Thursday, December 11, 2008

Where I'm Mired Inside My Own Head

In a past life I used to be a runner.

I was not at all athletic growing up, and I struggled early on with my weight, a battle I quickly realized would be a life-long one. I have a compulsive personality to a degree, and I'm not characterized by self-control. I choose not to blog about weight issues not because they are off limits or because I feel at all sensitive about the topic but because it's a dull topic for those who do not share this struggle and it's fraught with repeated failures and difficulties which are often highly personal and have limited application to others (I pause here to wince for Oprah, who has had to live this trial in front of a spotlight). I'm grateful for the friends I have made through blogging, but I'm doubtful whether posting about weight struggles serves any useful function. People without weight issues simply don't grasp the issue--they think they do, but they don't--and the rest of us can be helped in limited ways by others; ultimately, it's a thicket through which we must find our own very personal route.

Anyway, when I got to college--an inactive, pudgy teenager--I saw runners everywhere. And when I began dating a woman who ran three or four miles a day I felt like an absolute slug. I WAS an absolute slug. And so I started running, the first athletic thing I had done in years, and the first I had EVER done under my own steam.

It was immediately obvious that running was a great weight-control device, something to help counter my addictive interface with food. From those beginnings in my early 20s and for the next decade and a half I ran more and more until I had a regular daily run of between seven and nine miles, with occasional longer runs with a friend on weekends. I was lucky; I had pretty good innate mechanics and was not prone to injury, and with the help of my friend's heart rate monitor I discovered that my natural pace put me squarely in the overlap zone between cardiac fitness and fat burning--just where I wanted to be. I had no desire to race or to increase my pace, and--oddly for me--I hated to listen to music or anything while I ran. It became a time where I communed with my pain (or at least with my discomfort); I achieved a kind of rhythmic breathing zen. Athletes are in touch with the intricacies and minutiae of their bodies; this was my one entry into that world. I kept a running diary, and as the years passed I was able to look back on runs logged in all sorts of places where I was based with my job or where I traveled: New York, Chicago, Dallas, Denver, Paris, and a whole host of smaller Midwestern cities. In many of these places I established regular running routes: I had several favorites in St. Paul, of course, but also in Williston and Fargo; Marquette and Escanaba and Muskegon; Decatur and Springfield; Terre Haute and South Bend. I drove around in my truck in each of these places and figured out good routes for the various mileages I ran. (Unfortunately, I've managed to lose all copies of these diaries, along with a decade of my personal journal.)

Eventually I tired of the daily grind and needed a break. But of course running had not fixed my maladjustment with food; it had however accustomed me to a diet which could not be accommodated without this daily hour or more of exertion. Ergo, my weight rose as my mileage dropped, setting up a downward spiral: the heavier I got the less I ran; the less I ran the heavier I got. By the late '90s I had pretty much stopped running altogether. Increasing age didn't help matters. With age it became easier to gain weight and harder to lose it, and the after effects from exercise required more recuperation time. When I was 22, I basically rolled out of bed into my running shoes and hit the road (I always preferred to run in the morning); by 32 I needed to stretch a bit and take ibuprofen; by 37 I added occasional icing and regular days off to the regimen; at 42 I was not running at all.

But I missed it. I missed my regular routes, and getting to know new places this way. I missed packing running things in my suitcase life, and even having moist clothes always at the top of my bag and muddy running shoes in the pouch on the back. I missed the cathartic whole-body sense of calm and satisfaction at having spent an hour sweating through every pore of my body. A decade passed.

After seeing my wife make great progress over this past year at Weight Watchers, and after hundreds of attempts to diet (followed, an hour or a day or a week later, by the inevitable failure), I bit the bullet about 10 weeks ago and joined WW myself (sometime I will fill a post or two about WW, which has made me a True Believer). And one of my prime motivations--in addition to hating how I looked and felt and how my clothes fit and how my weight affected every single thing I did from driving my car to getting in and out of an airplane as a pilot or passenger to fitting in a movie seat and on and on--was this desire to run again. And step one in THAT quest was to take off about 40 lbs. The scale when I joined WW on 10/30 read a horrifying 279.4 lbs. I've never really been much below 210, and I had never really run at more than 235 lbs, so I pegged two-thirty-something on the scale as being the point at which I would allow myself, slowly, to dip my toe back in these waters.

And today was that day. (OK, I'm cheating a little; the scale about five days ago said 240.2, and it went up slightly the couple days after that. Down in Kentucky I have no scale. But I've continued to be a good boy WW-wise, and I figure even 240 is close enough.) I've been looking forward to this day like a child anticipating his birthday. From that first week on WW--the pounds come off pretty quickly for the first week or two before settling into a slower pace--I had before me the vision of myself padding the sidewalks and backroads in my polypropelene and nylon shell. And today I laced up my New Balances and headed off on my regular seven mile walk through Louisville. My plan was to run for any small portion of that seven miles, and I hoped I might make a mile overall. And I managed two! (albeit in four or five shorter stints.)

One of the key things I've learned in WW is how little food I really need to sustain myself for a day, and how little extra food one earns with exercise. In the past, I've treated any seven mile run as a free pass to eat whatever I wanted, and I managed to slowly gain weight even during my periods of heaviest running--a situation remedied by occasional periods of pretty drastic calorie restriction. WW gives one a little activity calculator, where food points are earned according to the exercise intensity and duration indexed to one's weight. My seven mile walk (or, as today, five miles of walking and two miles of running) earns one less than one might expect.

But that's simply what it is. The body needs what it needs, and our desires do not figure into it. I'm not sure how much weight loss I will achieve thru WW. I'm at 40 lbs lost so far, and their guides say I should weigh no more than 170, which means another 70 lbs. I've been somewhere North of 210 for my whole adult life, so I don't know what is a realistic expectation for me. (I can hardly imagine what running must be like at 170 pounds!) But the WW plan seems sensible and workable, and I'm happy to follow their guidance. This is the first food plan I've encountered where I can see myself continuing with these basic rules forever. One is allotted a certain number of daily points based on age and sex and weight (and exercise), beginning one's day with a 'bank' of points from which one withdraws until the bank is empty. For each ten pounds lost one loses another point from one's daily allotment, and my potential 110 lb. weight loss means also the loss of 11 points. While my starting point allotment of 38 was quite generous and pretty easy to be satisfied with, a daily allotment of 27 might be another matter. Exercise helps, but even my seven mile run / walk today only earns me 10 points. That's one big chocolate chip cookie. So my limiting factor may be how little food I can be happy consuming in a day. But for the moment I'm still losing weight apace, and I'm nowhere near feeling pinched in my daily allotment of food; so I'll cross that bridge when I come to it.

I can already see--hobbling around the rest of today like an old man--that my paltry, sluggish, segmented two miles will require at least one recuperation day before I can resume. But I'm thrilled to have made my way back.


dbackdad said...

Great post. At different times in my life, I've tried to run semi-regularly, but never to the extent you did. I'm in one of my sluggish phases right now ... not a good thing around the holidays.

One of our best friends is in WW and has been for years. She loves it and does a good job.

wunelle said...

I was impressed at my wife's progress at WW, though I thought that going to the meetings and all was unlikely to work for me. But I've come around 180 degrees.

It's all about accountability, about finding some means of owning up to how we eat. A normal person has innate mechanisms that take care of these things, but for those of us whose mechanisms are broken we must find a substitute. And the WW point system, plus the enforced reckoning of meetings, is the best system I've seen.

I've got a cruise coming up. THAT will be a test, methinks. But I intend to stick with it.

Jeffy said...

Good luck keeping up with WW and getting back into running.

I tried running for a short time a few years back, and could never keep it going for long. When I was running I figured out how many calories I was burning, and was appalled to find that my longest runs burned up less than one can of Coke. I decided that it was far less painful to just skip one can a day. It would probably do me more good to do some running, but it takes more time and perseverance than I seem to have.

wunelle said...

Two days after that first run I find my legs--quads particularly--are STILL quite sore! So I evidently was in worse shape than even I had envisioned.

A nice walk today of five miles, and maybe tomorrow will be good for a run. We shall see!

Dzesika said...

This is awesome. Go you! I did WW for a few years (rather informally, albeit, which is probably why it took so long) and dropped about 60 between that and the dancing ... but. Aside from that, I can credit the programme for finally helping me get a decent sense of how nutrition works.

Best of luck ... and walking is just as good as running!

wunelle said...

Wow. 60 lbs is a real accomplishment. I'd be happy to join your club if I can manage!

I agree that walking accomplishes about as much as running--it just takes longer! I also like the vigor of running (which can be had swimming or skiing or biking or whatever). I've walked pretty consistently even as I've moved away from running, and it has surely helped me from sliding further afield!