From smoker to marathoner in two years

Pitt Meadows woman to celebrate with run on The Great Wall

Louise Wagar of Pitt Meadows smoked for 40 years before she replaced it with a running habit. She leaves for a marathon on the Great Wall of China next month. She is seen here at the Coho Salmon Run that goes from Kitsilano Beach through Stanley Park over the Lions Gate Bridge and into North Vancouver. (Contributed)

Two years ago, Louise Wagar butted out her last cigarette.

Next month, the 58-year-old will reward herself by running a full marathon on the Great Wall of China.

“I will probably only run one full marathon, so I wanted it to be epic,” she explained.

The Pitt Meadows woman is a smoking cessation success story being touted by the Canadian Cancer Society, as it promotes its Walk or Run to Quit program.

Wagar had lost a lot of weight, and was being complimented by her friends as an inspiration in good health. However, she had smoked for some 40 years, and knew if she really wanted to have great health she would have to give up the evil weed.

“I went online and looked for the easiest way to quit smoking,” she said, and that led her to the Walk or Run to Quit program, which is a partnership of the Cancer Society and the Running Room.

She looked at their materials, and made careful preparations to avoid pitfalls – situations where she would be tempted to go back to old habits and spark up a cigarette.

“Everything I knew would trigger smoking, I had a plan for,” she said.

On April 3, 2016, just before bed, she smoked her last cigarette, and enjoyed it immensely.

The next day, she started on her program. To start with, she would see her run for one minute and then walk for two, for 20 minutes.

“I ran three intervals, and on my third one I was on my knees. I couldn’t do it,” she said.

It was not easy, but Wagar stuck with it.

“Six months later, I ran my first half-marathon.”

That was the Rock ‘n Roll Half—Marathon in Vancouver. Wagar finished the 21-km run in a respectable time of two hours and 17 minutes.

“It was so exhilirating.”

That exhiliration from exercise may be part of the reason smokers are able to quit by replacing their bad habit with healthy walking or running, according to UBC researcher Dr. Carly Priebe.

She has done a lot of research into health behaviour.

“Exercise can help with withdrawal symptoms and cravings,” she said, and noted that 53 per cent of the people who get on the Run to Quit program are able to stop smoking.

“In the cessation world, that’s quite a strong result,” she said.

Of those who take part and were questionned later, 97 per cent said they increased their physical activity levels, and 88 per cent had at least reduced the amount of smoking.

Researchers also measured the carbon monoxide in the blood of participants before and after they took the program, and found that this toxin was also dramatically reduced. That means their blood quickly becomes more efficient at transporting oxygen during exercise.

“There’s lots of changes that happen quite quickly when you quit smoking,” said Priebe. “Within days you’re going to feel less out of breath.”

There are also mental changes that take place, and Priebe’s group did identity research, to try to measure how participants see themselves. Early on, their self image would be of someone unhealthy.

“By the end, they see themselves as more of a runner.”

She said the social aspects of belonging to a group of runners and walkers also helped people quit, and 43 per cent of participants said six months after the program ende they were still in touch with members of their group.

“Social influence is really huge – we follow the norms of people around us,” said Priebe.

Wagar is a full-on runner now, and a disciple of the John Stanton method – which means she will always walk for a short period of time during her runs.

She doesn’t pretend it was easy. She laughs when admitting that she found herself following behind people who were smoking in public.

“I almost stalked people who smoked – to me it smelled sooo good.”

But she never relapsed.

“I knew that if I smoked one cigarette I would smoke a pack tomorrow, and then I would never quit.”

On May 19 she goes to China for her first marathon on the Great Wall. It is 42 km long, and also features some 5,000 stairs.

“That’s a big jump from not being able to run for four minutes,” she said.

Her body has bounced back from the negative health effects of a lifetime of smoking.

“My doctor said he couldn’t tell that I was ever a smoker.”

Wager recommends the Walk or Run to Quit program. It was exactly what she needed.

“People should try it, if they are interested at all.”

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