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As it turned out, I had it all wrong for the better part of five weeks. I spent so much time being absorbed with crossing the finish line and completing the St. John Vianney 5K on Thursday evening that I nearly missed the most important point.

My intentions were to show that any overweight, out-of-shape slob -- OK, me -- could run 5,000 meters with the proper training and commitment. All along, I had grandiose visions about the end, finishing strong with people cheering on the side of the road. I even fantasized once about finishing in 30 minutes or less.

A few days ago, the big picture finally snapped into place. There is no finish line when it comes to getting into shape and staying fit. This project didn't have a beginning, middle and end as I suspected. It only had a beginning. Apparently, it was a little secret that nobody bothered to share with me six weeks ago.

In the end, I understood that the 5K was more about the journey to the 3.1-mile race than the event itself. It was about making the time and effort necessary to accomplish a goal that seemed utterly preposterous June 14, when I accepted the challenge. In my case, it meant enduring the humiliation of exposing a sedentary lifestyle that was hardly a secret among my family and friends.

I'll answer your question now.

Yes, I finished the 5K without walking, a feat some people accomplish every day before breakfast. My buddy Brendan Curran, the guy I blamed for running me into the ground on that very first day, was with me every step of the way when he could have easily beaten me by literally a mile.

I completed the race in 33 minutes and 42 seconds, not quite fast enough for the Athens Olympics but better than my loose goal of 35 minutes. The only time that mattered was 9.6 seconds, which I needed to cover the final 100 meters after hearing rumblings someone had an extra Blue Light. It allowed me to blow past three snails, a mangled worm and some guy with a Santa Claus hat who's roughly 85 years old.

When you last heard from me about this race, I gave myself almost no chance to even walk the 3.1 miles. I had developed acute Patellofemoral Pain Syndrome, which I wouldn't wish on Jack the Ripper. The toenail I lost during training was a soothing experience compared to the Patellowhatever that was killing my knees. I couldn't run 75 yards. I was downing anything I could find over the counter, not to mention an experiment with leftover Vicodin.

I was Forrest Chump.

The turnaround started after I visited Dr. Todd Grime, who works out of Northtowns Orthopedics and happens to live across the street. Grime led me to Buffalo Rehab Group, where I found physical therapist Marty Lombard. His magic pulled me from my modified Painless Jogging program that had become a Painful Jogless program because I did too much too soon and was grossly overweight.

In less than a week of therapy, my knees responded. Lombard had me stretching and stepping and twisting and using muscles I didn't know existed. Stretching alone was a workout, but it strengthened my hips and rear end and helped my knees to snap -- and I mean snap! -- back into place. All the while, I kept riding the bike and watching my diet. I spent a week in the Thousand Islands and had 12 beers total, a low for me on vacation since -- what -- the summer after eighth grade?

The key was I kept losing weight.

I've come to find out that the two often work in unison. Lose weight and you'll exercise better. Keep exercising and the pounds will disappear. I started this project weighing 222 pounds. Jerry Sullivan, my good friend and our oft-cranky columnist, was shocked when he heard about my weight. He thought I weighed at least 230. Mike Morlock, who has known me since I was a scrawny kid, saw my picture in the paper and thought I looked like Ted Washington.

Suddenly, I found myself aspiring to look like Ted Kennedy.

With the right diet and exercise, however, I tipped the scales at 194 pounds before the race. It allowed me to finish with only two days of on-road training since the knee problems surfaced June 24. I swear even my fingernails lost weight. I remember getting under 210 pounds and thinking I was doing well. I started shooting for 205. Once I hit 204, I started thinking about 200.

You don't think shedding 28 pounds made a difference? Try strapping a 25-pound weight around your belly and running a mile.

And you, too, will be visiting my main man Marty.

You might understand why I was hatching an escape plan after my first day, when 3.1 years in prison sounded better than 3.1 miles. Now the plan is to get to 185 pounds or less and never revisit my former self. I've been amazed by the things I discovered. For example, I have feet. It had been awhile since I last saw them. I no longer fit the clinical definition for obese, but I'm still plenty overweight.

Still, I don't remember the last time I felt this good for this long. I'm 37 and felt 97 when I started this project. Now I feel like I'm 25. I can wash down a steak sub with a few beers every now and again without apology. I can have pizza, too, so long as I'm eating right and doing the work during the week. Come to find out, it's not that difficult. Too bad it took so long to come to my senses.

Of course, I'll never consider myself a true runner for the same reasons I always had. It's boring, it hurts and I hate it. Certainly, you've heard about "runners' high," but I wasn't overly euphoric during the race. I've come to find that runners' brains aren't wired like mine, which I suppose is good for them.

Regardless, there are no reasons for revisiting the fat farm. There are plenty of other exercises available that are easier on the body. I still plan to run, just not three or four times a week the way many people do.

Before all this began, I really didn't know whether I could get myself into reasonable shape because I never bothered to step out of my comfort zone and challenge myself. There was always tomorrow, or after the holidays, or after some other lame excuse wrapped around a phony non-event.

No time, you say? It's a cop-out. The benefits are limitless once you get through the toughest part, the beginning. I've reached the point where I'm getting up early to work out. I've come to discover a world that starts at 7 a.m., which is only three hours later than too many nights ended. I've learned some valuable lessons along the way.

It's one reason I'm thinking about joining a gym. After all, I'll need something this winter to help keep myself in shape. Mike Bartolotti, my best friend who first challenged me to run the 5K, mentioned something the other day about a mini-triathlon sometime next summer.

Barto, you're on. So long as I don't have to wear -- visual alert! -- a Speedo.

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