June 8, 2012

Strange powers

I really hope you enjoyed getting to know Matt this week! I'm incredibly proud of him for being brave: for sharing his story, but also, for making the healthy changes in his life. It isn't easy, as we all know, but it's incredibly worth it.

One reason why I asked Matt to share his story this week is because today is somewhat remarkable for us. One year ago today, we were sitting in a diner, having our first date at breakfast after staying up all night chatting over text messages.

I was instantly smitten, and over the next few weeks, we spent a good amount of time together, hanging out and getting to know one another. It became clear at one point, though, that we weren't in the same place as far as what we wanted in the relationship, and we parted ways in the end of July. We both had to figure out what our individual needs were and how to obtain and support them before attempting to share our lives with someone else.

When Matt reached out to me in October, we were in better places mentally and emotionally, but different places physically: specifically, 2162 miles apart. He mentioned doing a race in early November, and I signed up for one the same weekend, looking for an excuse to get back to Chicago. It ended up being the same race, and as he mentioned, in a crowd of thousands of runners, we crossed the finish line together. As far as signs from the universe go, I think this message was pretty loud and clear.

We kept talking, and I visited him again both before and after going to Connecticut for Christmas. In January, he came out to California, and we spent an incredible couple of days exploring San Francisco; it was so lovely to be there, not only to be together, but to be there as healthy and active young people. That was not a trip that would have been feasible for either of us two years ago.

We briefly entertained the idea of his relocating out here, found a few positions at my university that would suit him, but ultimately we both realized it was a bandaid solution. We enjoy being together, and we would both have great well-paying jobs, but the bottom line was that this simply is not a place where we could thrive, mentally, physically, or socially.

Visiting in March was the last trip before getting my fall offer from the university, and a lot of what happened then influenced my decision to decline the offer. Running a big race on city streets, which I have missed so intensely since moving to a small town. Spending time with Lorelei and Claire and my cousin Sarah, people I love and am lucky to have as part of my offline support system. And of course, seeing Matt, racing with him, taking a day trip to Madison to see where he went to undergrad and to meet some of his friends, including Steve, his inspirational frat brother. Crying as we parted ways felt difficult in December, tougher in January, and devastating by March. He is, of course, not my only reason for leaving California, or even my main reason, but his being in Chicago certainly made it onto my pro/con list.

By the time I leave California for good, it will have been over three months since we've seen each other. The distance has been both incredibly difficult and strangely easy, and transitioning into life in the same city again will certainly be an adjustment.

The difficulties of long distance relationships are obvious, namely the long periods of no physical contact. And I'm not speaking strictly about romantic physical contact, although that is, of course, a challenge of its own. But having a tough day and not being able to hug someone you love? Spending free time walking around without a hand to hold? It isn't easy.

And yet, there are a lot of things that have been simpler due to the separation. Seeing each other is always wonderful because our time is limited; we focus on positives and everything is always fun and lovely. But real life isn't like that, there are disagreements and bad days, and they can't be hidden in face-to-face contact the way they can be glossed over via text messaging and Skype conversations. In particular, eating habits are a strong concern with moving back. Since childhood, it's been engrained in my mind that food = love, and cooking a good meal for someone is one way that I can show him/her how much he/she means to me.

We've talked a little about how to prepare, how to remain focused when I get back. I've been pinning healthy recipes we can cook together, which is better for both our bodies and our wallets. Healthy date ideas are also accruing: Groupons for Chicago River kayaking and lakefront tennis court time have been purchased, races have been registered for, and fitness-based getaways have been discussed. We both have specific fitness goals, and we're looking forward to keeping each other accountable as we move towards them, forward and together.

I've been so grateful for having him in my life, he's been a terrific sounding board for all my nerves and anxieties this year in California, the stress of the transition, and any of a million day-to-day things I've had on my mind. This week, though, I think I've been particularly thankful, having read the Fox News article that's been spreading like wildfire around the blog community. Essentially, it claims that formerly overweight and obese women are still subject to certain pressures and stresses, even post-weight loss. And I entirely understand: I've written several times about dating pre- and post-loss, and how most of my issues before getting healthier are still present, and now there are even a few more. At my biggest, I was less self-conscious about my body; now, though, it's a bit of a different story. I may look almost average fully clothed, but my naked body tells the story of all its past forms. Ellen's description has always resonated so deeply with me, as she wrote that even though she may be at a healthy weight, she will never not fit in her body like a glove.

Still, I love my body. I dragged it through hell, and it survived. The stretch marks and loose skin are not ideal, but they're mine to work with. They ought not to be seen as a display of how I once struggled or failed, but instead, how far I have come, what I have achieved, how much success I have experienced. I wouldn't want to be with a partner who saw my body as anything less than lovely and inspiring, who couldn't see beauty beyond the state of my skin.

Matt never knew me at 345 pounds, or even in the 300s at all. In fact, he's spent less than 7 days in the company of me in the 200s. This is the only physical version of me that he's known, and it's riddled with signs of wear and tear. He knows about how I used to be. I knows how I used to struggle, and that I still do. And still he loves, he still cares. He challenges me to do my best, supports my recovery, and encourages my goals.

I am so, so blessed.

June 7, 2012

Matt's story (Part 5)

(The grand finale! Click here for part one, part two, part three, and part four)

After that second race, running officially hooked me. The race-day atmosphere, the rush after finishing a race, the feeling of achievement as my pace increased – all clearly positive. I set a couple of goals that, at any other time in my life, would probably have seemed flat out insane. First, I decided I would continue running outside, through the snow and sleet, on slushy paths and ice, and make myself into a winter runner. Second, I decided to run races on a regular basis – so I committed to run, at minimum, one race per month for a full year. Undertaking that goal established that running had somehow become the dominant activity in my life, and had changed my life, hopefully for the better.

The winter-running guidelines I'd come across had recommended focusing on distance, not time, and taking it easy in deteriorating conditions. I slowly increased my distances to the point where running slightly longer races felt possible, and in a December far warmer than the norm, I ran my third race, my first longer than a 5K, the Rudolph Ramble 8K.

Winter finally hit in mid-January, and I managed to fight through it.  Despite being scared that I'd ran twice in snow to that point, and never with accumulation, I ran a race in wintry conditions for the first time, the Polar Dash 10K. February's Cupid’s Chase 5K came on one of the coldest days I ran all year, with four to six inches of snow on the ground. Along with Mary, I ran the Shamrock Shuffle, Chicago’s second-largest race, in March. She had come into town for the race though, and we ran together. I went along at her pace, not a great deal off my own, until the final half-mile, when, to see how quickly I could boogie, and with her permission, I bolted to the finish. I ended with a time of 48:20, only a marginal improvement from the Rudolph Ramble, but accompanying Mary had felt more important, and it was nice to not have to only run into her at the end.

I went into the Wrigley Start Early 10K in late April hoping for a personal record, around a 10-minute mile pace, but didn't honestly expect massive improvement. The course was identical to that of the Polar Dash 10K from three months earlier, and the conditions were sure to be better. I kicked up my effort at the end, telling myself I could hurt later, and went as hard as possible for a good portion of the race. I recorded a time of 59:32, a sub-60 time, and a pace of 9:36 per mile. What's more, I absolutely obliterated my previous time, improving by 7 minutes and 47 seconds from 3 months previously. I felt ecstatic. So far, that's been one of the proudest moments of success I've experienced.

I started thinking about weight loss more intensely in the spring, and I started losing again, and I did it how I always had, though a view of weight loss at that time meant eating less and beating the living crap out of my body as often as I could manage. The problem was that during in those periods of loss, I usually felt somewhere between somewhat and wholeheartedly awful. Though hard to admit, I had been lazy for the first year of my weight-loss progress. I had chosen to focus on exercise and running, which I could feel proud of. Simultaneously, I had completely slacked off from focusing on diet. Because I viewed diet as a simple calculation of calorie intake and output – I HATED math, and refused to figure out portion sizes and calorie contents – taking significant action to improve the diet had, until this point, felt impossible.  More importantly, I had been ignorant of the complexities behind improving a diet. I ate too much of the wrong foods at the wrong times and had no clue how to recognize my mistakes.

A simple, incredibly challenging decision, the foundations of which I took from reading Matt Fitzgerald's Racing Weight, stood at the center of dropping weight so quickly – I took active and complete control of my diet in a healthy manner for the first time in my life. I had complained to Mary that my running times had not improved quickly enough for my tastes, and she recommended that I read that book. I didn’t correlate how my weight could impede my running performance; she told me it had helped her understand many basic truths about food, and imparted powerful advice about diet improvement, while tying its lessons to endurance exercise.

Laid out in understandable terms, the lessons from Racing Weight completely changed my outlook on food and diet, and helped me begin to get back on a successful weight-loss track. Certain ideas rocked me and informed how to correctly think about food; for the first time, I found myself able to consider the quality of the foods I ate along the guidelines found in the book and to make wiser decisions in choosing what to eat. I began trying to incorporate more fruits into my diet, whereas before I had eaten very few, and transitioning my meals away from cheap, near-instant-made hamburgers from McDonald's or Burger King and hot dogs from convenience stores. On those days when I completely fell off the wagon – and there were more than one or two – I'd get seriously discouraged and stop documenting altogether. The next day, I'd try to get myself under control and do my best to eat smarter.

Despite running and weight loss successes, some challenges mounted, particularly with foot and leg issues, and I did the best I could. Memorial Day weekend, I ran the Soldier Field 10-Miler, which felt like a serious trial. I learned the perils of mistiming and misjudging water and carbohydrate consumption. I stopped four times, walking a few blocks near the end, and considered giving up. I didn't, and finished as best as I could. Immediately afterward, I came to the most disappointing conclusion related to fitness in quite a while: between knee issues and an impending hernia surgery, I probably wouldn't have it in me to run the half marathon I had registered for in July. As I write this, I find it difficult to stay positive about my chances to run that longer-distance race.

In spite of short-term disappointments, I need to force myself to keep an eye on the long-term goals and outcomes. I've made some serious progress, and while hopefully down the line I can run a half, or even a full marathon, running is, to some degree, a means to an end. It supports and makes possible my goals of getting fit and staying healthy for my whole life. I'm determined to reach a point of better health so my back doesn't hurt all day and all night; so I enjoy looking at pictures of myself again; so I don't lose my feet from diabetes; so I can live on my own when I'm older; so I don't get winded running up stairs; so I don't die from a heart attack by 30, amongst other reasons.

To others considering making lifestyle changes, trying to take control and improve their health and fitness, I do have some advice to offer:
  1. First of all, accept that you would like to make a change. Identify the exact reasons why you want to make a change and focus on them as often and as intently as possible. Ask yourself – is what I'm doing at this moment contributing to my goals? Put signs up in your home to that effect. That might seem dumb, but it will motivate you.
  2. Be honest with yourself. It is possible to change your habits and your lifestyle – but it will be challenging. Chances are, a significant change will have to be made, and it will frustrate you. It will probably hurt at times, and you'll probably hate it sometimes, but in the end, it will also almost certainly be worth it.
  3. Take measurements and pictures before you start. It might feel depressing to have to record certain metrics like body fat or weight, or even take full-body pictures, but you’ll regret not having them later. Weigh yourself in similar conditions consistently. Once you get going, carefully document the changes. 
  4. Don't be shy about telling people that you’re starting to take fitness seriously – the more people who know about what you’re up to, the more who can hold you accountable and support you. Certain online groups helped me a lot, particularly Reddit, which has weight-loss, fitness, motivation, running, and C25K interest pages. I've heard that blogging can be a good tool for some. You might be surprised where you may find support if you only search a bit.
  5. Don't get overwhelmed by the tasks that you face down the line – think of it day to day. Make simple choices continually and stay grounded.
  6. Don’t get discouraged if progress is slow, or takes time – and stay realistic. I wanted to lose 100 pounds in a year. For me, that wasn't realistic, which made me mad at first, but it probably would've been dangerously unhealthy! Instead, I made steady, continued, and most importantly, sustainable progress. That should be your goal, too.
  7. Prepare for positive and unexpected things to happen down the line, and embrace the change. The first time someone told me I’d inspired them to run, I wrote it off as politeness. By the time five people who didn't know each other all said the same thing to me, I realized I had actually begun to inspire others to exercise. That felt incredible. You can set an amazing example for those around you, and can change others' lives by changing yours. Return the favor that others did for you when you were getting started by supporting as many other people as you can.

June 6, 2012

Matt's story (Part 4)

(Click here for part one, part two, and part three)

The first day of "running" on the C25K program after working a full night at the hotel felt terrible. I could barely huff it out for 30 seconds before I felt like my heart would explode, and I had to do ten intervals. Running on concrete felt nothing like running on an elliptical – so much tougher. Wth the race looming, I managed, since I didn't have much choice.

Worse, my feet and legs absolutely killed afterward – I could barely walk. Active friends, including Steve, and Adam and Lauren, two running friends in Chicago who absolutely supported my decision to start running, ordered me to buy new shoes, that day. As a cheapskate, I had used the same $35 cross-training shoes that I'd had for about a year already. I made my way over to Fleet Feet and threw down for the most expensive pair of non-dress shoes I'd bought in my life, a pair of Brooks GTS 11 Adrenalines, just based off the salesman's recommendations. Paying $100 for shoes felt more than slightly ridiculous, but if it would let me walk normally after jogging, well, it was just money. To my extreme relief, Lauren later said she owned the same pair of shoes.

The C25K program got easier, though it never felt easy. Luckily, I lived in an area of Chicago, Logan Square, well-suited for very short runs – lots of tree-lined boulevards and side streets that I could run through without stopping for traffic. Running after work made the most sense to me, since doing it beforehand would mean I'd have to stand for eight hours after smashing my legs up. When I tried, that did not turn out well, nearly passing out on my colleague a few times – running in the mornings, sometime between 8-12 hours after waking up, was the way to go. I put my social life more or less on hold to complete the program, but still squeezed enough in to not go nuts. I had a decent start on overall activity due to being a kind-of-frequenter of the gym, so it got easier and faster, once over the first hurdle. I was able to complete the C25K in about six weeks,  as opposed to the prescribed nine. Suddenly my goal went from simply finishing to actually doing decently in the run. That was a bit of a shock.

Still, I didn't see myself taking up running as more than a casual thing. I went to support Lauren as she ran the Chicago Marathon (and left before seeing her – I failed to consider her starting corral and pace) and marveled. I thought I could never attempt anything longer than a 5K.

I was extremely excited for the race, and went out to Grant Park that November morning to do the best I could with 30,000-some-odd other runners. My aunt Randie, who'd been a hotel manager and knew a bit about running and cycling, had served as a confidant and advisor for months, another key assistant with my progress. Randie happened to be in town that week, so she joined me. It felt fantastic to be accompanied by someone who would be there to help document the event and support me, regardless of result, and helped me remain calm beforehand. I found out the morning of the race that Scott had hurt himself with a minor injury, so he and Natalia,  a more seasoned runner, would be taking it easy. That didn't sit well with me, having trained for the event and hoping to have a decent time. Being the bit of a jerk I was at that moment, we started together, and I wished them luck – and promptly bolted ahead.

During the C25K sessions, I'd made injury avoidance a main priority. Thus, it served me right that I injured myself for the first time about a mile into my first 5K. The Hot Chocolate course was ridiculously crowded, and walkers swarmed everywhere in chains and families, having disregarded the regulated system of corrals. Weaving through groups of people was the only way to get ahead, so I veered left, jumping up and down from the sidewalk, running under the El tracks on Lake Street. On one unlucky stride down the curb, my right foot landed in a pothole, and my ankle rolled.

Shot of excruciation. Screaming. Biting down and holding back tears. It hurt, badly, but dammit, I had promised myself, WHATEVER HAPPENED, I WOULD NOT STOP. So I kept going, and fought off the pain. I absolutely asked myself once or twice why the hell I thought it was a good idea to run, period, hating myself for it. Within a few blocks, it was numbed, which was good, right? Surely the adrenaline eased the intensity of the pain after I got over the shock.

I finished the race as best as I could and ended with a time of 31:39 –  then nearly proceeded to slam into a wall of other runners. The logistics of the race were terrible, and people were practically stuck in the chute leading ahead. Not a great time for the ankle pain to hit – but it did right then. I realized that I could barely walk, and I had ended up on the other side of a line of several thousand people from the medical tent.

Some weeks beforehand, I'd reached back out to Mary, letting her know I planned on doing C25K and running the race. To my shock, we ran into each other as I was stumbling, and she helped me over to the medical tent. I got fixed up by the nurses – no, your ankle is not broken; yes, it’ll recover fine – and that was that.  Running into Mary at the end of the race made for a fine moment of reconciliation despite now living in different states, and it was remarkable that the timing worked out so well. From that point on, Mary now began giving me insights into running, and was, along with Steve, one of the most qualified people to give detailed, personalized advice on how to proceed, which proved an incredible help.

Despite being in physical pain, finishing that race exhilarated me. Until this point, I'd thought of running as a way to lose weight and get fit. Being informed by a trainer a few weeks into my own C25K progress that running would make losing weight actually much more challenging compared to other activities slammed me hard, but perhaps surprisingly I stuck it out, faced with that immediate goal of the race. I assumed that once I finished the Hot Chocolate, I'd feel satisfied with the results, proof I could improve my endurance, and end it there.

Unexpectedly, in the wake of my first race, I wanted to run another. Within two weeks, positive that my ankle could withstand another race, I signed up for one more 5K. This time, during the North Shore Turkey Trot 5K in Highland Park, IL, I ran with Steve, who had come to town for the holiday. He ran along at my pace and urged me on, even when I felt like I couldn't move any faster. It was another great experience ... except that the timed bib failed to work. Fuming afterward to my uncle, I said it felt like a wasted effort without an official time. My uncle, who'd run several marathons in his lifetime, simply asked me, "Why do you run?" Apparently, I'd never really considered that question before ... and it still stands as a question that I struggle to answer at times. It seemed that running became another sort of activity picked up by my inertia, but at least this time it felt like a healthier thing to get stuck on.

Tomorrow: part five, Matt keeps running, and learns about nutrition.

June 5, 2012

Matt's story (Part 3)

(Click here for part one and part two)

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...

June 4, 2012

Matt's story (Part 2)

(For part one, click here)

About that time, the dissatisfaction with almost every aspect of my life ate away at me, and I struggled to offset all of it by trying not to think. Yet it had to burst through in some fashion - and once again, physical pain erupted. Unlike last time though, the pain served as a catalyst for active change – the most significant I've made in my lifetime.

When someone would incessantly tell me I had bombed an interview due to looking like crap, or that women wouldn't be attracted to me unless I hit the gym, or that maybe I should cut down on the refined and cheap pasta I ate almost every other meal (I can't cook, and it was easy), or even a doctor telling me I might not be able to walk – walk! – easily within a few years if I kept packing on the weight, I'd get pissed, but ignore it as fast as possible. My family, father in particular, started pushing me to make changes in my life, particularly to lose some weight and get active. It pissed me off more than motivated me, and I didn't act on it – if people telling me my lifestyle sucked had ever worked as a motivator, I never would've started working in hotels, for example. I embraced my generally miserable self, was miserable to be around, and I'd get back to Facebook and miserably bitch about how I couldn't change anything even if I tried.

I never tried.

Ignoring other people was easy. Ignoring intense spinal pain which lasted for years? Not as easy.

My back hurt. My knees hurt. My feet hurt. My legs hurt. My body hurt. Standing hurt. Sitting hurt. Laying down hurt. Literally every single second of my day, the pain permeated everything. It came to dominate me. The pain got so bad almost a year previously that I had an x-ray of my spine performed. Nothing was wrong. Only by losing weight could I reduce the pain.

Thankfully, if there was ever one lifelong motivator that had proven more intense than the urge to keep my thoughts in the here and now, it was the avoidance of immediate discomfort and pain. I remember having a panic attack at age eight, pledging that I'd rather die than endure the booster shots that awaited at age 12. I could never hold my own in any sort of fight, the idea of getting nailed in the head by a baseball or knocked out by a basketball terrified me, and generally had the fortitude of a wimp. I'd try to imagine any way to get out of something that promised pain or discomfort. I started thinking about joining a gym but kept making excuses and didn't do anything. I'd made some recent changes around that New Years 2011 – a slightly better job, an urge to improve my quality of life and social circle. Suddenly, at that moment, it seemed like a chance for action had emerged, but it came slowly.

Until one day in January, 2011, I realized that unless I lost some weight through increased activity and improved diet, simply put, the rest of my life would be a living hell.

I will always vividly remember the exact moment where I kicked myself into action. I was at work, probably two in the morning, hunched over a desk that was probably three inches too low. My back killed. I realized that I had little control over my career at the moment, but I could attempt to control my body. I remembered I had lost 20 pounds in college in about two months through a combination of walking on an treadmill, eating slightly less and slightly better thanks to Jimmy Johns subs, and drinking water until I thought I might vomit – then drinking another cup a few minutes later.  I realized that working overnight in the hotel, I had a wide variety of food choices, and I didn't need to eat chicken sandwiches slathered in Caesar dressing and a side of fries nightly – I could eat healthier, or what I thought was healthier, with fruits, granola, or lighter sandwiches. I had plenty of cold water from the cafeteria. Plus, the hotel was dead and would be for months in the summer – I could have more time to think through food and drink choices. I realized I knew a few people who'd struggled and might be able to help me out.

Possibly the most important realization was that, unless I changed my life, I was doomed, absolutely doomed, to develop diabetes. On my maternal side of the family, my grandmother, great-aunt, and mother all had diabetes. Here I raced toward the same plight - and I hated needles! I would have to stab myself several times daily. Hell, I could have limbs amputated. Terrifying.

All things considered, I resolved to take action on the diet immediately. I immediately initiated what now I realize was probably a very unwise crash diet. I went from eating quite a lot of food at every meal – we're talking several sandwiches a day, fast food nearly every meal besides work – to halving my intake, if that. I didn't know really anything about different types of food or how they, or a diet change, would affect me, except that eating deep-fried food every meal was probably not smart. I just focused on eating less.  I felt like I was starving for the first few days, but I'd finally found an immediate physical challenge – eat less and deal with it – so I toughed it out. I had no idea what the hell I was doing, but I thought it had to be a better choice than eating too much, too often. Maybe most significantly, I gave up pop – altogether, cold turkey. I'd drank at least 20 ounces, usually more, of Mountain Dew or Coca Cola daily for probably ten years, despite hating it as a kid. I'd tried to end my addiction previously, but the headaches always overpowered me, and the drink ensnared me again. This time, I was broke through, and stopped drinking any sort of pop, except rarely or on special occasions - I refused to pay $5 for bottled water at Wrigley, for example. Since I hate coffee, facing working overnight without liquid caffeine presented  a daunting challenge, but I did it, resorting to sugar-free Red Bull in emergencies of four-hour-or-less sleep nights.

That week, I signed up at the nearest gym, a $20/month, bare-bones place where people did their routine and checked out. It being mid-winter in Chicago, I struggled to make myself actually go. The challenge was exacerbated as I would workout after working all night, and it was absolutely freezing and dark out at 7 a.m. Walking even from car to gym in snow wasn't pleasant. At the gym, I had even less of an idea what the hell I was doing than with the diet, screwing around on machines in random order, finding I was incredibly weak and could easily hurt myself if I didn’t get some help.

I regret that I never weighed-in correctly and officially at this point – the only starting weight reading I had was about 258 pounds, which I did with gym clothes and shoes on – so I consider my starting point about 255 pounds. But despite the challenges, I told a good number of close friends and family that I'd decided to get in better shape, and we'd see where it went.

Tomorrow: part three, he finds advice and support from family and friends...

June 3, 2012

Matt's story (Part 1)

It occurred to me recently that in nearly two years of blogging, I've never had a post by a guest blogger. My first thought, of course, went to someone with a terrific, inspirational story: Matt. A boy after my own heart, he replied to my request for a blog post with an epic novel of a response. So this week, the exciting return of daily posts here, as you meet Matt and hear about his journey to live a healthier life!

My name is Matt. I'm 25 years old, from Chicago, IL, where I've lived since I graduated from the University of Wisconsin-Madison in 2008, briefly before the economy tanked. Despite living in three states, as I grew up in the Twin Cities, I've never lived more than 15 miles from I-94. That Midwestern identity has defined me - as has my Jewish cultural background. I grew up with proud Jewish parents and joined a Jewish frat in college, although I've increasingly struggled with some aspects of that identity lately. Most recently, running has begun to define me – but I’ll get to that later.

Directly out of college, again convinced that the economic failure was about to crush my future and I'd be bankrupt if I failed to find a job that I could learn immediately and easily (thanks, CNN and Dad), I ended up in the hospitality industry. I now run a hotel during the overnight hours, and I've done that now for almost four years. Most people who really know me find it hilarious that I held this job down for so long, since my personality is absolutely not suited for such a position; I can't think of a single person I know who approves of it anymore. Being nocturnal – literally – is a drag. It's difficult not to feel like an outsider when you're the only person in a social circle self-denying the right to sleep after the sun has set, although the lifestyle and job can, very rarely, have their advantages. Overall, it has left me very dissatisfied with a major part of my life at the moment… but I've made it work and have learned to deal with it effectively. Usually.

Coping with dissatisfaction, coupled with a short-term outlook, defined my mindset for the great majority of my life – which contributed to my fitness and health challenges. Though an extremely short-term goal oriented/driven individual, when I haven't had have a major task to attack, at times I've ended up floating aimlessly. That's not a fun state in which to get snared, but when it has happened, I’ve tried not to dwell. Complicating this matter, I've normally found it incredibly difficult to generate goals from within myself (did I mention my job situation?), and so, in a situation where I've gotten stuck, I've just attempted to deal with circumstances as best as possible, without actually taking much action.

In terms of my health and fitness particularly, I never thought about the future repercussions of my daily diet and activity. I let the issues build and hoped I'd never need to face them. That taking action for successful change would require painful sacrifice, while not faced with dire need, dissuaded me completely. I’d always been in poor shape. My parents probably were too – my mom wasn’t the smallest person, my dad had a bit of a gut, and friends loved coming to my house since it was always chock full of sugary snacks we gorged on. The only brief time I acted toward getting in shape in my youth was an outlier six-month period in middle school when my parents registered me for swim team. As a newcomer, of course, I stunk. I lost every single race I participated in, and suffered massive leg cramping on a regular basis, which the coaches likely thought I was faking, in order to participate less. Really, I just didn't wish to drown. Despite looking and feeling a bit better, I didn't think about it much, writing it off as slimming down due to height growth. That frustration, and inability to see any progress as earned by my efforts, led me to quit as soon as possible. I went back to spending hours online or playing video games, rarely getting outside.

Things got worse from there. In high school, working at Culvers, a fast-casual restaurant, I didn't care whatsoever that eating some combination of fried and breaded chicken tenders, Reuben sandwiches, French fries, cheese curds, and frozen custard a minimum of four times a week for three years might turn out badly. During most of college, I had an absolutely terrible diet, though despite joining a fraternity, I didn't drink alcohol excessively often. I did frequently become dehydrated, partially thanks to living in a dormitory which lacked a water fountain, and partially due to a penchant for downing two-liter bottles of Mountain Dew – in one sitting. Except for my Freshman year in Madison, where I tried to eat a bit better and walk on the treadmill for an hour a night, which resulted in about a 20-pound loss of weight, abruptly regained when classes resumed, I never exercised. 

Having ignored years of increasingly insistent warnings that I needed to get in shape – which had no motivational impact – I faced the first major manifestation of physical problems around that time. One day, just walking around, I heard a snapping in my knee, and it exploded into excruciating pain. The shooting feeling became persistent, though slightly dulled, long thereafter. When I went back home for a break, the doctor informed me the tendons in my knees had worn down. He guided me how to repair the damage with very simple exercise. Leg lifts, three reps of 30, three times daily – not hard. But the routine hurt. True to form, I did it for a short time, quit, and chose to not think about it.

I also preferred not to think about the rather obvious ties between my terrible state of fitness and how people related to me and how I felt about myself. I didn't date in college, despite my interest in more than a few women. I probably wasn't treated the best by some acquaintances and "brothers" in my fraternity – comments here and there, looks, a chant that the fraternity created to address me ... that in particular seemed funny at the time, but now I see it, to a degree, as mocking. Internally (likely directly related to my physical deterioration) was what I assumed was a case of depression – which, despite being vividly aware of a pervasive family history of depression, including instances of suicide in every generation before (and recently including) my own, I chose not to address.

Graduating college a year early and proceeding to waste the precious time I earned through hard work with a pointless hourly job for the next few years; living on my dad's couch for 12 months and having no friends in the state; then moving into the city and making superficial improvements, but still feeling totally disassociated from the community around me; and generally not knowing what the hell I could do to improve the situation – if that hopelessness is not a rock bottom point, I can't describe what would be. I ate total crap and drank pop nightly to stay awake at work, felt co-dependent within a relationship that I came to realize wasn't a good fit, and generally didn't care about anything except avoiding pain and seeking positive immediate stimuli.

At that time, I probably weighed about 260 pounds. Maybe more, maybe less. I thought I saw a scale read 270 once, but I hoped it was an illusion.

Tomorrow: part two, his "last straw" moment...