. "Bike lanes on the Boulevard will be great," he said. "But why not have a nice, shaded trail running from Coonskin to downtown? I'd love to run across the South Side Bridge, head up the Elk River to Coonskin and back.
"Every other capital city I know of has a trail system. It's a quality of life issue, a health issue, and a business issue. Businesses look at that sort of thing when they're thinking of relocating."
Councilman Tom Lane would like to see Deel get his wish. He sponsored Charleston's "100 miles of trail" resolution. "I predict we'll have the Boulevard running and biking lanes within the next five years," he said. "And people are working on a bicycle route on the Midland Trail, through Charleston and beyond."
"There's been a lot of discussion about a trail from Coonskin to Charleston," said former Council member Lewis Payne. "There's an old railroad trail that runs along the Elk and connects Capitol Market with Coonskin. Folks have tried, but the owners think they might use it for something else later."
"We definitely plan to develop a trail between the airport and Capitol Market, but the airport has a new construction project now, and they want to wait till that's done," he said.
A few years ago, Council created the Charleston Land Trust. The volunteer members are supposed to develop a city trail system, linking it to surrounding areas. But they have limitations: The trust has no staff and no money. So far, its volunteer members have secured private contributions to create trails on two South Hills properties, Payne said.
"We're talking about becoming a 501(c)3 so we can get grants and contributions," Lane said.
"If they build the trails, Deel will run on them. He plans to run, no matter what. "There are times when I look in my rear-view mirror and see that guy who was a 230-pound chain smoker," he said. "It would be real easy to be that person again, and I don't want to be. So yes, I'll keep running."
To see the trail plans of the Charleston Land Trust: http://www.cityofcharleston.org/landtrust.
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Reach Kate Long at katel...@wvgazette.com or 304-348-1798.