In a bit of a departure from my usual topics, I’d like to write a bit about health today. Not really health in general, but more specifically the transition from being overweight, middle-aged and not very fit, to being less-overweight, sadly even more middle-aged, and reasonably fit. It might not sound like much of a difference, but for someone like me who’d spent his entire life dodging anything that seemed remotely like sport, fitness or exercise, it has been a proper big deal. Now, I’m not a medical professional, I design roads and railways for a living, so look upon this as my little story, and hopefully it might inspire you a little. Also, this is a very personal account, it includes personal triumphs, an episode of epic failure and even a few tears. You have been warned.
4 years ago I was almost 100 kilos, 42 years old, and my dress sense could be described as “stealth”, as in “don’t see me”. This was when I met WellDressedGirlfriend again and started a new phase of my existence. WDG is very much more in to taking care of herself than I’ve ever been, and having worked in a pharmacy for many years she was also very aware of the sort of health issues a man of my age and condition could be facing down the line. So she whipped me into shape post haste and since then I’ve run heaps of triathlons, lost half my weight, prolonged my life by at least 50 years and added inches to my manhood.
Well, not really. All lies. 42 years of resisting exercise provides a lot more inertia than that. First I tried eating a little less, and being a bit more careful with what I ate. I did start cycling to the train station, a 10 km round trip, all year round. I did start to feel a bit more confident though, it certainly helps to feel appreciated. I wasn’t making major strides though.
Then 3 years ago, at the towns annual fun-run, I was there, cheering while WDG ran her 5 km, soaking in the spirit and feel of both runners and spectators. After the race, WDG looks at me and says “You should do this next year”, and caught up in the euphoria of it all, I agreed. And promptly didn’t think much more about it. OK, I did half-heartedly go for a couple of jogs in the woods, which basically amounted to wearing trainers and trying to run until I either couldn’t take any more, or got really bored, neither of which took very long. I did install quite a few fitness apps on my phone, but sadly these don’t do any good if you don’t actively use them.
So, a year to the day after I’d made a promise to run 5 km in public, I’d still not been reminded about it. Was I in the clear? Did WDG realise that it would be unwise to push the point? Like hell. The morning of the race, she suddenly springs it on me: “You are running today, right?”. And it’s the moment I’ve been fearing. Do I try to wriggle out of it, or do I muster what little I have to offer and make a run of it, so to speak? I couldn’t face disappointing her, so I dug out my running gear and pinned the number to my chest.
Running in a crowd makes the experience more intense, it gives an energy boost, let’s you surge along with the flow, eases the whole experience and fires up the competitive spirit. For around 500 metres at least, when your body in no uncertain terms lets you know that that’s it, all energy has been expended, call it a day, race over. Damn! It’s at times like these I find I have some inner competitiveness after all though. So I walked until I got my breath back, then ran until I couldn’t run any more, and walked again. Doing this cycle of walking and running, I managed to keep going. I kept an eye on my pace, by making sure I had the old guy with the photo of his cat on his back in front of me, and the seriously obese woman behind me. Not a confidence boost, as such, but as long as I could keep pace with these two, and make it to the finishing line, I reckoned I’d have made a fair effort. I later found out the local paper had a video camera filming on the parade stretch, past all the pubs and restaurants along the keyside. Of course, this filmed me during one one of my walking phases, sauntering along, trying to look like I wasn’t in the race at all, no siree! No use in trying to brag about that to my kids. But, I managed it. I completed the full 5 km, a broken and worn out man. So tired I couldn’t even drive home. But I did it, and thereby proved something quite valuable to myself.
So, from that point on, it’s all super fitness extreme training and now you’re a middle-aged athlete? Well, no. Having proven to the world that I could “run” 5 km, I promptly didn’t do anything more about it. Well, I bought a pair of new trainers, but that hardly counts. Oh, and I did sign up at a local fitness emporium and went exactly twice. The second time their fit young personal trainer was going to show me the ropes and set up a programme for me. Me, 43, not very tall, but overweight. Him, 25, super-fit and muscular. The sight of both of us in the mirror just killed my motivation there and then. I never went back there. So what happened next?
Well, around Xmas 2011 the local newspaper were looking for around 20 people to join in a project to get the participants in shape for the fun run. Professional trainers and follow-up, no charge. I was very hesitant and thought about it all day before finally mailing my application. Then followed a couple of weeks waiting to hear if I’d been accepted on what sounded like would be quite a terrifying experience. And when the verdict came down, I was not accepted. And as it turned out, so where quite a few others. Then someone had the bright idea of asking for the email addresses of all the rejected applicants, I created a Facebook group, emailed everyone to see if they were interested and we started our own group.
Now, this sounds a bit less fraught than it actually was. I’m not an outgoing people person at the best of times, so meeting up with 20 or so strangers, with the local paper there to document it, was far outside my comfort zone. So I brought my girlfriend along as backup, and of course, as it turned out, noone else knew anyone either, and everyone was really friendly and motivated. So far from it being the nightmare I might have imagined, I made a lot of new friends and reaped a lot of benefits from being involved.
I’d previously tried using an app with a running programme for getting from couch to 5km in 8 weeks. Of course, I’d never actually finished week one, but for a motley crew of wannabe runners this was perfect. And this made me the de-facto leader of the group. Which was precisely what I needed! Three times a week people were turning up, to be led by ME, brilliant! Finally I had the motivation I needed. And it was fun. From our first session, at the end of January, in the dark on the snow, I hesitate to use the word running, but shambling along for 30 tortuous seconds, walking an unbelievably short 60 seconds, to the point where we were actually starting to feel like we might be runners. This point can be quiet accurately determined as the point where you think a new pair of trainers would be good. Other milestones are when you buy some proper running gear. The final frontier for a middle-aged man is when you venture outside in your new super-tight, compression tights. If anyone had bet the transition would take a mere 6 months, I’d have put good money against.
During this period, I was also being more careful about what I ate. Cutting down on the carbs was the goal, though having since learnt a lot more about this, I think it was mainly eating a lot less sugar and rubbish that did it. It resulted in reducing my weight from around 97 kilos to 83, and apart from any visual aspects, when you’re pounding the asphalt in running shoes it helps to be lighter on the foot.
After 8 weeks, most of us were where the programme had promised, running reliable 5 km runs. We weren’t super fast, but just managing to run that far without stopping or falling over, gave a tremendous sense of achievement. And from then and until race day, we worked on getting faster. During this time we had also followed the progress of our competition, the guys that had been accepted in the newspapers programme. They’d had professional follow-up all the way and were quite confident in their taunts of us.
Come race day we beat every one of them. All of my group completed, all at better times than in practice, and we all experience the high of participating. It was a great day and we all agreed that we couldn’t stop here. We had to set new goals and keep going.
So we did a second 5 km race a month later. Again, a great experience was had by all. And on that high three of us were lured into our first triathlon a month later. Not a huge, extreme triathlon, but a quite friendly local one, a few hundred people of all shapes and sizes, plus a group of hardcore national-level athletes to make sure no local boys would claim any prizes.
Now, a triathlon typically covers running, cycling and swimming. The running was 5 km, check, can do that no problem. Cycling was 25 km, only 3 times my daily ride, but through woods as well as road, shouldn’t be a problem. And swimming, 300 metres in a lake. Now, when I was around 12 I was a reasonable swimmer, since then I hadn’t swum much at all. 300 metres though? That’s not far, I’ll be fine, or so I half-heartedly convinced myself. And as the day drew closer, there was less and less time to practice swimming, so in a clear parallel to my first race, I put my trust in no practice at all.
On the day the area was covered in people. My little team had plenty of backup. WDG was there, as were my sons and my step-children. All there to support my valiant effort. I didn’t have more faith in myself than to enter in the slowest class, so we got to start last of all. Seeing everyone in the other classes charge into the water, swim their 300 metres, dash up on shore, pedal off on their bikes, I was starting to wonder if this was wise. And the 300 metres did look like quite a distance from down here by the water. And the water was quite cold.
And then we were off. We all ran into the water and started swimming. Or most people did. I stared out by swallowing a couple of real gulps of lake water, which at the best of times wouldn’t have spurred me on. I was about 20 metres out and already ready to drown. Someone signalled one of the scuba divers that I was in trouble and he came to my aid. So with his help I half swam, half rested, and finally made my way round the turning point and back to shore. To say this was one of the lowest points in my life is not exaggerating in the slightest. From the turning point I could see my crew on the beach. Alone. With the only bike still there. I finally stumbled up on terra firma, as shameful as I’ve ever been, wearily made my way over to my bike, trying to avoid eye contact with my sons and WDG. The guy guarding the bikes looked at me incredulously and said “You’re not continuing are you?”. If you were paying attention earlier on, you’ll know the answer to this one. Of course I was going to bloody continue!
So, soaking wet, I hastily donned my cycling gear and with shaky legs pedalled out on to the road. At this point, given that I was at least 15 minutes behind every other participant, cars were leaving the area, so while I was trying to pedal as fast as I could on the narrow road, I was competing with plenty of cars also keen to make headway. Luckily the cycle path parted way with the road and I would focus. And I started catching up with other participants. First the odd older ones, then younger ones. And for each one my spirit rose a little. At least I wouldn’t be last! And by the time I’d been through the 25 km of cycling, I’d caught up with over 30 others, so even though the last 500 metres of track was pure mud, I was feeling pretty damn good when I rolled into the stadium to start running. To be frank, when I saw my team standing there cheering me on, I had tears rolling down my face.
So, bike dropped, and stumbling off in sodden shoes. Just as well I wasn’t wearing my fancy running shoes, as the 5 km of running track was mostly marsh. Running wasn’t really on the agenda, apart from the odd dry piece of path, so a brisk walk was all I could manage. There was a corner just before the final and dry stretch though, so before coming into view of all the spectators, I could increase my speed an triumphantly run the final 200 metres at full tilt. And I made it. Exhausted, filthy and proud. And on the way home I vomited profusely in the car. But I did complete the triathlon!
And since then we’ve kept it up. I’ve had to take a rest from running at times after experiencing knee problems (*), but with the cycling every day all through the winter, I’ve managed to stay in better shape. Becoming a little wiser to my shortcomings after the triathlon, I’ve taken up swimming. A few of us go swimming every Saturday morning, and doing 1250 metres each time has both improved my technique immeasurably and given me very valuable confidence in my ability to swim. I’m now back running again and this time running only with barefoot shoes, working up from short runs to my usual 5 km, I was pleased to find my times are the same as my best ones from last year.
Oh, and finally, a word about weight. My initial great loss of weight last year, from 97 to 83, didn’t last forever. Over the next 6 months, when I was running a lot, but not being so good about what I ate, I put on 4 kilos again. This correlates well with the knowledge that the actual running will not help you lose weight, this is achieved primarily through eating less carbohydrates, i.e. sugar and flour. This spring I’ve been taking more care of my food and I’m now down to 79 kilos, and intend to drop down to at least 75.
So, that is my story, and to summarise the success factors (I’m sounding so professional) I believe this to be:
1) Start a running group. Group pressure and friendship is a huge motivational factor.
2) Work towards a goal. For us, the annual 5 km fun run as our goal kept us motivated.
3) Measure your results. We all run with GPS to measure distance and time. Being able to see your actual results is very motivating.
4) Follow an established programme. Google “couch to 5km” and you’ll find a programme that provably works. Similar programmes are available for other distances, and there are apps to provide audio cues while running. Knowing you are following a proven programme is valuable.
5) Creating a Facebook group provides an easy way to keep in touch, support each other, arrange times and dates and so forth. Our group has members from 23 to 73 of ages, and everyone has managed to get to grips with it.
(*) I’m not sure exactly why I suddenly developed problems with my knees. One theory is that I overdid the introduction of barefoot shoes after running only with Nike Free (which I consider to be a midpoint between traditional running shoes and barefoot shoes). Another is that I increased distance and pace too much in the cold autumn on a frozen woodland track. The third possibility is that I tried using regular running shoes, firstly too large (lots of friction heat inside), then with correction for pronation (awful), then the first in a size smaller, nothing stopped the bad trend. The result was a incredible pain on the outside of my knees. I’ve worked up to being able to run 5 km again, but still have to walk down hills. Even walking down a long staircase brings back the pain in my right knee. Hopefully time will help matters.