The distance between fat and fit begins with transforming “I”.
When I was six my parents divorced and I began putting on excess weight. My biological mother is a type 1 diabetic. Diabetes requires a control of food, especially sugars, and she transmitted her food control issues to her children. As my parent’s marriage dissolved my sister and I found refuge in forbidden foods. Eventually I chose to live with my father who had secured my affections in a salvo against my mother by letting me order a non-kosher meal after one of their first major fights. My father allowed me to make my own decisions about food and I denied myself nothing. I packed on the pounds and found joy in working with media technologies – the refuge of the sedentary. During annual state physical fitness tests I would refuse to participate because I felt it was pointless to try hard just to come in dead last. There seemed to be naturally athletic kids and then the rest of us. Not helping matters was my growing attachment to the iconoclastic punk movement. My rejection of state sponsored metrics was an embrace of an antiestablishment gestalt that would seed my adult attitudes.
Junior high school and high school were marked by my inability to get laid. In 1980’s America, fat kids didn’t get play. Maybe things are different now with rainbow bracelet parties at Bar Mitzvahs but I suspect that the popularity of vacuous heroin-chic thin skanks like Paris Hilton are still setting the sexuality bar at a low BMI. Was my intense sexual longing a result of denied access? Or was that part of my genetic makeup along with my Ukrainian potato farmer’s tendency to pack on weight for winter? When I was finally able to find a girl who was interested I was still filled with body shame. I left high school after tenth grade to enter college early to an oasis of sex, drugs, and rigorous academia. My greatest efforts in academia resulted in a C average, and my greatest efforts in sexuality resulted in being a chunky virgin at the close of my sophomore year. Everyone, it seemed, was having sex but me. And yet, I still refused to participate in sports, rejected the physical education requirements, and ate to feed the depression over feeling unattractive and asexual. Somehow in the behavioral therapy Kung Fu I undertook in high school I never attacked the links between food, exercise, and frustrated sexual urges.
Physical fitness and sex are intertwined – countries on the same continent, sometimes at war with one another and constantly feuding over borders. Sexual confidence must be conjoined with physical confidence. Ugly Lotharios know that it does not matter how they look, only how they feel about how they look. While arrogance is never attractive, humble confidence touched with bravado is powerful stuff. It wasn’t until I fell in love for the first time – unrequited love that lasted for several years – that I had an opportunity to understand those facets of sex and the body. I began to understand that a lifetime of comparing myself to others was damaging.
I met the woman who would become my wife when I was 23. This was after several years of living in Los Angeles, a few disastrous relationships, and some reclamation of my body through acceptance, tattoos, and smoking-related weight loss. In fact, I quit my three-pack-a-day habit cold turkey the day before our first date. Nine months later, she moved in and we put on a tremendous amount of new relationship happy fat. Our desire for one another never ceased, which was a critical part of our relationship’s evolution. The core values of our partnership aren’t based on temporal physical body parts. One day we will be old, wrinkled, and saggy and there will be more than just faded lust keeping us together.
In 1999, with the encouragement of my partner, I was able to quit my full time tech job to focus on writing. In the months leading up to quitting, I had to break the habits that tied me to working a 60-hour work week. That included not dining out five days a week with friends and coworkers. I started running on the beach. My running consisted of jogging until I got tired, then walking a bit, and then running again. I would run from Venice to the Santa Monica Pier, and then back to work for a shower and quick lunch at my desk. This sub-three mile run was a great break in my day, it made me appreciate working near the ocean, and it also was the first time I found something other than sex that isolated my thoughts into singularity. (Though I did call it my monogamy run as the stretch of beach between Venice and Santa Monica is filled with incredibly good looking people. The motivator was not to to die in front of hot chicks.) I was never good at running, merely passable and able to do it for longer and longer periods. When I finally quit the job I also quit running, something I did without emotional guilt. It was something that had to be mine, something I did for myself and no one else.
Goda Yoga opened in downtown Culver City in the fall of 2000. They offered an introductory weekend workshop that intrigued my partner enough to sign up and I joined her. The women who own the studio ran the workshop and though I went primarily to support my spouse, I was dumbfounded with how much I enjoyed the practice. We went to classes three times a week and formed a deep friendship with one of the teachers. It was through yoga that I began to understand that I could participate in a physically challenging activity that had nothing to do with the person on the adjacent mat, competing with others was futile as we have different bodies, different habits, and different lives. My time on the mat expanded the space between joints, elongated tight muscles, and connected my conscious mind to parts of my body that had been on autopilot my whole life. The biggest change I experienced was my relationship to my body. Comparison and competition were stopping me from being a physical person. The crippling fear of coming in dead last, looking stupid while trying something new, or not being good at something the first time out had stopped me from trying. Yoga changed everything. I was lucky to find a teacher who led a secular practice with a rigorous focus on forging connections between the mind and body. She knew her anatomy, was unafraid of a challenge, and would only praise us for showing up – regardless of results.
My wife and I did yoga together for several years until our work schedules and teaching needs made it almost impossible to maintain a regular practice. My wife started doing workouts at home and I started to drift. Part of that drift was that I had plateaued. My body had changed structurally – a longer neck, a rotated pelvis, more open hips, better breathing, und so weite. But I was still a big guy doing yoga and I started to put on weight again.
In July of 2005 my father was hospitalized. Twenty years of being a professional glutton had caused a massive chain reaction of gastrointestinal horror. He developed pancreatitis, his gall bladder shut down and he had cirrhosis of the liver. A devout foodie, he had succeeded in turning himself into foi gras and very nearly died. I flew back to Washington, D.C. to sit with him in hospital and tend to his very personal needs. For a week I faced the future of my genes when combined with a life committed to fine dining and sloth. At an early age people would remark how much I looked like my father. There is no greater motivator than seeing your future self lie near death in a hospital bed from a preventable catastrophe. Thanks to a great surgeon, my father’s refusal to give up, and my stepmother’s indomitable will, he did pull through.
It was long overdue to change my diet. My wife and I searched for a plan that would work given our lifestyle. The Weight Watchers core plan was the clear winner. Both of us are obsessive about any number of things and the idea of counting “points” would have driven us insane. The core plan meant we could eat whatever we wanted, whenever we wanted, as long as it was considered a core-approved food. Core foods are high in dietary fiber, low fat, with zero sugars, zero flour, and few starches. Single ingredient complex carbohydrates, lots of vegetables, lean meats. The diet worked amazingly well. I went from 219 lbs to 181 lbs over the course of a year at the steady rate of 2 lbs per week. Getting compliments on the weight loss was pretty fantastic; everyone seemed to notice. For the first time people from all different parts of my life commented on how good I looked. It had taken almost 25 years to experience physical praise from peers.
The diet related weight loss had a profound effect. First, I had changed my relationship with food by breaking up with sugar and flour. My love of carbohydrates was a big factor in retaining weight. Second was acknowledging that I seek love and comfort in food. There are times that I just want to shove food in my mouth until I am full. This may not change, but there are foods I can do that with that are safe. I can eat popcorn made with small amounts of olive oil. I can chow down on a massive bowl of spinach and corn with nonfat dressing. One could say this is like saying indulging a rape fantasy with a Real Doll: by not addressing the core psychological issues I’m a fat time bomb waiting to explode. But in this obese-demonizing age something happened to me when I changed from being a fat man to being just a man. It was how I felt when people looked at me – it was subtle confidence touched with bravado. This was new ground.
I live near the Ballona River, a waterway that extends from mid-city to the ocean. From my house it is 5 miles to the water. I decided that I would try running again, just to get out of the house away from my desk. I strapped on a neglected pair of cross-trainers and hit the road. Having shed a lot of weight and changed my body’s structure through yoga I found that running was not only easier, but incredibly satisfying. A friend told me that I should try intervaling – run for 3 minutes and walk for 1. This immediately improved my stamina and distance. Just running three days a week doing intervals climbed my mileage up to 4 miles in a few weeks. This same friend, a mother of two who is more involved in her kid’s lives than any other mom I know, also took up running around the same time. She asked if I was interested in running a 10K race. I agreed, thinking it was time I set a goal for myself. Signing up for a race meant I had to put in the miles – regardless of how I felt. That first 10K was terrifying and exhilarating. I ran with my friend and a friend of hers, a dad who has run several marathons. Most of my training was done alone, but every few weeks we’d get together and put in some miles.
I signed up for a few more 10Ks with the same friends, after which they suggested a half marathon. By this point I was running 5/1 intervals and averaging a 12 minute mile, getting out about two to three times a week. A 10K was no longer scary – it was a weekend run. I signed up for the half marathon with the same terror I felt for the first 10K. But the terror got me out and putting in the miles. Without the encouragement and support of my wife and my running friends, I sincerely doubt that I would have continued past running a few miles. The Long Beach half marathon was, like my first 10K, physically the hardest thing I’d ever done. Perhaps it’s a cruel biological trick, but I do not get a “runner’s high”. Running is never easy, but sometimes after about 9 or 10 miles it gets really, really cool. Not an endorphin release, not a blissed-out glow, but a feeling of a machine operating at maximum efficiency. Mind focused, body willing, breath natural and strong. After the first half marathon the three of us started upping our long run mileage until we were at sixteen miles. The third half marathon was the clear indicator that it was time for the Big Show.
I signed up for the L.A. Marathon in utter disbelief. I knew I had been running for months and getting stronger and faster the entire time. But somehow 26.2 miles still seemed insane.
On my 32nd birthday in January, 2007, the three of us ran 20 miles with the Pasadena Pacers some two months out from the marathon. It was a great, exhausting run. After four hours of running I was covered in salty sweat, wrung out, and delighted. But there was something else – something new I couldn’t yet identify. A tipping point of release I had touched but not quite hit. Not a chemical release of endorphins, but a darker creature. I drowned my fatigue in a monster BBQ dinner with friends and bookmarked the strange feeling to explore later.
A month before the marathon my super-mom friend and I were supposed to run a 23 miler. She couldn’t make it due to illness and I decided to run it alone. Around mile 19 I “hit the wall” for the first time. I was close to home on a path I knew well, but I was spent. I walked much of the last few miles, jogging when I had the energy, but I was toast. Perhaps I didn’t prepare enough the night before. In the past I had rewarded my long runs by taking the dough bus to pizza town or the ziti train to pastaville the night before knowing I needed every last carb to make the distance. For whatever reason I just had a regular, mostly “core foods” dinner. I went to bed late. Whatever it was, I ran out of gas. When I finally hobbled in through the front door, I fell onto the floor and wept. I remembered that people had told me not to stop moving after a long run, and I picked myself up off the floor and went about getting cleaned up. But by doing so I had ignored the dark creature who was gradually getting more insistent.
March 4th, 2007 was a beautiful, hot day in Los Angeles. The marathon started in Universal City and took a long, slow, 12 mile downhill into the basin. Those first miles were slow going, the crush of 26,000 people sorting themselves into pace groups and finding friends in the shuffle. By mile 5 the three of us were doing great, sailing through Hollywood and snaking through the seedy parts of town. Because of the heat the fire department and kind homeowners turned on their hoses and let runners get drenched. Miles 5-18 were spectacular – keeping a solid 10 minute/mile pace surrounded by men and women of every race, color, and creed cheering. 26,000 runners and thousands of spectators telling each other they’re doing great, people at every step cheering, clapping, waving, and smiling. At mile 17 my wife met me waving a sign of encouragement and kissed my salty face. Somewhere at mile 18 I lost my friends. I had picked up a stranger who was matching our pace and at some point I lost my real friends. A few miles later I lost my stranger. I was alone, just another runner.
Miles 21-23 were absolute hell. The tendons in my left knee were on fire at mile 21 as I crossed the Olympic Boulevard bridge into east L.A. My body was in agony and completely drained of energy. I stopped for a moment to try and stretch out my leg, but discovered that was a huge mistake. The lactic acid began to crystallize and my legs howled in pain. So I kept moving. My face was drawn in pain, my legs were screaming, my breath was hot, and every part of me wanted to stop. But I didn’t. Somehow I found it; a simple, lizard part of my brain woke up and demanded that I finish. Hobbling became walking. Walking became light jogging. Light jogging became tenuous running. I accelerated at mile 24 and caught up with one of my friends at mile 25. He started to say encouraging words and I asked him not to. Suddenly I knew what my wife meant when, enervated, she would say, “please don’t be nice to me” – any emotional reaction was enough to go sailing over a precarious edge when all I wanted to do is collapse. Instead, I encouraged him and we made it across the line together after 5 hours 33 minutes and 58 seconds. That’s when the dark monster roared.
The monster was Control itself. For 26.2 miles, for 26.2 years I had been using every brain cell to try and control my body. Food, sex, exercise, it was always about control. Controlling myself, controlling how others perceived me, controlling what my body did and when. I even started running again because I wanted to control more parts of my life! But the marathon had done what no previous physical activity had accomplished – it whittled away every ounce of mental resistance. I broke down in great, hitching sobs of joy, pain, and utter, complete release. Crossing that finish line – a line that few people cross – meant I could, at last, let it go. In yoga, my teachers would do whatever they could to keep us in the moment – don’t think about coming out of the pose, just embrace the pose as it is and find the perfection in it. At that crowded, noisy, smelly finish line I finally understood what it meant to release control and live in the moment – accepting and then letting go of the monster led to ecstasy.
The fat man isn’t gone, he is a part of who I am. I am an athlete, I am a fat man, I am a fit man. I am a constantly changing human being. Some days I can only see love handles and a belly. Some days I see a muscular man with legs carved out of stone. The man in the mirror exists on a continuum of time; and it is only through choices I make every day that I can decide what kind of miles to put on my body. As I set my sights on new levels of athleticism I will look in the mirror with a holistic sense of myself. The man that I was, am, and want to be.