MADISON, W.Va. -- To finish his first 100-mile footrace, John Baldwin played mind games with himself.
"Instead of thinking of it as having to complete 100 miles, I thought of it as completing several shorter runs in a row," he said. "If there was an aid station six miles away, I figured I could run six miles easily. After I reached that distance, I set a goal for another short distance and went for that."
One would be hard-pressed to find a better metaphor for Baldwin's return to fitness. Goal by goal, the 33-year-old Boone County native has climbed the distance-running ladder, shedding 40 pounds of fat and a blood pressure problem along the way.
It all started on a spur-of-the-moment whim.
Baldwin, a former basketball player and cross-country runner at Scott High School, had let his fitness slip during his college years and his first few terms as a schoolteacher.
"I weighed 155 pounds when I graduated from high school," he recalled. "But from 1998 to 2007, I basically took a decade off.
"I didn't run. I played a little basketball for fitness, but my weight gradually crept up to about 210 pounds. I started having trouble with my blood pressure, and the doctor wanted me to start taking medications for that."
About that time, Baldwin and some friends were hanging out at a Charleston-area fast-food restaurant and spotted a flyer advertising a five-kilometer race.
"We all agreed to do it," he said. "That got me started running again."
He was teaching at Van High School at the time, and some of his students wanted to start a cross-country team. Since he had cross-country experience, Baldwin became their coach.
"Instead of just telling them to [go on training runs], I ran with them," he said. "And I kept doing 5K races. Then I decided to see if I could finish the [15-mile] Charleston Distance Run. Once I knew I could run 15 miles, I figured it was just a matter of altering my pace to run a marathon."
Running increasingly longer and tougher races stirred something inside Baldwin.
"As a runner, you want to push yourself to where you've never been and see how you hold up. So after I'd done a few marathons, I started thinking about trying a 50-miler," he said.
Since many "ultra marathon" events of 30 to 100 miles involve running on forest paths or dirt roads, Baldwin stopped running on pavement and started training on Boone County's extensive network of unpaved mining and logging roads. He soon discovered a few things that hadn't dawned on him before.