Certain people have made an incredible impact on helping me improve my fitness – and life – and here the first, Steve, assisted me. Close friends in the same college fraternity, we'd both been rather huge guys who loved fried foods and ate far too much of them, were of comparable weight, and we now would both freely admit we collectively looked like hell. We were talkative and had our own, shall we say distinct, senses of humor. We ran the nitty gritty details of our fraternity that nobody else wanted to deal with. We weren't the in-crowd. The difference was, in the time since I'd left Madison, Steve had dropped a crazy amount of weight and was now near-unrecognizable. He ran and lifted on a regular basis. He'd made a few major lifestyle changes which might have helped nudge him along differently than mine, but it didn't matter – he absolutely knew what he was talking about and had run this route before. I called Steve up and told him about my decision, and he was absolutely supportive. We discussed how I should get started for no less than two hours, and he said he would buy me "The Idiot's Guide to Strength Training" and a Blender Bottle. It came a few days later and provided me the basis for figuring out how to have workouts that were productive in any sense, and hopefully how not to break my arms and legs at the gym. Also, Steve, and others, warned me that I was potentially endangering myself by keeping to such an extreme calorie deficit. They urged me to eat a bit better, but not starve, either, so I eased more food back into my diet. Frankly, without Steve's assistance and example, I'm not sure I ever would have gotten started. If I had independently, it could have ended very badly.
I began following the advice in the "Idiot's Guide" to the letter and went to the gym initially as much as possible – four to six days a week. I lifted light weight with machines mainly, and incorporated some cardio in the form of the elliptical. The first few days working on the elliptical were incredibly painful for my knees. I could barely walk afterward, on the verge of tears. I recalled my doctor's advice about leg lifts and tried it out immediately after. Doing those exercises felt even more intensely painful, but I could walk more easily afterward, and they got easier before long. I focused far more on the cardio aspect of things than the lifting, which I despised, working my endurance up to being able to spend an hour at a time walking on the elliptical with high resistance. I found a radio podcast I loved, and used listening to it as motivation to stay at the gym working out. I began making some progress. And my back pain started easing off, slowly.
Within just the first month or two, between the crash diet and intense efforts at the gym, I dropped somewhere between 15-20 pounds, and kept it off. I felt a bit better physically. My family was clearly shocked and pleased that I'd gotten my ass into gear so unexpectedly. Not a very private person, I kept blasting out updates to the world on Facebook and in conversation, maybe trolling a bit for encouragement and attention, but mostly proud of the work I was doing, and unashamed to share it. People started making comments. I felt better about myself.
Since that moment I'd decided to make a change improving my fitness had become the centerpiece and focus of my life. Still, I didn't take the next step of sacrificing in other parts of my life to embrace that change. For the next nine months or so, I fell into an odd pattern of attempting to balance my social life, work, and the gym. When I had nothing going on, I'd try to get to the gym as often as possible – four, five, six times weekly, and do the best I could. Simultaneously, for the first time, well, ever, I began having a more active social and dating life. When I was dating someone, or trying to meet up with friends more frequently, or started getting to know a new group of people which was happily occurring much more frequently, I'd devote a good amount of time to getting together. That would totally rock my sleep schedule and leave me beat – no time to work out, so fitness went right out the window. I just didn't think about it for some time. That created a situation where I willingly plateaued my progress for weeks or months at a time. In those first eight months of mindfulness, I probably only consistently kept to the gym for more than two weeks at once maybe five or six times. I can't really say what would bring me back to the fitness fold every time. Sometimes it was a slowing of the action with nothing else to do, but also at times a resurgence of significant pain, or the realization that I hadn't lost any weight in three months. When I thought about it, I acted on it.
The scale readouts gradually descended, as did my expectations for what was an acceptable weight. For months, maybe five or six until summer, I hovered around 230-235 pounds, which, compared to 255, wasn't too bad! It made a significant social impact, so I accepted it for that time. Then, I kicked the gym up again and got down to 225, which lasted for quite the long time, probably another four months, until the autumn. Progress felt slow – maybe 30 pounds in eight months – but it was progress all the same.
I also didn't do much about my diet during these months, besides eat less. Since I'd been warned off of eating far too little and thus accidentally killing myself through starvation, I made sure to eat what I considered enough. I still ate a lot of crap. I sometimes took into consideration my doctor's recommendation to eat at the same places – but just eat better! Or, what I perceived to be better, meaning really only less fried foods and grains slightly less often. I still hit up all the fast food joints frequently and did my best, when I thought about it. It helped that I had dated Mary, a woman who was working on improving fitness and heightening weight-loss and had come incomparably further in her progress than I had. And although I hit one of those plateaus while with her during the summer – and probably unwittingly derailed her diet once or twice by insisting we eat terrible foods and insanely delicious Mexican churros and Italian ice in her neighborhood – she gave me some ideas about how to eat better and maximize my activity. Further, it seems she planted the idea deep in my mind that I would be able to take up running at some point, which would, apparently, prove rather important later on.
In September 2011, my friend Scott asked if I wanted to run a 5K race with him and his girlfriend, Natalia. I'd met Scott in Chicago in the months directly leading up to the moments when I initiated my health and lifestyle change. He knew how important it had become to me, and I had hit another rut around this time, and it wouldn't have been a shock if I'd told him that. Considering the opportunity, though apprehensive for a few moments, I realized there were about two months until the race – which would be the correct timeframe to try out the Couch to 5K program that I'd heard about from Mary. I remembered her telling me that she'd barely been able to get around, much less run, by sticking to the program, she got successfully going.
With that comfort in mind, I agreed to run the Chicago Hot Chocolate 5K in early November, with the goal of simply finishing. I researched the C25K program and printed out the details, and I committed to finishing it on time and taking it seriously. I got down to business in mid-September, or more accurately, I tried to.
Tomorrow, part four: Matt starts running...