Thursday, March 21, 2013

On Trying Not to Suck

Let’s get something straight right away: I am not on a weight loss journey. I am not on a journey of any kind. I am in the middle of my life. I’m sure some people find the word “journey” helpful (or else it wouldn’t show up all the time—on television, on discussion boards, in conversation. I blame The Biggest Loser, but maybe it started before that). The phrase didn’t begin to irritate me until I started running with the Couch-to-5K program but, like a pebble in my shoe, it has caused more and more aggravation as time has gone on.

The first time I heard it—really heard it, that is—I wrote the following in an email to a friend of mine:

Also, you know what phrase needs to be banned forever? "Weight-Loss Journey" (oh, yes, often capitalized). I'm not on a Weight-Loss Journey. I am learning how not to suck. Good grief.

We have since altered that phrase to “I am trying not to suck,” which we think would look better on a t-shirt. Because it would. Someone needs to design one (in wicking fabric, please) and post it on Café Press and send me the money you make. Or even half. Thank you.

I also want to make it clear that I have been bowled over by the positive response I've gotten to my running—from people I know well, from people I hardly know at all, from people I only know through Facebook or other social media. People have gone out of their way to contact me, to wish me well, to ask me questions, and—and this scares the crap out of me, by the way—to tell me I'm an inspiration to them in some way. Yikes. There are way better role models out there, people, trust me on this. Some of them even already know how not to suck.

And I remain surprised, although I really shouldn't be at this point, by the people who are desperate to tell me I'm doing it wrong.

Make sure you eat enough carbs. Don't eat too many carbs. Count your calories. Don't count your calories. Weigh yourself once a month. Once a week. Once a day. Before and after every workout, so that you can tell how much water you need to replace. Run hills. Run flat. Run outside. Run on a treadmill. Cross-train. Don't cross-train. Drink something to replace electrolytes. Don't worry about electrolytes unless you're running half-marathons or longer. Eat "good fats," not "bad fats." Eat "good food," not "bad food." It's okay to be bad once in a while, as long as you're good most of the time. Run less. Run more. Run longer. Run faster.

And here is what I never say: Shut. The. Fuck. Up.

Here's another thing I never say: Tell me how much you weigh, and I'll tell you how much weight you should load into a backpack and carry around with you to catch up with me. Then you and I can run ten miles and we'll see who finishes first. Or five miles. Or one. Do that—do that just once—and then we can talk about whether my 11-minute mile is fast enough for you.

Because I'm apparently all about making things clear today, let me add that the people who give me advice are pretty much across-the-board trying to be helpful. And this is why I don't say the above things (although I realize I just did, up there in those last two paragraphs. Sorry). They want me to be better at what I do, and at least on some level, they want me to be successful. Some of them probably take some sort of satisfaction in being better than I am—and I'm okay with that. We're all constantly evaluating where we stand, and while we all have places where we don't care if we're experts, we also have different places where we feel like experts or want to establish ourselves, even if only to ourselves, as experts. I'm not above any of that, and I don't know anyone who is. But none of these people, as far as I know, is  acting out of anything but support or kindness. If there's a better way, then I should be doing that—because they care about me. If I'm running flats, I should be running hills, because it's a better workout. If I'm climbing hills, I should be climbing them faster, because it's a better workout. The logical progression of this, of course, is that if I'm not always working at the absolute hardest level I can work, I'm not working hard enough. So I should max the treadmill's incline out at 15 and run as fast as I can, right? While carrying a middle-schooler on my back and wearing ankle and wrist weights? On top of a mountain, where there's less oxygen? In waist-deep water? When you take it out to the extreme, it's easy to see how ridiculous it is, but it doesn't remove the implied (usually not stated) conclusion: if I'm not working as hard as I'm physically capable of, 100% of the time, I might as well not bother.

The problem is that I've gone about deliberately trying to make this process of mine about not being the best, not going the hardest. I am not the best runner, and I'm not going to be the best runner—hell, I may not even be the best runner I can be. This attitude is not easy for me, and it's not natural for me. I'm not saying that I do my best at everything I do. I'm saying that if I don't do my best at everything, I tend not to want to do it anymore. And that comes in really handy with things like exercise, or food, where so many of us are just looking for a reason to fall off the wagon: I haven't run for two weeks, so I guess it doesn't matter now. I ate two pieces of cake after dinner last night, so I guess I might as well eat whatever I want now. I've been watching my food for two weeks and haven't lost any weight, so I guess I can't lose weight at all. Any self-talk like that is justification to do what feels comfortable, or to punish ourselves with food, or engage in those behaviors for whatever reason we do so—different people have different reasons.

We make judgements about ourselves all the time, and our bodies are easy targets. I'm too fat. I'm too thin. My knees are weird. My hair is too frizzy. My hair is too straight. I have hips. I don't have hips. Having an all-or-nothing, good-or-bad view of exercise (or diet, or weight loss, or anything at all, really) is an extremely convenient way to make ourselves feel like crap. And while I may be good at a lot of things, I'm really, REALLY good at making myself feel like crap.

So it's been a battle. Not to run—I really love my running days—but to keep myself in check. To follow a plan so that I don't get injured and use that as an excuse to stop. To be okay with the pace I'm at. To focus on health instead of weight even while I get excited about the weight I'm losing. All together, that means that I've needed to become comfortable with doing well enough—just that, well enough. I am not fast—and I'm getting faster, especially as the weight comes off—but I am fast enough. I'm losing weight at what everyone will tell you is a healthy speed—one to two pounds a week—and on a bad day, it is crazy-making slow. But it is fast enough. In fact, my favorite days are the ones where I don't think I can make it, the runs where I have to talk myself through every quarter of a mile (or, sometimes, every tenth of a mile), the ones where I have to run my mental checklist (my breathing is fine, my legs are fine, what am I complaining about?) over and over again, the ones where I force myself to push through because I just don't feel up to doing it that day. Those aren't, I should add, my favorite days in the moment—but they're pretty damn awesome when I'm done.

And maybe that's why I have such a problem with the word "journey." Journeys have an end—and any time I've started any exercise routine or tried to figure out my eating, it's been with an end in mind, usually one that is so far down the road that it's easy to become discouraged and just let it all slide. There's also the complication that people tend to extrapolate to the most extreme destination: I lost count of the number of people who asked me, when I started talking about running, when I was going to run a marathon, often—though not always—the Boston Marathon. I weighed somewhere over 260 pounds at that point (down about 40 from my top weight), I was struggling to run 90-second or two-minute intervals, and people were asking about one of the toughest marathons in the world. It felt—and still feels, even while I'm training for my mythical half-marathon—completely unreal for me to even consider a marathon, but it was blatant insanity to suggest one when I couldn't run a quarter of a mile at once. Not only is it insane, but it's more of that insidious notion: if you're not pushing for the biggest goal you can think of, you're not pushing hard enough, and by the way, I think it's pretty hilarious that you're even pretending to do this at all ha ha ha. And that, my friends, is a recipe for failure and fuel for self-loathing. It's sometimes well-intentioned fuel, but you know what they say about good intentions, especially when we're talking about roads.

Journeys have destinations, but the fact of the matter is that there is no destination here. There will likely never be a time when I won't be at risk of punishing myself with food. There will never be a time when I will be able to say, "Okay, I'm healthy now, so I don't have to do this anymore." I need to be aware of the process, and comfortable with the process, because it is just that: process. It is not going to end until I do. I suppose in that sense, it's a journey, but please. That journey is going to come to an end whether I eat well or poorly, whether I run or not, whether I weigh 700 pounds or 150. It's process, and it's work.

The battle is with the process, but mostly it's with myself. The people who offer advice and/or criticism wouldn't bother me a bit if I were 100% comfortable in my own head. I wouldn't feel compelled to justify my program, or to point out the fact that it was designed by an expert, or even to write this post in the first place if I were not in combat with myself much of the time. But the fact of the matter is that it's working—I can run ten miles and am scheduled to run eleven on Sunday; I can often make decisions about my food without beating myself up or rewarding myself with it; I can still find joy in slow, sustained weight loss and incremental improvements in my speed or endurance. I am simply trying not to suck, and that is one of the most ambitious goals I've ever set for myself.


  1. !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

    That is all. xo

  2. love this post!
    As someone happy to be plodding along like HoneyBooBoo at 12:30 minute miles, your 11 minute mile looks like a cloud of dust zipping past me saying "Andale, Andale!


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