How the fittest I’ve ever been became the unhealthiest I ever was

In the fall of 2012, as I was about to start my second full year of teaching, I also decided that I wanted to run a marathon. I’d run five half marathons at that point, and a couple of triathlons, and it seemed like the next big endurance hurdle to clear. My fall teaching schedule and the subsequent play I was directing did not afford me a lot of extra time to train for such an endeavor, but as I was in pretty decent shape already from a summer of running, I figured my best bet would just be to try to maintain that level of fitness as long as possible, and when my fall activities wrapped up, ramp up my training from there. Cognizant of the fact that I wouldn’t really be able to run quite as much as I had during my free time in the summer, I also decided that I’d have to adjust my training diet down to accommodate for my lessened training schedule. Thus, I became a calorie counting fiend, and my first experience with the serving size experiment began in earnest as part of my daily meal routine.

central parkI was recently reminded of this phase of my life by a post that came up in Facebook memories. It read: “I taught from 7:30-3:30, ran a dress rehearsal from 4:00-7:00, came home and ran for 8 miles in the dark with a headlamp, showered, and almost fell asleep in my dinner. What a great day!” Was it a great day? I’m sure at the time I thought it was. I’m also sure that I continued this pattern through October 2013 when I crossed the finish line of my first marathon. In the process I ran two triathlons, including an olympic distance that involved a mile swim, and three half marathons, including one in which I set my personal record. I went to Chicago to run my marathon 15 lbs lighter than I had been a year earlier, and the fittest I’ve ever been. And I now believe it to be the unhealthiest I ever was.

In hindsight, there was one giant reason I was able to do what I did on the schedule that I did it on; I was young, single, and had zero responsibilities other than making sure my work was done and that I had the basic necessities I needed to keep myself afloat. If this meant I was too tired to eat dinner some night, I showered and went to bed, no sweat. If this meant I was gone from the house for twelve hours, came home, and then left again for 90 minutes at the gym or on a long run in the dark, not a problem! If this meant I gave up my Saturday mornings for three-hour triathlon workouts, no one was likely to miss me. I was enjoying everything I was doing. I appreciated the compliments I was getting on my fitness level and physique. I felt great crossing finish lines and feeling ever stronger while doing it. I was in great shape, very busy, and very single-minded. It could not have been a healthy way to live!

chicagp 2I wouldn’t understand this fully until I met my now husband. Our first date was in January, about three weeks before I would be selected in the lottery as a participant in the 2014 Chicago Marathon. Through the lens of our budding relationship, my training started to become significantly less important. I still maintained ridiculous hours through the week, but on the weekends, when I should be committed to my 15 and 20 mile runs, I found myself instead spending those hours with him. I didn’t know my way around the streets and trails in Rochester like I did in La Crosse, so when I was with him in Minnesota, we mostly kept it to walks and short runs that I could take on a two-mile loop in the neighborhood where he lived. When he came to La Crosse, I had much more freedom to run where I wanted, but giving up three hours to leave him sitting my apartment alone seemed ridiculous. By that July we were engaged, and by August I was moving to Minnesota.

To be clear, he always supported my running and training. He never asked me not to take the time to prepare for the race, and when I ran in a warm up half marathon race in August, he was right there at the finish line to see me across. After moving to Minnesota, I had to figure out routes and find places I could put in more mileage because I had to be ready to run the race in October, but my heart was not in it the same way. The freedom of being young, and single, and free of all responsibilities had been replaced with the security and reassurance of being young, and in love, and discovering the responsibilities I now had to another person. I no longer wanted to spend twelve hours at work, come home only to leave again for ninety minutes at the gym, and then return to shower, skip dinner, and go to bed. If I spent twelve hours at school, I needed to come home and see my fiance. He was going to need to eat dinner, and though on nights when things got late, he gladly prepared the meal himself, he rarely wanted to eat it alone.

He also wasn’t particularly interested in my portion control. Again, not that he ever said I couldn’t do what I wanted, but as a 30-year-old man, he still seemed to maintain the metabolism of an 18-year-old boy, and he comically pointed out a number of times that my portion sizes were not his portion sizes. I started cooking 3 to 1, three times the food for him that I would eat myself. Today, I don’t measure out my serving sizes at every meal, but that ratio still seems to hold somehow!

chicago 3In October, we drove to Chicago together so that I could run the race. I knew I wasn’t ready. I was significantly under trained from where I had been during my first race. I had given up most alcohol during my first marathon training period, a pattern I had not followed with my wine loving fiance and the new friends I was making. Though he insisted I was too skinny, I knew I was almost 15 lbs heavier than I was for marathon number one. I thought I could get to mile 16 comfortably, but was prepared to suffer from there to the finish line. In reality, the race got hard at mile 14, barely the half way point. I slogged through the rest 45 minutes slower than my first race had been. The finish line came with the burst of euphoria that only complete physical and mental exhaustion can bring about. And then I felt momentarily miserable. I was slow. I was tired. I was significantly less fit than I had been a year earlier. By every account that I had measured fitness, progress and success previously, the race had been a disaster. Then I found my fiance in the crowd. I was getting married! I was loved. I had survived. I would never have to run another marathon again! The feeling was almost better than the finish line itself. I was fit enough to finish the race, and had so much more waiting for me at the finish line. Things were coming into balance.

Four years later, I’ve never had the itch to train for another marathon. I run when I can, more in the summer than I can in the fall when my schedule is busy. I also cycle. I also lift weights. I haven’t done a swim workout in two years. I HATE the pool. I used to make myself get up at 5:30am to swim before work so that I could swim a mile. I don’t know that I care if I ever swim a mile again. I run one or two races a year, usually the half marathon in Madison because it was the first one I did seven years ago, and it feels like an end of the summer pilgrimage. This year I tried to run 1000 miles, a goal I continue to fail at spectacularly. When I’ve had a long day at work, I don’t force myself to go to the gym, opting instead to return home to a husband that loves me whether I lifted weights today or not. And yet, sometimes after a long day at work, my husband suggests I should stop at the gym, burn off a little steam, and get my heart rate up. He knows it’s still a fundamental part of who I am, it’s just not the only part of who I am.

chicago

I stopped measuring my portions, and just focused on eating clean and healthy. I stopped depriving myself of things I loved to eat but didn’t consider good training food. I love french fries. I eat french fries again! I still don’t eat much red meat. I still try to drink A LOT of water. I track my workouts on a calendar on the fridge. There are a lot more rest and easy days than there used to be. I stretch more, strain less, and stop when something hurts. If you asked me to run a half marathon tomorrow, I couldn’t do it. I’m in pretty constant 5k shape, though slower at sometimes than others. Maybe someday, I’ll get the itch to cross that marathon finish line again. If that day comes, I’ll have to get more fit; I’ll have to do more training. But it will happen in balance, and not at the expense of my marriage, my friendships, my sleep, or my health! Because while the medal around your neck at the end of the race feels good, it doesn’t feel quite as good as all of the finer things in life.

…and it sure doesn’t taste as good as a french fry!

Cheers!

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