When In Doubt, Haiku

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Working on my memoir last year, I re-discovered my old journals. Although filled with many boring entries, every so often, the pages revealed heartfelt poems, prose, and short stories. I was particularly struck by my poetry and regretted that I had not kept writing poems through the years. Seeing that some Facebook friends are writing haiku as statuses, I decided to reacquaint myself with this type of writing.

Haiku is a Japanese poetic form. Traditionally, these poems are 17 total syllables in 3 lines, comprised of 5 syllables for the first and third lines and 7 syllables for the second line. Here’s a good introduction on haiku and how to write them.

Many modern writers do all sorts of things and call them “haiku.” The purist that I am, I prefer the challenge of forcing myself to articulate my thoughts economically, so I stick to the traditional pattern, like this:

When in doubt, haiku.
Just seventeen syllables
To express your thoughts.

In the past, many Japanese haiku were about nature and the last line contained some sort of surprise, twist, or change. I can see why. When I started trying this out for myself, I discovered first-hand how easy it is to be inspired by nature and to see life lessons within it.

The three haiku below, I wrote in the same week, before, during, and after a major snow storm:

Clear. Crisp. New Year’s Day.
Blue skies slowly turning gray.
Calm before the storm.

Quiet, peaceful morn.
Dark with no promise of light,
‘Til after the storm.

Tracks on snowy mound.
Signs of life after the storm.
Can’t hide Beaver’s lodge.

My favorite of my recent nature-related haiku was the most difficult to write. I saw snow whipping up and traveling across our field and I said ”snow devil” out loud to myself.  Then I laughed, realizing that I was talking to myself and also that this was not an actual term. So, I decided to explain it in a haiku.

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This is the final result:  

We say “dust devils,”
When wind whips up desert sands.
Here, “snow devils” dance.

Forcing my thoughts and feelings into these patterns has gotten somewhat addictive. On a particularly long and pleasurable training run with my dog the other day, I decided to articulate my feelings in a haiku. 

My running partner,
Always listens, never tires.
Four-legged “best friend.”

My dog, Cleopatra, has been the subject of a few other recent poems, including these below, written on different days when reflecting on playing fetch with her before my 90 minute drive to work:

Tossing ball for pup.
At peace, playing in the rain.
Montpelier waiting.

Playing fetch at dawn.
Reluctant moon. Purple skies.
Warm despite the cold.

Sometimes, I want to hold fond feelings close to me and preserve them, so I compose a haiku. This happened twice this winter, while I was skiing. The first one was inspired by a great time I had with my nephew Liam.  We composed the first two lines together on the chairlift and each had a different third line. My version is below:

Good light and powder,
Rewards after the clearing.
Welcomed by old knees.

The second flooded over me while I was skiing with my friend Blair. I had to pause on the slopes to count syllables with my ski pole in the snow, until the haiku was completed and memorized.  It refers to a close friend of mine who died four years ago. He’s the person who finally got me skiing again after nearly a 25-year hiatus:

First mogul run since
Stephen said, “You can do it!”
Great times, then and now.

Finally, I come to a haiku that requires more explanation than I can afford here. It’s about my maternal grandmother and the unintended impact her unorthodox and complicated personality had on me as a child. Hopefully, the words can speak for themselves, at least on some level:

Mémère’s voice inside
My head is unforgiving.
Self-doubt in disguise.

I hope you enjoyed this blog, despite its departure from my usual topics. Please feel free to comment with some of your own haiku. I’d really love to read them.

From the Mailbag

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Since the idea of my New Year’s resolution and this blog came to me rather suddenly over the holidays, I didn’t have time to develop any expectations. It took me completely by surprise that 100 people would actually “follow” me and that dozens would take time to comment here or privately. These messages range from support for my journey, to thanks for offering an inspiring example, to challenges to my assumptions and opinions. Increasingly, folks are asking thoughtful questions about me and this experiment. This “From the Mailbag” post addresses three of the most thought-provoking responses from this past month.

Why did you really start this blog?

My sister-in-law, Martha, asked me to expound upon the other reasons, besides losing weight and running faster, that led to my decision to start this blog.

Several weeks ago, I wrote about how saving money was my #9 of 9 reasons for this project. In fact, I have journal entry in my “Dry Year” diary that was written on January 7th titled “Top 5 reasons why I’m not drinking.” The list ran longer than 5, but didn’t quite reach 10. The order below is exactly as written, and may or may not reflect the order of priority.

1. I fear becoming an alcohol abuser, because of family history.
2. I’ve recently done a lot of personal research for my memoir and the theme of alcohol over-consumption is one that is difficult to ignore.
3. I want to see if I can do it.
4. I’ve tried with moderate effort and no success to cut back consumption in the past.
5. I thought it would help me lose weight.
6. I thought I would free up time for more important things.
7. I thought it would be a very interesting topic for a blog and I need one to promote my upcoming memoir.
8. I thought it might make me a faster runner.
9. To save money.

Is it common for someone to quit drinking for just a year?

This question comes from fellow blogger, Terry McCarthy. As he put it: “I don’t think I’ve ever heard of anybody quitting for a year. As they say in AA, take one DAY at a time.”

Many more people have written about quitting drinking for a month or even 100 days. And, although I didn’t know this when I started this project, I have found a few people who also tried this for a year and wrote about it, including this guy and this woman. My true goal regarding alcohol is moderation, so I didn’t go into this thinking that I would quit drinking forever. I felt alcohol was preventing some of my other goals, so I wanted to take alcohol out of my life for a significant length of time. On one level, this resolution is a social experiment.

If you achieve your goals during your “dry year,” why bother drinking again?

This comes from my friend Rose, who is a teetotaler herself: “I love reading about your journey and I’m rooting for you! Are you thinking of quitting for good? I mean, after you succeed in losing the weight, and you will, and running so hard that you get your PR, why go back to it? Just a thought.”

This is similar to Terry’s question, but is more direct. Of all the comments I have received, I have thought about this one the most. It is much easier for me to think about this as a one year “project.” Once I’m further down the road, I will have a better idea of what the ideal future should be. No one knows what the end of this year will bring. As I get deeper into this journey, I may come back to this question several more times.

I hope that you’ll keep the comments and questions coming. If so, I’ll do a “From the Mailbag” post every month.

Pushing Past the Plateau

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The connections between drinking or not drinking alcohol and gaining or losing weight are obvious and well-documented.  As I previously stated, one of my motivations in pledging to not drink for a solid year was to drop a few stubborn pounds.  Thus far, not drinking has helped me to lose eight pounds with relative ease. Yet, for the past month, I’ve been going up and down in a range of two-three pounds, at the same “weight plateau” that has irked me since before my 40th birthday.  Having given up so much this time, I am determined to break through and, once and for all, return to my goal weight. This raises two questions with me: Why am I at a plateau? And how do I push past it?

The Mayo Clinic does a great job of describing this plateau. It happens when your metabolism slows as your body gets used to the new level of reduced calorie intake, something they refer to as a “new equilibrium.”  Unfortunately, there’s really only one way to push past it, according to the Mayo folks: “To lose more weight, you need to increase activity or decrease the calories you eat. Using the same approach that worked initially may maintain your weight loss, but it won’t lead to more weight loss.” Translation: losing 12 more pounds is going to be hard work. 

Luckily, there is by far more helpful advice on this topic than for any other I have researched for this blog. Let’s check in with Jillian Michaels, weight loss and fitness guru, and the star of the “Biggest Loser.” She thinks the plateau is a myth, so I need to honestly ask myself a few questions. First, am I keeping track of my daily calories? Yes. I’ve been using MyFitnessPal to track everything I eat, as well as all of my exercise. Secondly, am I trying to lose vanity pounds? To answer this question, I need to understand how much of my body is actually fat.

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Previously, I calculated my Body Mass Index (BMI). For my height of five feet, seven inches, a “healthy” BMI is between 18.5 and 25. Checking my current BMI at my weight plateau of 150 pounds, I see I’m in that range, with a BMI of 23.5. However, after reading more about BMI, including this NPR article with 10 reasons why BMI is bogus, I understand that BMI was developed over 100 years ago and is a straight formula based only on height and weight.  It doesn’t really take into account anything important – such as gender, age, or musculature.

Sadly, this means I had to take out my tape measure so that I could estimate my actual body fat. I used this calculator from the U.S. Navy. I took three measurements: my waist at the narrowest point (29 inches), my hips at the widest point (39 inches), and my neck at the narrowest point (13 inches).  This estimates my body fat at 27%. I know that is too high. According to this chart, it’s in the middle of the “average” category for women. I don’t want to be average. I want to break into the top end of the “fitness” category, which is between 21% and 24%. Some of you will, no doubt, debate this. However, my answer to Jillian’s second question is, no, I am not trying to lose vanity pounds.

Given that, I need some solid strategies to lose 12 more pounds to get to my goal weight of 138. Among several other suggestions out there, WebMD has 10 tips for moving beyond the plateau, as do About.com and ActiveBeat.com. I don’t know about you, but 10 things seems like a lot to keep track of. The solution to this, as with all things, is to create a spreadsheet. I tracked the tips from these three sources and found they contained a total of 22 different tips. I was able to scratch off a bunch of these, because I am already doing nine of these things, and, frankly, another five of them just seemed lame.

My analysis left me with eight things to focus on, five of which are diet-related and three about exercise. On the food side, I need to beware of calorie creep, celebratory calories, and restaurant overeating, and try to manage my hunger with low-fat protein and by eating more fruits & veggies. This seems like solid dieting advice. At the same time, I need to add in more exercise, particularly by trying to be more active during the day and by adding strength training.

Like I said, this is going to be hard work. Wish me luck!

Lose Weight, Run Faster

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As you can imagine, taking alcohol off the table is a good first step for both my diet and training goals. I’m encouraged that I lost 6 pounds so quickly and also that I felt great on my 6 mile run earlier today. In this post, I focus on two questions. Exactly how does alcohol impact diet and exercise? And, given my two ambitious goals, where do I start?

This article is a great summary of the detrimental effects consuming alcohol can have to your body and diet. In a nut shell, the human body has trouble processing alcohol, because it contains a bunch of calories with no nutritional value. This can slow your metabolism and contribute to weight gain, not to mention the direct effects of consuming all of those empty calories.

Alcohol also has several negative impacts on athletic performance, such as causing dehydration and reducing performance through lowered glucose production.  This summary article provides more detail on this, as does this one from the Guardian, and this one from Runner’s World; the latter focusing on impacts to running performance. The best one-stop-shop on the range of negative impacts alcohol has on the athlete is this amazing brochure from Princeton, produced by the NCAA.

Given all of this, I’m really happy I don’t have to worry about how drinking wine is going to affect my diet and my marathon training this year. It took just a few additional minutes of research and a lot of common sense to realize that I should lose the weight first and then concentrate on my training.

Exercising certainly can help you to lose weight. But, the reverse is also true. I noticed as I trained for multiple long distance races through the years that it’s a real pain to lug the extra pounds around, literally and figuratively. I also found that when I’m seriously training for half and whole marathons, I tend not to lose weight, because I eat more, both from being hungrier and from feeling I’ve earned it.

Making more progress on losing weight will surely lead to faster running times, and hopefully that marathon PR in July. How much faster should I expect to be? According to Runner’s World, if I lose 10 pounds, I should be able to shave 20 seconds off of my per-mile pace. Other blogs and articles, like Active.com and Livestrong.com, also echo this view. This means I could see an automatic 30 second reduction in my pace, if I lose 15 of my 20 pounds prior to the start of my running season. (I’ll worry about the final 5 pounds later in the year.)

With these multiple inputs and outputs, how am I going to keep it all straight to make sure I actually lose weight? That’s easy. I’m going to use MyFitnessPal to track my calorie consumption and stick to a specific daily calorie target determined by my goals and inputs when I created my account. As I exercise, I also log that into the daily diary and it will allow me to consume more calories.  It’s easy to use and completely free. I use the mobile app version and do most of my tracking on my iPhone. There are a ton of great features, including a prediction when you complete your daily log of what you will weigh in 5 weeks, “if every day were like today.” This is motivational both on good days and bad.

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This month and in March, when push comes to shove, I commit to focusing on my diet first and my training regime second. Hopefully, I’ll get within 5 pounds of my ideal weight by April Fools’ Day, allowing me plenty of time to crank up my training schedule for the race season. If all goes according to plan, I’ll be aided by a 30 second reduction in my average pace from the weight loss alone.

Laying the Foundation

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Now that I have breezed into February without incident and it seems clear that my drinking ban is going to stick, it’s time for me to start focusing on some of the reasons why I began this social experiment in the first place. This month, I want to lay the foundation for achieving two goals, both of which were top contenders for my New Year’s resolution originally and, in my mind, are part of the package.

My theory from the outset was that eliminating alcohol will enable me to finally achieve two important personal goals that I have been thinking about for a while. They are: losing 20 pounds and running a marathon in personal record (PR) time. In this post, I’ll give background on these goals, and in future articles, I will explain my plan for and progress toward achieving them. I have also already thought of several related and interesting research topics that I will explore, as well.

Let’s start with losing weight. No, I don’t think I’m fat. And, yes, if I were destined to remain at my current weight, I would have a happy, healthy, and productive life. However, I used to be much thinner and, with my continued commitment to exercise, I should have a shot at getting back to my “ideal” weight.

I’m not comfortable giving you the exact numbers. But, I will confess that on January 1, 2012, I stepped on the scale at a personal high weight which was 35 pounds higher than my lowest adult weight. The good news is that I’ve already made progress. After going down and then all the way back up again over the course of 2012, I managed to drop seven pounds in 2013. And, I already reported that I’ve lost another six pounds so far this year. For those of you who are having trouble with the math, this means I am down 13 pounds from my highest weight.

My first challenge is deciding on where to set the marker on counting down the 20 pounds. I plugged “what is my ideal weight” into Google and got the most amazingly helpful information from Self, a magazine to which I am often subscribed. The two questions asked by the trusty Ideal Weight Calculator were my gender and my height. I am female and I am 5-feet 7-inches tall. The results?

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Thanks, Self. I already weigh somewhere in this 40 pound range (whew!) and I still remember the one day in my life when I weighed 118 pounds. I was in 8th grade and it was the most dreaded day of the school year, when all the girls had to lineup in alphabetical order to file into the nurse’s office two at a time to get on the scale. I vividly recall the nurse writing what seemed like a very large number onto a little slip of paper that she handed to me: “118.” I assure you, this weight is not remotely plausible or desirable for me as an adult.

Since I’m too lazy to do any measurements to figure out my body mass index, I’m just going to pick the stretch goal of losing 20 pounds this year. It’s near the middle of the range, it’s a weight I would feel very accomplished to achieve again, and it’s about what I weighed in 1999, when I started training for my first marathon. I have 14 pounds to go.

Speaking of marathons, the first one I ran was the Vermont City Marathon in Burlington, in 2000, with my sister-in-law Moira. We crossed the finish line holding hands, with a time of four hours 41 minutes and 41 seconds. I swore I would never run another one. That feeling lasted about five years, and then, in 2006, I attempted Rock-n-Roll Phoenix. At that time, I was a very active member of the Arizona Road Racers, and I had recently achieved my PR half marathon time of one hour 55′ 55″. That’s fast for a recreational runner at my age and level. I was a bit disappointed with my subsequent marathon time of four hours 31′ 10″. Little did I know then that it would remain my PR today.

I’ve only run three marathons since: the Air Force Marathon in 2012, which I ran in about four hours and 45 minutes with a hip injury; Vermont City 2013, which I treated as a training run since it was so early in the season; and the 20th running of the Philadelphia Marathon this past November, which kicked my butt at about mile 18 and took me a few minutes longer than did Air Force the prior year.

I’m already signed up for the Around the Lake Marathon for my birthday and my goal is to do that in under four hours and 30 minutes — a PR! I am filling in my race calendar with a handful of other marathons and half marathons, kicking off my race season with the Run for the Border Half Marathon in late March. Speaking of which, it’s time for me to take advantage of the break in the cold weather and get in a training run right now.