Glory days, they'll pass you by. My husband and I are middle-aged empty nesters now. He used to play football. Like the majority of former football players, he is not in the physical condition of a professional athlete, and neither are any of the other guys from his team. Even though my husband hasn't played football in many years, he still identifies as A Football Player in some ways, and A Hockey Player as well. I haven't ridden a bicycle so much as one wheel length in several years, yet I still identify as A Bicycle Commuter. It gets into you. The only trouble is when the image no longer matches the reality. The biggest pitfall of the athletic identity is when it masks the truth, convincing us that we still have something even as it is slipping away.
I ran a marathon. I ran a marathon in October 2014, which you probably already know, because I talk about it all the time. It was a defining moment in my life. Since then, I have barely run a cumulative four miles, although you'd never know it to hear me talk. I still plan to run "fifty for fifty," completing a fifty-mile ultra-marathon for my fiftieth birthday. That birthday is getting closer every day. I don't have a training plan. Right now, my plan looks like it will work out about as well as my 1997 plan to fit in my grandmother's wedding dress for my first wedding. I decided I would fit in the dress and made no further plans. Result: hire tailor to add five inches of panels to expand waistline of gown. I could very well have a waistline five inches wider by my fiftieth birthday. Perhaps much wider still. These things "happen" when there is no plan to avoid them.
Attempts at athletic prowess are worth it, if for no other reason than their ability to humble us and put our fragile egos in place. Learning the limitations of the body and enduring pain to expand those limits is an excellent spiritual battleground. Lo, we are but mortal. Almost any athletic discipline can burn the arrogance out of a person if it is strenuous enough. (An exception might be posing strenuously in front of a mirror). If you have ever worked a muscle to the point of failure, you know what I mean. You say, "Leg, I command thee, move forward." Leg replies, "Nuh-uh." You say, "Attend me now, lowly limb, move ye thence!" Leg says, "I ain't doing it." You realize that if you are going to step over this shower threshold, you are physically going to have to grasp your own thigh and lift your foot the extra inch needed. Experiencing muscle mutiny is a little taste of how things could be if we just start to slack off and quit trying. Use it or lose it.
What I've learned is that I'm only as good as the workout I've done within the last 24 hours. Not tomorrow's workout or last week's workout, and certainly not the workout I did three years ago. I'm guaranteed to think of myself as weighing my lowest weight (before breakfast, stark naked), eating my healthiest day of food choices ever, and having the most strength, speed, and visible muscle definition I ever had. I'm also likely to think of myself as having the best grasp of punctuation and the best potato salad recipe, although that last thought is simply objective fact. It's testable. It's testable in the same exact way that my strength, speed, agility, and body composition are testable. What I'm probably going to find when I test them will be hard for my conscious mind and my poor little ego to accept.
I tried to do a pull-up the other day in the gym. I compromised by doing lat pulls, because guess what? I couldn't pull up an inch, much less clear the bar. Any more. This is something I was good at when I was training for my first (and so far, only) adventure race. I'll probably also find that I can only run a mile without getting a stitch in my side and that I'm about 30% slower now. Of course, if I continue to do what I've been doing, and avoid testing my abilities, I can retain my athletic identity and continue to believe that I am in peak training condition.
Why do I even care? Can't I just continue to think of myself as intellectually superior and have total contempt and disdain for the athletes of the world, as I used to do? Well, no, not really, not any more. Now that I know how much discipline and sacrifice are involved, now that I know a little about everything that Spartan rigor has to offer, I can't help but respect the effort. Also, I have a firm personal conviction that my food intake, body composition, and physical conditioning are directly related to my past issues with thyroid disease, chronic pain, chronic fatigue, migraine, and night terrors. Why on EARTH would I want any of that back? Better the pain that I can control, better the pain that benefits me in greater strength, than the unpredictable pain that lays me flat and breaks my spirit.
I prefer my life when I can do functional things with less effort. Strength training makes it easier for me to carry laundry and groceries, to open jars and windows, to put my own luggage in the overhead bin. Running makes me mellow and cheerful. Overall physical fitness makes it easier to do the things I love to do, like travel to places with tons of stairs or high-elevation viewpoints. Fit Me is Fun Me.
My identity now is aligned more with self-honesty. Nobody cares but me. Not even my doctor cares all that much whether I suffer or overcome. Nobody else wakes up in my body or lives my life but me myself. Present Me and Future Me. I try to see myself less as "Athletic Person" than as "Person who recognizes weakness, strategizes, and works hard to make tomorrow better than today." Also, Person Who Eats Hills for Breakfast.
There are a million myths about exercise. One of them is that it leads to weight loss, which is silly. Another is that you just go to the gym and "work out" and live happily ever after. The truth is far more complicated. Our bodies are very efficient in adapting to anything we ask them to do. That means that whatever workout we choose, within a few months, it will seem relatively easy. That's why it's called a routine. It's true what they say, that today's challenge is tomorrow's warmup. We want to periodically reevaluate our physical activities and make sure we're getting the most of our sweaty-fun-times.
The best time to start a new habit is right after you move or change jobs. That way, it just seems like starting a new chapter, or a new book. There was that time when I lived at 123 Main Street, lounged around on the couch watching Game of Thrones, and ate a lot of cereal for dinner. Then I moved to 1212 Shakethatbootay Street and suddenly I was in training.
'Training' is somewhat like working out, except for something very specific, in the same way that shopping for a wedding dress is somewhat like regular shopping.
Two and a half years ago, I ran a marathon. I over-trained and injured my ankle, and the road to recovery was long, significantly longer than 26.2 miles. This is one of the many reasons that we must periodically reevaluate our workouts, so that we don't hurt ourselves. I had heard of cross-training, but I didn't truly understand what it was. It means that no matter how often you dream you are wearing a unitard and a handlebar mustache while crossing a finish line at the Olympics, you do have to mix it up and not run every single day.
Cross-training means that some days of the week you do one activity, and other days of the week you do something very different. Ideally, this will be a mix of cardio, strength training, and flexibility. There is no end to the information out there on physical culture. What tends to happen is that you dabble a little and read an article here and there, and then you get sucked into the vortex. The more you read, the fitter you get, with the catch that you are also more aware of how slouchy and slow you really are. Well, I don't know about you. You might be able to deadlift a tractor tire. I myself look very much like the bookworm I have been since I was two years old.
If I were a man, I would probably be more embarrassed about my lack of upper body strength, although it's pretty typical for a runner. As a middle-aged lady, it just means I can pass for a schoolmarm. I would say 'librarian' but most of the librarians I know can kick my butt.
Here I am, finally unpacked in my new apartment. Despite the past few weeks of packing and hauling and unpacking boxes, I haven't been working out much lately. By 'lately' I mean two years. My daily workout has been walking three or four miles, punctuated by the occasional yoga class. I'm feeling tense, crooked, slouchy, sloppy, weak, and tired. Welcome to your forties, right? WRONG! I refuse to feel like an old lady until I'm at least eighty. I know how good it feels to be in great physical condition, and I want that back. Now it's time to reevaluate my workout.
It starts with the brutal truth. All the truly rewarding journeys in life do. If you want to be wealthy, it starts by confronting your financial balance sheet, including any and all debts. If you want to be organized, it starts by confronting all your disorder, including anything you've procrastinated or hidden from yourself, such as a cluttered storage unit. If you want to be strong, well, that starts by finding your weak points. In my case, that includes chronic neck and shoulder tension, a weak core, and a sadly flat marathoner butt. I know from working with a trainer that I need to strengthen my core, glutes, and quads, and I need to work on hip stability. The strength training exercises that I do will therefore be different than what another athlete would do, such as a swimmer or tennis player.
Check that 'need to.' Whenever we find ourselves saying 'need to' or 'have to' or 'should,' we're telling ourselves and others that we're trying to fulfill a duty or obligation or responsibility. It's helpful to reframe it as 'want to.' IF I want to run another marathon, THEN it will be helpful if I do high-knees to strengthen my hip flexors. IF I want to release my shoulder pain, THEN I ought to start running again, because the micro-movements of pumping my arms really help with that. I WANT TO cross-train effectively so I can do what I love (or used to) without hurting myself. Faster and farther than ever before.
If I scrape the barrel, I can remember how happy I was when I ran all the time. I felt like my mood was at a 9 out of 10 most days. Regular Me runs at more of a 7. Chronic Illness Me runs at more of a 4. I've fluctuated back and forth through health and illness, happiness and pain, enough times to confirm for myself that Workout Me is the version I prefer.
One of the most interesting questions is not "Why should I do this?" It is actually "What is the most I can do, and how do I find out?"
I used to feel defensive about my activity level, and I felt the need to painstakingly lecture people and train them all about my various health problems, so I could prove (to them? to myself?) that I not only didn't have to exercise, but that I could not. Ever. Then I gradually realized that my state of health involved variables that I could control. One day I woke up pain-free, and I finally understood. If I was careful, if I kept records and tracked data, if I paid attention - I could stay pain-free. When the novelty wore off, I started to wonder what else I could do, and so far I haven't found anything that I could not. Why be satisfied with 'good enough' or 'oh well'? Why not try for HECK YEAH?
My plan is to run on the beach at least one day a week, as soon as I can figure out the tide charts. I'm also looking for a pleasant hilly area for my other training days. Next is two days a week when my husband can strength-train with me in the apartment gym. We're getting our bikes fixed, so we'll play around with that, and maybe I'll drop in on some classes around town. Whatever I do over the next few weeks probably will not bear much resemblance to what I wind up doing a few months further down the road. The important part is to continue to reevaluate, making sure I'm making the most of this earthly body while I still can.
New Year's is coming. This, as far as I'm concerned, is the most wonderful time of the year. There's just that big red-and-green speed bump to get over. I've already written my New Year's Resolutions because I couldn't help myself. As with every year, one of my areas of focus is physical fitness. It was that way when I was obese and out of shape and had no idea what I was doing. It was that way when I was fumbling around, trying to learn how to think and act and live like an athlete. It's that way now, when I'm confident about my strength and abilities and ab definition. My goals and resolutions about my body have been different over the years, but the one thing that has stayed the same is that I've always taken my physical needs seriously.
One way to know that there is a hidden source of power in your life is when you find yourself acting like a defense lawyer about it. Whatever you're defending is something you know you've outgrown in yourself. Imagine being an adult and trying to wear your baby shoes. Not happening. Why would anyone want to hang on to past versions of oneself from younger, more immature ages? Simply move in the direction of the resistance. The power that will be unleashed is like the eruption of a subglacial volcano.
For some of us, the resistance will be found around an expired personal relationship. For others, it will be around a safe but annoying job. For others, it will be around a substance addiction, and bless you if that's you. Enough of that now, it's time to live. For most of us, the resistance will be around body image. It's an American problem. Two-thirds of women and almost three-quarters of men in the US are overweight. I've traveled over four continents now, in nine countries, and the one thing that's clear is that everyone can always spot the Americans. There's something different about the way we do things here, and we can have a lot of discussions about what that might be. The upshot is that what has happened to us is not genetic, it's not fate, it's not a natural result of aging, and it has nothing to do with becoming a parent. That means that it is within our sphere of influence. What we resist persists, so desist and feel blissed.
(I just made that up!)
I chose to start running because it was the worst thing I could think of. I had an ulterior motive, which was to encourage my husband to work out, and I knew I would get his attention by doing something extreme. I asked him to help me. He would do anything to help me, of course, and when I couldn't even make it 1/3 of a mile, it was clear just how much I needed him. (Not sure if it would have occurred to him that I wouldn't "need" him in that way if I simply stayed on the couch with my head in a book). I didn't love running but I did love my man. I knew I had the grit to sacrifice my own comfort if I thought it would benefit him. The joke was on me, because I fell in love with running, and I didn't even make it four years before I finished a marathon.
Then I took two years off while recuperating from a series of sports-related injuries.
Now I'm getting up to speed again. I have the mentality of a marathon runner and the cardio endurance of a beginner. I went out last week and managed to make it barely over a mile. I got a stitch in my side. I was pleasantly surprised with my pace, but saddened that I probably couldn't even make it through a 5k right now, even if my family was watching. During marathon training, I never bothered with a distance shorter than four miles. I ran at least four to six miles even in 90 F heat. It's tough on the ego to feel like you're struggling to handle something which in the past wouldn't have been worth the effort of lacing your shoes.
As a grown-up, I realize that I need to respect my limits. This is part of why a middle-aged person can always out-distance people in their teens and twenties. Kids have no idea how to pace themselves. They'll sprint as hard as they can until they have to walk, then start sprinting again, and then fall back. I've been passed by people half my age dozens of times, only to pass them again and leave them behind by the halfway point. Meanwhile, I'm getting left in the dust by someone twice my age. I've seen octogenarians crush me running up a steep hill, unfortunately more than once. I love it, though. It gives me something to look forward to. One day I'll be a little old babushka thumbing my nose at all those forty-year-olds trudging behind me.
Choosing a body-related goal means including the beginner level. If we're trying to get back a fitness level we had in the past, it also means including things we might find boring or embarrassing. It's hard on the old pride. It's hard to tip over in yoga and it's hard to have the instructor come and work out next to you in step aerobics because you keep getting on the wrong foot. It's hard being stuck behind an eight-year-old child in a 5k. (Sharing all my secrets here). Just like any game, though, the challenge rounds are more interesting. That's why we play. The resistance that we beat when we reshape our bodies is the same resistance that holds us back in every other part of life. We have to remind ourselves why we're doing it: A better life for Future Self while we're still young and strong enough to make it happen.
After a two-year hiatus, I'm ready to start running again. I ran in the rain a couple of times over Thanksgiving, but I haven't gone out again since I got home. I realized that this is because I really love the regional park by my parents' house, but I don't have a regular route in my new neighborhood yet. I thought I'd share the process of figuring out where to go after the first sidewalk square outside my front door.
That's how I mentally measured distance as a novice. I didn't think much of my cardio endurance, and I figured six sidewalk squares at a time would be within my abilities. If you'd told me I'd be running a marathon not even four years later, I would have been angry that you were making fun of me.
Every runner is different. We tend to find what works for us and then become superstitiously attached to it. I have a friend who loves to run against the display on the treadmill. Some people love running in the early morning, some love running at night. Some prefer to run in groups or with a dog, others prefer running alone. I prefer trail running, something that is hard to manage in a big city.
I start with a map app, scanning the area around my house. I walk about 15-20 miles a week, generally for errands, and I want something different for running. My ideal is a large, hilly park with trails and a public restroom. Any park with a path will do, though. A surprising number of public parks have no pathways, just parking around the entire perimeter. Enjoying them as a runner means disrupting people's frisbee games, alarming their dogs, and generally being in the grass. I'll go far out of my way for my preferred kind of park, because this is my "treat" for my weekly distance day. I can run a standard/boring/shorter route on the other days.
When I started out, I physically couldn't make it around the block. I had to walk part of the way and lie on the floor afterward. My first challenge was to find a flat section of sidewalk that measured 1/3 mile. No hills! I added just 1/10 of a mile at a time every few days. A few years down the road, my first goal is to find the steepest hill within five miles. It probably takes me a third of a mile to quit fiddling with my gear. No matter what I choose, I know it's just a sampler. I'll test it out, knowing it's possible but unlikely that these particular streets will still be on my route six months from now.
I have no problem with repeating the same route over and over again. Tolerance for monotony is an important trait for running, knitting, sitting on a couch and staring at a screen, and all sorts of other fun activities.
For short training runs, I want what I call a "big loop." That's the largest possible area in which I can run laps without having to wait at a stoplight. In my old neighborhood, the big loop went around a car lot, a community garden, a gas station, and a grocery store. My street bisected it. I could choose between a two-mile loop or two versions of a one-mile loop. Urban streets tend to be on a regular grid, and it's possible to get really close to one-mile units. The advantage of this was that I could easily determine my distance for the day by doing one or more laps around that loop. Another advantage is that it usually keeps me within a quarter-mile of my house, depending on side streets.
Within the big loop are typically smaller rectangles or circuits of quarter- or half-mile increments. I like areas with a lot of cul-de-sacs. That means I can run around them without worrying about through traffic. Sometimes there are also basketball hoop stands to hurdle. Another interesting feature is that sometimes, if you run with a GPS app, you can make patterns with your route. I inadvertently drew a waving hand one night. On a big enough grid, you can spell things.
These are the factors I can discover on a map. Quality only comes with experimentation. For instance, my old neighborhood was at virtually the epicenter of the 1996 Northridge earthquake, and it had a lot of severely buckled sidewalks. I tripped on one while running at night with my dog, and tore my knee open. I learn to plan my route to avoid barking dogs, broken streetlights, hanging tree limbs, creepy shrubbery, and those predictable blocks where the street harassment never seems to stop. I learn which side of which street has the most shade on hot days, and which routes are better in daylight or at night. I learn where other runners put in their time. One morning, I was heading back to the barn when I waited at a crosswalk with a young man in street clothes. He asked me if I was training, and within two minutes, we had picked each other's brains, for he turned out to be an ultra runner. Serendipity is out there.
As it turns out, I do in fact live near a very hilly regional park. It's a big, enticing green blob on the map. I see that one edge of this blob is almost exactly two miles from my house, a straight shot down a street I already know well. I can't tell yet whether I can get in from that side, or whether I'll encounter a fence or some such. Now that the existence of this park is within my awareness, it won't be long before I'm jogging on over there to find out more.
I started running again, after a two-year hiatus. I wanted to share what I learned from developing and recovering from an overuse injury.
The day I decided that "my thing" for the next year would be running, everyone was surprised, especially me. I had never run a mile in my life, and I was 35. On my first run, I couldn't make it around the block and I had to lie on the floor afterward. I'm nothing if not stubborn, though, and I kept going, running every day for the first several months. Four years later, I ran a marathon. Untrained, no coach, adapting a training plan I got out of a book, because I'm supposedly smart enough to figure everything out for myself.
While training for that marathon, I developed tendinitis of the anterior tibialis. (That's the tendon in the front of your ankle that makes your foot flop up and down). It was so painful that I would sometimes wake up in the middle of the night feeling like someone was kicking my ankle with a cowboy boot. I got two MRIs, which showed nothing, and did physical therapy for six months, after which I was still having unexplained pain.
I attributed the tendinitis to making too many changes to my routine at the same time: changing my terrain from dirt and gravel to concrete; doubling my mileage; and changing from a barefoot shoe to a minimalist shoe. I get a strong analgesic effect from running, which is the main reason I do it - for several hours after a run, I feel total relief from physical pain. I would run, feel great, get up the next morning, do it again, and thus keep passing the buck of the developing stress injury to the next day. By the time I was really feeling it, I had done some damage to myself. I would never quit, though, or postpone my marathon to a different year. I had made an internal and a public commitment to follow through, and I would do it if I ran myself to bloody stumps.
That was dumb.
What I wish I had done was, first, to not advertise my commitment. I should have simply worked on building my mileage until a marathon distance felt like a natural outgrowth of my routine. Deadlines don't have much motivating effect on me one way or the other. I run because I like it, I want to, and it feels good. (Except for when it hurts so much that I can't run another step).
The second thing I should have done was to STRETCH for at least a couple of minutes during my cool-down. I blew this off for four years. If I had taken the need to stretch seriously from the beginning, I might never have had the problem. I traded something that is free and feels great for months of intense pain that cost me hundreds of dollars in physical therapy. Whoops.
The third thing I should have done was to take seriously the concept that there are effective and ineffective ways to do things. I should have had more respect for expert opinion. There are stretches and strength-building exercises pertinent to distance runners. I knew about them, but I disregarded them because I felt like I was doing just fine on my own. I procrastinated on learning a few basic movements that even a kindergartener can do, like high knees, partly because I was always high on endorphins when I came home. Past Self, you fool!
Physical therapy and the search for relief brought me around. I learned that my orthopedist was chronically backlogged and literally never read the notes from my file until after I had my five minutes in the office with him. He wasn't oriented toward feedback from the physical therapists and thus wasn't learning more about recovery from sports injuries. I wish I hadn't gone for the second MRI, which I now see as a cash-generator for the clinic. I have huge respect for physical therapy as a healing profession; these are incredibly dedicated and educated professionals who see visible progress in their patients every day. However, there is a laser focus on the specific area of the pain, and I didn't learn enough to prevent its recurrence until further in my Fact-Finding Mission.
I wore an ankle brace. They hooked me up to some kind of electrical contraption. I ate fistfuls of anti-inflammatories. I stretched. I did PT exercises twice a day. I did heating pads. I did ice massage. I limped for months.
A year after I finished physical therapy, I started working with a trainer at the gym. He focuses on recovery and corrective exercises. When we met, I explained my injury in a few seconds, and he immediately described all the areas where I was feeling pain and weakness. I was thunderstruck. He didn't have a file on me, wasn't looking at an MRI, hadn't put me on an examination table, hadn't watched me do any exercises, and hadn't even laid a finger on me other than shaking my hand. Somehow, he already knew more about my injury than the PT did. What was he, a swami? We worked together, and he explained that I probably had referred pain from my tight calves. He referred me to a friend who does shiatsu massage.
THAT actually worked.
What I know now is that I need to continue to do strength training exercises, for the rest of my life. There is no point in avoiding it. Hip stability exercises, core, and quads. I need to stretch. I get a lot out of using the foam roller, even though I hate it. It's better if I run no more than three days a week, even though I want to do more. I have to cross-train. I need to be WIDE OPEN to constructive feedback from any and everyone who knows more than I do.
I want to do another marathon, and I want to run ultra. That won't happen if I push myself too hard. It won't happen if I ignore my body. It won't happen if I try to be all Stoic and prove points to myself. The path of wisdom here is to make my body stronger and more resilient. If I want to show off my supposed iron will, I can do it in other areas of life. I'd like to be a running machine, but alas, all I have is ordinary human flesh.
The book includes a lot of racer profiles, and about half are women. It surprised me, when I started running, to find how open the sport is to women, and adventure racing is even more so. Beyond this, the profiles involve people with serious obstacles to overcome, including spina bifida, paraplegia, and cancer. We don't find out until late in the book that De Sena himself nearly lost his leg in an auto collision before founding the Spartan Race. There should be a concordance listing every known health condition, tabulated by Spartan who has it and ran anyway.
De Sena's thesis is that voluntarily putting ourselves through extreme conditions toughens us up, so that we can handle the inevitable challenges of daily life. He calls it obstacle immunity. "If you can handle a Spartan Race, you can handle anything else life sends your way, and that's true whether you're going blind, battling cancer, homeless, morbidly obese, or simply struggling to get through each day." He offers historical references to rugged people of the past, such as Lewis and Clark, who essentially did a marathon a day for twenty-eight months. Good point. I grew up in Oregon, and I often think of the women and children who walked the entire route, up to thirty miles a day, while the men sat in the wagons driving the oxen. Our soft industrial lifestyles would fill most humans throughout history with total disbelief.
The Spartan way makes a lot of sense to me. Social bonds, gratitude, delayed gratification, eating unprocessed food, living a value system that includes honor, generosity, and valor. De Sena talks about how to develop grit, set priorities, and become more decisive. This he refers to as the Rule of Upside Downside. Quickly assess the potential upside and downside of a decision, prioritizing health, family, business, and then fun. For instance, the upside of sitting on my couch and reading a book is self-evident. The downside? If that was all I ever did, I'd quickly go back to where I was with chronic pain and fatigue. I suspect that most of the world's willpower evaporates due to indecisiveness. Not until Spartan Up!, however, did I realize that there is such a strong connection between decisiveness, self-discipline, and positive results.
This is the kind of book that you will either love, or you wouldn't even be interested in picking it up. A life of voluntary difficulty is a contrarian life. The easy route is easy partly because it's well-trodden and clearly marked. People like it that way. Others, though, take one look at the steep and muddy alternate trail and want to run up it. I leaned that way already, but this book has gotten under my skin.
My favorite quote: "Everyone has to suffer to put things in perspective, and bitching burns between zero and zero calories a minute, so there's no use in complaining about your hardships."
We started going to the gym together before we even started dating. We were work buddies, and the company offered a discount on memberships to the gym next door. One day, I was so tired from working overtime in heels that I could barely stand up straight. I was sitting on the lawn and he somehow talked me into working out anyway. I felt so much better after the workout, one I never would have done on my own. That's when we became accountibilibuddies. The official name for it is "accountability partner" but we like our version better.
There's a popular delusion that self-care is selfish. If you get enough sleep, you're lazy, because you have to work around the clock until you're completely burned out if you want to be taken seriously. If you stay home when you're sick, you're lazy and you're letting the team down - far better to come in and make sure the rest of the office has a chance to become martyrs of contagion, too. If you eat right, you're an insufferable bore and nag. If you work out and keep your body fit, you're a narcissist and your very physical presence is fat-shaming. Nowhere in this picture is there anything about self-care as a necessary component of caring for others.
I work out with my husband because he needs the moral support. When he works out, he enjoys life more. It helps with some chronic shoulder issues that he has. But it's hard for him to get out the door at the end of the day. He'll work twelve hours without thinking twice. Being his accountabilibuddy is a service that I can do for him, a nice favor. I'm his wife. I can't help him professionally, but I can do this. He might reschedule if he had an appointment with a trainer, but when he's meeting me, he shows up. None of this has anything to do with me and my needs, other than that I get an extra half hour with him.
When I was twelve, my mom was midway through earning her two college degrees. She had a mandatory P.E. class, and part of the grade was to develop a personal fitness plan. Mom picked walking. First, she drove a one-mile route. Then we walked it together, and she timed it. We would walk together a few times a week, trying to beat the clock. We worked up to a mile and a half. We would talk and laugh and walk as fast as we could. I never saw it as a workout. To me, it was just mommy-daughter time. I loved it. We kept going for a while after the class ended, but winter came, and that was the end of that. I wish I'd spoken up more and asked if we could start again in the spring. Those are days we'll never get back, and now I live a thousand miles away.
A number of my friends have become runners and adventure racers after I started. Several of them asked me for informal coaching. I haven't run a single step of their mileage, but I'm still so proud of their progress that I sometimes cry. There's a knowing look in their eyes in those race photos. I DID THIS. It's a transformation that affects far more than just the physical. If I can run this far, what else can I do? That feeling of accomplishment and pride is one I wish I could bottle and pass around to anyone who wanted a taste. I write about my passage into endurance sports, not for attention, which I get from many honking cars, but in hope that it will ignite curiosity in others. I'm going on a fact-finding mission, drawing maps and writing notes about the terrain for anyone who comes after. Every mile I run, I think about a familiar yet skeptical face, pondering, "Can this really be done or are you faking it?"
When I ran my first 5k, an old school friend volunteered to run it with me. I probably wouldn't have started working out at all, except that we had gotten together and I saw that since last time, she had lost a hundred pounds, while I'd gained at least thirty. Oh man. She helped me find a race that wasn't already sold out, met me, let me sleep on her couch, drove me to the site, and helped me sign in and get my bib. If it weren't for her, I would never have gone to so much bother or spent that $38. We set out at what was a really fast pace for me. I couldn't keep up, and she dropped me after the first mile. I was really beating myself up for not training hard enough, when I reached the finish line and saw that I had cut more than ten minutes off my fastest time! I was so surprised I thought there must be a mistake. It was her support, plus my feeling of competitiveness, that drove me to run faster than I ever had before. That broke the ice, and I signed up for several more races after that on my own. My friend wasn't in that race for herself. She could already run farther and faster than that level. She took me under her wing and made sure I felt like I knew what I was doing. The next time we ran a race together it was nearly twice the distance.
Working out is a metaphor. I mean, yes, it's physical, and it can be grueling. The sweat, the skinned knees, the bruises, the blisters, the heat rash, the sunburns, the laundry so scary you could use it to rob a bank. Really, though, it's just one way among many to demonstrate things to yourself, and to others. Persistence. Dedication. Grit. Devotion. Uncountable millions of dollars have been raised for various charities through all these foot races, and that's something, too. One of the many things that exercise can do is to show a friend: this is how far I will go for you. I will show up for you. You can count on me. I'll be by your side. I'm there when you need me. I'd do more if I could, but for today, I'll show it by doing this.
Please let this book be a movie
Please let this book be a movie
Please let this book be a movie
Picture Jesse Eisenberg hiring Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson to live with him for a month and train him like a Navy SEAL. Now imagine that it's a true story.
This is one of the funniest books I've read all year. I was begging my husband to read it after the third chapter.
Jesse Itzler is a multi-millionaire married to a billionaire. He used to rap under the name Jesse James, if that rings a bell, although his wealth comes from various sources. His wife invented Spanx. They live a comfortable life, evidently a little too comfortable, and when Itzler sees the man he refers to only as SEAL, he knows he has to find out more about him. They're at an ultramarathon. One would think that an ultra runner would be tough enough already.
He is now, at any rate.
He somehow convinces this trueborn Spartan warrior to move into his ritzy Manhattan apartment, knowing nothing about him or his background. What follows is perhaps the best buddy story ever.
The workouts described in Living with a SEAL are unbelievable, scary, and hilarious. Anyone who enjoys exercise will be intrigued yet alarmed. Anyone who does not enjoy exercise can derive some comfort from sitting on a couch, reading this, and not being all sweaty. You might laugh hard enough to work your abs, though. I did.
I walked into the gym ready to get a membership. It's been over five years since I belonged to a gym; they kept playing Teenage Dream over and over and it never occurred to me to ask them to stop. As a restless person, I'll work out indoors or outdoors, with or without company, at any time of day, doing any of half a dozen types of activity. I can't not exercise. My options are to move my body or to feel like I'm crawling out of my own skin. When I decided to join a gym again, it was a gift; my husband asked me to be his accountability partner. I hadn't planned to be upsold into a training package. There's a price break for new members, though, and he encouraged me to go for it.
Working with a personal trainer has certain expectations assigned to it. Trainers tend to be people who have always loved physical exertion. Many are quite young and have been fit their entire lives. The dynamic tends to be a buff guy in his twenties, pushing the physical and emotional limits of a middle-aged person with chronic neck and back pain (and possibly knee pain and even more). We can't walk down a flight of stairs afterward, and many of us quit.
My husband had an experience like this. His trainer was a Navy man. My hubby has been hit-and-miss on exercise over the last few years because of persistent knee pain. An MRI revealed that his knees aren't shaped quite right. The first thing the trainer wanted to work on was: lunges. When you're a hammer, everything looks like a nail. When you're a trainer, everything looks like a problem of willpower, persistence, and strength training. They aren't working together anymore.
He warned me. "The first thing they'll have you do is lunges. Just tell them you have a bad knee."
My perspective was, If I'm going to work with an expert, I'm going to do precisely what I'm told. I'll read whatever is recommended. I'll watch documentaries. I'll take classes and quizzes. I'll get my nose down to the carpet and do planks for an hour a day. If my trainer says to DO LUNGES, then lunges I will do. I'm smart enough to be humble, listen, and take the directions I'm paying to be given. I have zero problems with knee pain, willpower, persistence, grit, determination, or accountability.
I have had a bit of a problem with obedience. This is a growth area!
The gym manager asked me about my fitness goals. I explained in about a minute that I had run a marathon, over-trained, and developed an overuse injury in my ankle. I wanted to run a 50-mile ultramarathon for my fiftieth birthday, and I wanted to make sure I was cross-training properly to avoid reinjuring myself. He took me straight to a man who is exactly my age and who specializes in recovery. I told him that I had gone to physical therapy for tendinitis of the anterior tibialis. He immediately listed off the issues that would lead to this problem: hip instability, weak core, weak glutes, weak quads. Not ten minutes after I had walked in the door, I was deep in conversation with a man who knew everything my physical therapist did after six months of appointments. The difference was that he hadn't seen my MRIs or done a physical exam.
How was this possible?
I had religiously made all my PT appointments. I had spent countless hours doing my prescribed exercises. I had frozen myself with the ice massage cups. I had tormented myself with the foam roller. (Foam rollers are pleasant unless you have a hot, fresh injury). I had eaten anti-inflammatories until I rattled. I had tolerated experimental electrical treatments. After six months, my PT had no explanation for why I still had pain. Then I meet this personal trainer, and he quickly demonstrates how everything in the body is related to posture. My ankle is stressed because my pelvis is tilted because my shoulders slouch. He knows the names of every muscle and tendon. Everything he says matches my diagnosis, except that he proposes a different root cause and a broader range of solutions. I'm sold.
I wait for a couple of minutes before my first session. My new trainer is finishing up with his previous appointment. She's in her sixties and she can't stand up straight. From the waist up, she walks at a fifteen-degree angle. Her arms dangle down. I can't imagine the pain. Bless you, honey, you need this time more than I do. You are who I could be in twenty years.
He has me stand in different positions while he takes pictures. He shows me how one shoulder is higher than the other. He draws ink spots on my kneecaps and shows me how one knee rolls in at a different angle than the other. He shows me how my lower back arches (and next time, he says it could develop into lordosis). I'm standing up straight, but without doing power poses for the camera, I can see there are issues. I look a decade older. He has me roll my arm and feel the impingements in my shoulder and back. Then he pokes and prods a couple of spots in my back that make my muscles spasm. Bad on one side but not the other. "Does it hurt when I do this?" "AAAAAAH!" Now I can feel it, I can see it, and I believe he knows what he's talking about. I'm ready to learn.
At my second session, he teaches me some basic exercises and takes pictures of me doing each one. They are deceptively simple, yet profoundly tiring. One is that I just have to sit on the floor with my back against the wall and my toes pointing up. That does not sound like an exercise. It feels like one! My shoulder blades want to stick out and poke the wall. I have to roll my shoulders back and point my chin toward my chest. The backs of my knees are supposed to touch the floor, but my hamstrings are so tight that I can't do it.
We find tightness in my ribs and chest and calves that I had no idea was there. I do Triangle Pose against the wall, and I can reach a full foot farther on one side than the other. I'm crooked!
I went in feeling like a fit person. My plan was to start doing strength training, maybe get some more muscle definition in time for our anniversary weekend. Now, I feel like I've gone in just in time to avoid becoming a wilted, frail elderly person. "Pain is the very last sign," says my trainer, and I don't want to think about the kind of neck and back pain I would be in for if I hadn't addressed my posture.
The most unexpected thing about working with a personal trainer is what he's advising me not to do. I'm walking too much and it's exacerbating the tightness in my calves and hamstrings. I definitely shouldn't start running again yet. Lunges are a no-no. (Squats, yes; lunges, no). I'm not even supposed to go to yoga for at least another week. The initial stretching workout I've been given burns about twenty calories.
If I'd simply joined the gym to work out with my husband, I would have gone straight to the elliptical machine. I would have done a circuit of weight machines, forgetting that the last time I quit doing that was because I kept wrenching my neck and shoulder. I wouldn't have realized that I was creating yet more chronic pain and overuse issues for myself. This new path is the path of reeducation. I'm already learning so much I didn't know about anatomy and physiology. AaI'm becoming aware of my body in a different way, one that unfortunately involves some crunching sounds. I've been humbled about my physical age and my actual versus perceived fitness level. I'm starting from the place of beginner's mind, and that's exactly where I wanted to be.
He had me at “Rejecting Middle Age.” I’m still doing that whole turning-forty thing, wondering where I’ll be at age 80, wondering whether I’ll even make it that far, and looking back regretfully at my lazy, confused, inconsiderate youth. Past Self! Why did you spend all my money! Past Self! Why don’t I have more muscle definition! Past Self! Why didn’t you learn to cook sooner? I found Finding Ultra inspiring and illuminating. I’ve already run my first marathon and developed a passion for endurance sports that was far from self-evident when I turned 35. I think, though, that this book would be a compelling read even if running or doing a triathlon is literally the last thing you think you would ever do. (Abducted by aliens, maybe; eat a bug, maybe; voluntarily go for a run, heck no!).
Finding Ultra begins with Rich Roll sitting in front of the TV, eating a plate of cheeseburgers with nicotine gum for dessert. He was a late-stage alcoholic when barely 30, and blacked out immediately after checking into rehab. While he was maintaining his sobriety, he fit the standard picture of a middle-aged dad in every other way: fifty pounds overweight, living on fast food, and sprawling on the couch. The book details his journey, courageously sharing dark details about his battle with addiction and the way it stole his college sports career, destroyed his first marriage before it had really begun, almost wasted his professional career, and easily could have taken his life. It’s the comeback story of a lifetime.
This is all really hard to believe from Roll’s photograph on the book cover. He’s a lean, mean, triathlon machine, listed as one of the “25 Fittest Men in the World.” Like me, he doesn’t really have any pictures of himself from his top weight. Before I got into endurance running, I neither understood nor cared what kind of milestones were reached by these weirdly sporty masochists. I read Dean Karnazes’s Ultramarathon Man when I could barely run a mile, and burst into tears on the treadmill when it finally sunk in that this stuff is humanly possible! Karnazes was describing a 100-mile footrace. Impressive, right? Rich Roll and his friend Jason Lester did five ultra-distance triathlons in under a week. That’s 70.3 miles a day: a 2.4 mile swim, followed by a 112-mile bike ride, and finishing with a full 26.2-mile marathon, for a total of 351.5 miles in six days. Okay, when I did my marathon? I had to pick up my own thigh and lift it over the 2” threshold of the shower stall, walk backward the rest of the evening because my hip flexor failed, crawl on my butt up the stairs, and sleep about 15 hours the next day. I couldn’t walk to the mailbox, much less get my leg over a bike. If I’d tried to swim I’m sure it would have ended with an extreme close-up of a lifeguard giving me mouth-to-mouth.
One of the features of the book is Rich Roll’s conversion to plant-based nutrition. In that respect, he joins the ranks of other elite endurance athletes like Brendan Brazier and Scott Jurek. I don’t write about this often, but I have been vegan since 1997 and vegetarian since 1993. I’m one of the very few 40-year-olds in my acquaintance who doesn’t need medication, has healthy numbers for blood pressure, cholesterol, and blood glucose levels, and also weighs in at the recommended amount for my height. Most of us would be glad to be able to sit on the floor and get up again without our knees cracking or without having to grab on to something. I ran a marathon and completed a mud run with a 20-foot rope climb. Now I’m looking for my next physical challenge – I want to run a 50-mile race for my 50th birthday. I believe absolutely that my commitment to plant-based nutrition is the major difference between my health and fitness, and what is supposedly “normal” for other women my age. Eat meat or not, hey, whatever. But please do track your micronutrients for a few weeks and ask whether you’re taking your body in the direction you want as you move further toward maturity. Middle-aged athletes like Rich Roll (at the elite end) and myself (at the hilariously slow end) are proof that anyone can make a major physical transformation at any time.
I've been working with chronic disorganization, squalor, and hoarding for over 20 years. I'm also a marathon runner who was diagnosed with fibromyalgia and thyroid disease 17 years ago.