A Year’s A Long Time

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I’ve learned a lot these past 10 months as I embraced, resisted, and—all the while—kept my New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol for one year. If I learned only one thing it’s that a year can seem like a very long time. Sure, it’s 12 months, 52 weeks, 365 days, 8,760 hours, 525,600 minutes, and 31,536,000 seconds. More than that, though, it offers a heck of a lot of time in which to change one’s mind. It’s no wonder that, according to one survey, only 8% of people succeed in keeping their resolutions.

No, I’m not thinking of stopping now! I know that, with two months still to go, it might seem a bit premature to have this conversation. It’s just that I’ve been thinking a lot this week about how long a year is and I decided it would be a good blog topic. Besides, (knock on wood) there’s zero chance that I’m going to take a sip of alcohol between now and midnight on New Year’s Eve. So I might as well write about it, while my thoughts are fresh.

The best part about a year being such a long time is that it gives plenty of time to make great personal progress, which in my case included losing 23 pounds and cutting 23 minutes off of my fastest marathon time. It’s also more than long enough to change not only your habits, but also to evolve your personal thinking and perceptions. Even though I have decided that I will drink alcohol again, I’ll never think about it the same way again. Before my dry year, I never fully appreciated how pervasive alcohol is in our society or how damaging it can be. Many of our conventions revolve around alcohol, despite 30% of American adults not drinking at all and another 30% only drinking one alcoholic beverage a week.

Now that I proved I could do it, reached my goal weight, stepped up my running game, and developed this new appreciation for life, I’m basically ready for the year to be over. That’s one of the reasons why I started to think that a year is a long time. The other is that I’ve been giving a lot of thought to whether or not I will commit to another difficult and/or life-changing resolution for next year.

The one I’ve been tossing around all year has been a resolution not to purchase any material objects. With all the time I’ve spent thinking about it and floating it by other people, today was the first time that I Googled it to see if someone else has done it. Of course someone has.  I found this guy, who had a life-altering experience not buying any consumer durables or clothes for several months and made it about six months, before he broke down and bought a new computer (after spilling coffee all over his old one). I also found this family with two young children that stuck to their resolution not to buy anything new for a whole year (they allowed themselves to buy used clothes and other items). There’s even a Wiki article on “How to buy nothing.”

I have two more months to mull it over. I’m just not sure I have it in me to go from one extreme resolution right into another. Maybe 2015 will be a year of just savoring what I achieved in 2014 and enjoying the wonderful life that I have. Or maybe it will be the year that I qualify for the Boston marathon, publish a memoir, and reconnect with a dozen old friends from college. I’m interested to know your thoughts as we approach 2015.

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My Dry Year: Third Quarter Report

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Now that I’m three-quarters of the way through my New Year’s resolution to not drink alcohol in 2014, it’s time for a quick update to the “Dry Year” thread of this blog.

SCF last drink

First of all, I’m very proud to report that I am still dry and I don’t miss drinking.  It’s true that I missed it early on, had mild withdrawal symptoms the first few weeks, and even had a nightmare in which I broke my resolution by inadvertently drinking a glass of wine. It also took longer than I had expected to develop the new habit of not drinking.

By the end of May, I had already achieved my goal weight and lost a total of 30 pounds (when you include the 7 pounds I lost last year). I explained exactly how I did it in this blog post.Although I had a few challenges along the way, I’m pleased to report that four months later, I am holding steady at 135 pounds, which is a few pounds below the goal weight I had set for myself.

June 2014 (after) CROPPED

In the first half of the year, I had also already achieved my personal record (or “PR”) marathon time. How I did that is explained here. It should be no surprise that, just as I had predicted early on, losing so much weight was the biggest contributor.

SCF with pace group

After achieving these two main goals so early in the year, I wrestled with the question of whether or not I want to start drinking again when 2015 rolls around. In the end, I decided that I want to have a glass of very nice champagne at midnight this coming New Year’s Eve and then play it by ear after that.

I also decided to add a stretch goal into the mix for the second half of 2014: qualifying for the Boston Marathon.  My first “BQ” attempt — as qualifying for the Boston Marathon is known to avid runners — on my 46th birthday in July was a real disaster. Despite that, it was an unforgettable experience to cross the finish line with a very close friend, no matter how long it took us.

This brings us to today.  This morning, I completed my last race of the season by trying one more time to BQ. I was very happy with my training plan, picked a course that had a nice sloping downhill, went to the race properly hydrated and fueled, and even wore a temporary tattoo with my mile-by-mile race plan on my forearm. All signs pointed to a great day on the course.

What was the result? I really killed the first half of the race, achieving a PR half-marathon time of 01:51:55 and stayed on my planned pace through 20 miles. Then, it got very hot and I started to slow and I worried that I might over-heat. Although I didn’t qualify for Boston, I am extremely proud of myself for pushing through the last several miles to the finish line and cutting another 19 minutes off my best marathon time.

887_Marathon_283 (Clarence Demar - Keene - 09-28-14)

As far as qualifying for Boston is concerned, that’s a goal I will happily carry with me into 2015. If you have any other ideas for New Year’s resolutions for 2015 for me, please leave those as comments to today’s blog post.

Best Laid Plans

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I am the captain of a team that runs a 100-mile relay race along Vermont’s scenic Route 100, the appropriately named 100 on 100 Heart of Vermont Relay. The race is an exercise in teamwork. The route is divided into 18 segments of varying length and difficulty. Each team usually has six runners, each of whom runs three legs of the race, passing a wristband as a baton to the next runner at pre-determined transition points along the course. Our team loads up the vehicle at about 3:30 in the morning and gets on the road by 4, to make our 6 o’clock team check-in time and 6:30 start in Stowe.

As team captain, I do the planning and race management. I’m pretty detail-oriented and the team generally appreciates that I take care of everything. When I say “everything,” I mean a host of tasks, from registering the team to forecasting our running times for each segment to managing our fans along the course. One year, I predicted the nearly 15-hour running time within two minutes! In essence, I am a “planner,” and my team was following a well-thought-out plan on race day. This year, our plan was to run most of the race with four runners (instead of six) and be joined by another team member mid-race, who would run a 12-mile stretch to help us out.

En route to Stowe early race day morning, the tire pressure warning light came on. I told the team not to worry, because it was just a slow leak in one of the back tires. We had plenty of time to get air, after we got off the highway in Waterbury.  And we did.

Starting Line

(Our 4 core team members at the starting line. Left to right: Bill, Erica, Bridget, and me.)

After team check-in, we took some team photos at the starting line, watched my cousin Bridget start the race, and then went back to the car. That tire looked pretty soft again—so much so that a runner from another team even pointed it out. My brother suggested I go cheer Bridget on while he and our fourth team member, Erica, changed the tire.  After Bridget ran through the first transition point and proceeded into the second leg of the race, I walked back to the car and found all of our duffle bags, other gear, and cases of water and Gatorade on the grass. When he saw me, Bill shook his head and said with a slight hint of frustration, “There’s no spare.”

Bridget on 2nd Leg

(Bridget completed the first leg and started the second completely unaware of the situation with our team vehicle.)

We loaded back up and headed out to look for a service station, truly believing that the low tire might have been an optical illusion caused by the car tilting downhill on grass. As we pulled out of the parking lot, I stopped a guy directing traffic and asked him how the tire looked. “Pretty flat,” he said. Instead of heading down the mountain, we turned into another parking lot and jumped out to check the tire on level ground. “Pretty flat? Is he nuts?” I yelled. We were looking at metal on asphalt. The tire was completely flat and our race vehicle was not drivable.

We quickly reviewed several possible solutions and decided to have my father bring the spare tire up from Ludlow—where it was sitting in our garage—and  for me to hitch a ride with another team in time to get the baton from Bridget at the next transition point, in about 45 minutes. Since I was also going to be running two legs in a row, we hoped there was enough time to get the spare up to Stowe and on the car, and the four of us to meet at the start of the fifth race segment.

Range Rover

(Unfortunately, this was Bill and Erica’s view for over four hours!)

As it turned out, we were not reunited until after 11 o’clock. While Bill and Erica waited at the starting line in the car for my father to overcome several obstacles of his own on the drive up with the spare, Bridget and I kept running and passing the baton to one another for four-and-a-half hours and bummed rides from other teams to each subsequent transition point. I was truly ecstatic when I heard the familiar sound of a ringing cow bell and looked up to see my brother hanging out the window of our team vehicle and then, moments later, when I passed the baton to Erica for her to complete the remainder of the uphill climb of segment six, outside Waitsfield.

In addition to the grace with which my team dealt with both planned and unexpected challenges, it was extremely heartening how every team we approached for help gave it without question. At the starting line, the “American Bandits” welcomed me, a stranger, and gave me a lift down the mountain. Later, when I explained my predicament to my friend Stacie, her “Sole Sixters” team was enthusiastic about adopting Bridget, while I ran more than 12 miles. After Bridget completed her first run and passed the baton to me, utterly exhausted, Stacie’s calm and smiling face made the difference, as I briefly explained the situation of our team’s catastrophe before turning around to start my run. Then, when Bridget took the baton back over from me for segment five, an acquaintance named Stephanie and her team brought me along to Waitsfield and fed me cookies and water before I was handed the baton back again and started the uphill climb of segment six.

Team Swim Blueberry Lake

(Erica, Bridget, and Bill in Blueberry Lake during a welcomed break mid-race, while Lee was cranking out 12 miles for the team.)

We finished the race at 8:48pm, by far the fastest performance for my team in the six years we’ve run the race.  And, more importantly, we all had a blast, made a lot of new friends, and gained many new stories to tell than can possibly be told here. It’s a great reminder that the best plan of all is to have a great team to start with, and to have fun, no matter what.

The Middle Miles

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Last weekend came and went and I never found the time to write a blog post. It’s true that we were extremely busy with social obligations (more about that later). However, that was only part of it. The bigger issue was that I wasn’t inspired enough by a topic to start writing anything down. Since that has rarely happened since I started this blog, I did a little soul searching to figure out the problem. The problem is that my resolution has hit, to quote one of my old running partners, “the middle miles.”

Although I entered the weekend having successfully completed 7 months of my year-long New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol, I was feeling down and uninspired. Not only did I have lingering disappointment about my marathon run on July 25th, I was also having trouble with my weight maintenance.

When I say “having trouble” what I really mean is that I temporarily stopped watching what I eat and also haven’t been consistent with recording things in my MyFitnessPal food journal. Who can blame me for the latter? It would have been really demoralizing to record everything I ate at the barbecue at the lake on Saturday afternoon. I started out with chips and guacamole, moved on to chips and hummus, and then had some brie and crackers. A few hours later, I nearly filled my plate with an array of lunch offerings, including a hot dog. Before I left the party, I even went back up to the buffet to get two chocolate chip cookies. Unfortunately, the day didn’t end there. We went to a different party that evening and I proceeded to eat different things in a similar fashion, including two cupcakes for dessert. I didn’t need MyFitnessPal to tell me that my 8-mile run that morning couldn’t even put a dent in what I had eaten over the course of the day and evening.

Sunday morning, I forced myself to step on the scale to confirm that I had crossed back over my dreaded weight threshold of 140 pounds. Although it’s a bit of a bummer, like the proverbial middle miles of a long run that I referred to earlier, this set-back is completely normal and only temporary.

In long-distance running, it’s natural to have a break in concentration and to slow during the middle miles. That’s because the mental and physical freshness you had at the start are long gone, but there is still too much distance yet to cover for you to start tasting the finish line. Your mind and body can play tricks on you that negatively impact your overall performance. In running, you mitigate this through your training plan in the months and weeks before the race and through your pacing on race day.

The middle miles of my resolution are even easier to solve. I just have to go back to what made me successful and set a few new reasonable goals. The fact is that I have gone 7 months without a drink and, during that time, have attained my weight-loss goal and have achieved my marathon PR time. These accomplishments are still valid and it will not take very much additional focus to lose a few of those pounds that have crept back on.

Here’s my simple plan to get back on track:

  1. Re-commit to using MyFitnessPal to record what I eat and how much I exercise every day.
  2. Reduce my daily calorie target by about 250 calories a day, since I am (temporarily) no longer in maintenance mode.
  3. Target getting back down to 135 pounds by the end of August.

Notice that I didn’t say stop eating chocolate chip cookies and cupcakes! Hopefully I won’t eat too many of them. However, if I do, it just means that I have to lace up my running shoes and get in an extra workout.

Try, Try Again

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Over the weekend, I celebrated my 46th birthday by trying to run a nighttime marathon, which consisted of eight, roughly 3-mile laps around a lake near Boston. My friend Lisa and I were running it together to try to qualify for next year’s Boston Marathon. When it was clear early on that she wasn’t going to keep up our intended pace, I ran ahead of Lisa. I felt great for the first 11 miles or so. Thoughts of how awesome it was going to be to get my personal best marathon finish time and possibly even qualify for Boston flashed through my mind.

Sharon and Lisa - Around the Lake
(Above: Me and Lisa just before our marathon in Wakefield, Mass. on 7/25/14.)

Somewhere between mile 11 or 12, I lapped our mutual friend Brad and was feeling on top of the world. Shortly thereafter, I started to get stomach cramps and things got progressively worse. The official race timer website reveals that my lap times tanked to 10:00 minutes per mile on the 4th lap, 12:27 minutes per mile on the 5th, 14:38 minutes per mile on the 6th, and 17:59 minutes per mile on the 7th lap. Around 1:30 a.m., I posted a status on Facebook that said: “Do you know what I just realized? I am a morning person.”

It was obvious that I was dehydrated, unable to even absorb water or Gatorade and I had to make trips to the port-a-potty in between laps.  Woozy after the 7th lap, instead of starting my 8th and final lap, I headed to the medical tent. The medic ordered me to eat a couple of handfuls of goldfish crackers—to get salt into my system—before he would let me walk the final lap.  I scarfed down a ton of goldfish and pretzels and my stomach felt much better. My legs, however, were extremely fatigued and the thought of continuing around the lake one more time seemed pointless.

I stared at the finish line and watched the reaction of the other runners as many completed the marathon and others proceeded back around the lake to either complete their marathon run or to keep going for the full 24-hour ultra-marathon. Just when I was about to walk over to the car to try to sleep on the wet grass and wait for Lisa and Brad to finish, Lisa crossed the finish line. I ran to meet her, so happy that she had finished the marathon, even though it was without me.

Lisa asked how I had done, hoping that at least one of has had run well enough to qualify for Boston. I just shook my head and gave her the short version of how terribly it had gone for me. She grabbed my arm and pulled me over to the snack table. After we munched on a bunch more snacks, Lisa confessed, “That was only my 7th lap. Here, hold my coke while I hit the port-a-potty. Let’s walk the last lap together.”

Lap #8 was without a doubt the best part of the race. It was much more enjoyable to chat and catch up with Lisa than it was to tell Brad at mile 11 that I was on Boston qualifying pace. We finished together with the most incredibly horrendous finishing time of 5 hours and 53 minutes, at 2:53 in the morning. Considering how close I came to throwing in the towel, it was actually a victory, wasn’t it? And, as you might expect, we’re signing up for other marathons as we speak, keeping alive our dreams of qualifying for the Boston Marathon.

Semi Annual Report

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We’re exactly half-way through 2014. This means that I am also half-way through my New Year’s resolution not to drink alcohol. What an amazing 6 months it’s been. I’m a few pounds below the weight I was striving for, after losing more than 20 pounds this year and exactly 30 pounds overall. I also achieved my lifetime PR (fastest) marathon time already and still have two more on the schedule. And, most importantly, I cannot remember feeling happier, more centered, or more confident.

Since this is a major landmark, I finally put some effort into “before and after” photos.  Below is a photo that Bruce took of me yesterday, before we left the house for a wedding. Right next to it is a photo taken when I was 20 pounds heavier last Thanksgiving. 

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What I particularly like about the before photo is the ever-present glass of wine. I can see a big difference in my face in the two photos and, upon looking more closely, also in my arms and stomach. For those just tuning in, you can find out more about how I lost twenty pounds here and thirty pounds here.

Since I’ve been exercising a lot, I was able to lose the weight without cutting out anything specific except for the alcohol. Although I kept close track of my calorie in-take in order to lose the weight, I wasn’t following a low-carb or a low-fat diet. I ate pretty much what I wanted, but controlled calories through portion size and, if that failed, I exercised more.

Speaking of exercise, I have a dramatic set of “before and after” photos of me running.  In the first one, I am running a relay race in August last year and I look terribly heavy at 155 pounds. It’s difficult for me to look at this photo and believe that it’s really me. The second photo was taken during a marathon in Phoenix in 2006, when I weighed about 145 pounds. The third photo is from about a month ago at the Vermont City Marathon at my current weight.  

 

 

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Just imagine how much more work it was for my legs, my heart, and every other part of my body to run 26.2 miles carrying 20 additional pounds.

Over the past month, I’ve grown accustomed to my return to a smaller size. Luckily, I had a few boxes of really nice summer clothes from when we lived in Arizona tucked away in the attic. These things had made the move with us 7 years ago, but never saw the light of day since, until now. I filled up those boxes and more with things from my closet that are now just too baggy to deal with. I also have a pretty good sized pile of other clothes that I plan to take to a tailor sometime soon.

Even though I’m still working through my closet to find out what still fits and what doesn’t and what’s salvageable and what isn’t, it’s no longer stressful to think about what I’m going to wear. That’s because I feel great.

Analyzing how I feel about myself now, it’s not easy to pinpoint the most important cause. Is it because I’m not drinking? Is it because I have lost so much weight? Is it the buzz I get from running? Or, to quote my friend Camille, is it all of it? Luckily, I have 6 more months to figure that out and also to decide what to do next.

 

Why Not Try It for One Month?

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Earlier this year, I was talking to someone I had just met and it came up that I had recently lost over 20 pounds. The guy was really excited when he heard this and asked the inevitable question: “How did you do it?” I told him the same thing that I told all of you in this blog post: the foundation was quitting drinking alcohol as my New Year’s resolution.  He didn’t miss a beat before giving me a wide grin and saying: “No, thanks. I don’t need to lose weight that bad.” (In my opinion, he certainly did.)

I have gotten similar responses from more than a few other people. Every time, it saddens me. I was able to lose 20 pounds in a little over three months after quitting drinking. And I want other people who express an interest in losing weight to try it. What does it say about someone if they’re not even willing to consider quitting drinking for 90 days? Perhaps it indicates that these are precisely the people who should be putting alcohol on hiatus.

Don’t get me wrong. I know there are as many ways to lose 20 pounds as there are people who need to lose the weight. But my own experience makes me wish there were more willingness to – just temporarily — change this one thing. It’s true that you have to do a few other things to make real progress. However, quitting alcohol is one of the best starts you can make.

Months ago, I described the many reasons why I felt that cutting out alcohol was the best way for me to kick-start my dieting process in this post. It was, by far, the easiest time I had losing weight. Sometimes I still don’t believe it’s true. However, every time I step on the scale, I see that I have really lost over 20 pounds this year.

It’s not just me. There are also plenty of others who say the same thing. A blogger on a similar journey to my own shares these insights gained from giving up alcohol to lose weight. Also check out this article, this one, and this one from Livestrong. Not to mention these thoughts from a woman who lost 100 pounds and says that giving up alcohol was the most important step for her. It’s no coincidence that the South Beach Diet, one of the most popular and effective diets for more than a decade, bans all alcohol in Phase 1.

If you don’t want to lose weight, ignore this advice. However, if you are one of those people who envies me for having returned to my ideal weight or knows deep down that you would feel much happier and be much healthier if you lost a little weight, try it. Quit drinking for just one month and let me know how it goes.

My sixth month without alcohol is drawing to a close and I certainly wouldn’t trade what I’ve experienced along the way for one sip of anything.