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 had to plan around it on distance days. I’d get ready in the cool of the morning, filling my water pack, putting trail mix and cookies in my fanny pack, reloading the backup battery and connector for my phone, choosing an audio book that would last four hours, applying sunblock, and starting my GPS tracker. When I came back from running as many as seventeen miles, I wouldn’t have much energy. If I let myself sit down before eating something, I was in trouble. I had to resist it for at least long enough to take a shower and eat Second Lunch. What was waiting for me was The Plunk.
I would plunk down on the couch and more or less melt into the cushions. I’d become a sentient pillow. I would be exactly like my dog, who comes back from a run and drops onto the tiles, legs splayed out in every direction. He can run six miles and be asleep four minutes later. Most of us aren't sleep experts like Spike, but we certainly feel that same urge to plunk.
Everyone should plunk sometimes. It’s a good thing. Everyone should have a safe and peaceful place to relax completely and forget the cares of the world. I especially recommend the group plunk. My pets are enthusiastic supporters of this system. We all signal that it’s time and the plunk is here. The apes read a book, the dog sleeps, and the parrot preens and cleans every single feather, which is a lot of feathers indeed. We reinforce each other’s sense that the world has paused for a little while, and none of us are going anywhere until those pages are turned, those sleeping paws are twitching, and all the feathers are in the correct place.
The trouble is that the plunk doesn’t work properly when anything important is left undone. It’s impossible to blend into the upholstery properly when a nagging thought lingers in the mind. Open loops are the enemy of the plunk. I may be pretending to plunk, I may be attempting the plunk, I may be making my best effort to set a new plunking record. It’s not going to happen if I’m really spinning my mental wheels over something I know I should have done.
The key to plunking properly is peace of mind. That starts with eliminating the most important task early each day. I have to recognize resistance in myself and crush it. Anything that makes me dread taking action is automatically the most important thing of the day. Anything that gives me a feeling of extreme reluctance, exhaustion, anxiety, disgust, annoyance, or desire to enter the Witness Protection Program and change my name? That’s the thing I have to do. I know I can never get a decent plunk if I’m stewing over something that serious in my life.
The other key to a truly satisfying plunk has to do with situational awareness. I can’t plunk right if the room is in disarray. Entropy is the heart’s desire of the universe. It’s possible we were given free will, language, and the ability to use tools specifically to combat entropy in our personal environment. I want to be able to look around at a glance and see that all is well. I know where to find my keys, phone, sunglasses, wallet, and shoes, even though I won’t be needing them for a while. I can’t see any unfinished work. I don’t have a stack of unsorted mail. I don’t have a pile of unfolded laundry. I know from long experience that my life is easier when I spend the requisite fifteen minutes a day putting away laundry, five minutes sorting and processing the mail, and sixty seconds collecting my Important Daily Items. That stuff is done, and therefore, I can plunk freely.
The final plunk of the day happens after the sun goes down. It’s bedtime. It starts with the Fluffy One, who starts getting edgy at 8:00 PM. She needs twelve hours of beauty sleep, and nobody is plunking when she starts calling for bedtime, that’s for sure. Our little woofie insists on getting his teeth brushed. Another day is done. We know it’s time to wind up shop for the night. Start the dishwasher, check the locks, turn out the lights, floss and brush, and go to bed. A steady routine helps prevent those sit-straight-up, facepalm moments of forgetting important details. A few minutes of attention to a list of habits is reassuring and comforting. We can lay our weary heads down on our pillows and drift off into the ultimate plunk, knowing we’ve done everything that was asked of us for the day. Time to rest and spend a few hours in the land of dreams, where the cares of earthly life are not allowed to enter and don’t technically exist.
YES!!! THIS BOOK!!!
If you are frustrated with your body, if you have poor body image, if you hate exercise and hate the gym, and especially if you’re procrastinating going to the doctor because you don’t want another lecture, then this is the book for you. Michelle Segar gets it. THIS is the book everyone should be reading in phys ed and in medical school. It talks about the difference in mindset between those of us who feel locked in struggle with our own bodies, and those of us who thrive on exercise.
I’m a marathon runner who used to have fibromyalgia, thyroid disease, and migraines. I also used to be obese. If anyone understands the complicated combination of negative attitudes toward physical fitness, I am that person. Segar understands that the missing key is how we feel about the very idea of moving our bodies. When we think it’s a chore, that we “should” do it, that we’ll be lectured if we don’t, or that it feels physically awful, then there’s no way we’ll do it. That’s deeply sad if moving differently is the only way to release ourselves from chronic pain, stress, and/or depression.
Recovery and healing count toward ‘physical activity’ too. Speaking from experience, physical therapy can be an exhausting workout. For some of us, we have as far to go from minus 1000 to zero, as others do to go from wherever they are to a marathon. I can also speak from experience when I say that zero feels like a victory when you finally get there.
No Sweat starts with what to do when exercise feels like failure and humiliation. What do you do when you’ve already made so many commitments you weren’t able to keep? How do you trust yourself to make more, when you’ll probably just let yourself down again? Segar cites a study saying that those whose motivations to exercise included “weight loss” and “better health” spent the least amount of time exercising, up to 32% less time than people with other fitness goals. We’re not able to think about the long-term future in any meaningful way, and if we want to succeed, we have to frame it in a way that feels like immediate gratification. For instance, my main reason to exercise every day is that I feel like a broken box of dry noodles before my workout, and then afterward, I feel like Mary Lou Retton on a sugar high. That only became my motivation several months after I started, though. The first several weeks didn’t feel good at all! I just believed that eventually it would, and I kept going long enough to prove it.
“It’s time to stop choosing the wrong reasons for exercising,” says Segar. Emphasis hers. This is just from the first chapter of the book, and it gets better from there. She is absolutely right. For some strange reason, everyone seems totally obsessed with body image issues right now. That doesn’t click with me. Whatever I look like, deal with it; it’s none of my business what other people think of my appearance. What works for me is to tune into how it feels to live inside my body every day. That used to be a place of constant pain and confusion. Once I learned to change my body composition and my postural alignment, once I fixed my nutrition and my sleep issues, I learned to tap into the natural analgesic (pain-relieving) effects of exercise. Instead of pain, I had a glowing, energized, pain-free feeling that lasted for hours each day. It changed my life. My motivation won’t be the top one for everyone, but everyone can have something. Whether that’s time for some private headspace, the resurrection of a buried passion like dance or yoga, a way to exorcise anger like kickboxing, or something else, reading No Sweat can probably help you find it.
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.