Monday, 30 January 2017


Most of the world seemed to breathe a collective sigh of relief as 2016 ticked over to 2017.  It's all a bit silly really.  It's just the number of recorded trips around the Sun.  It's not like any of them are of much cosmic significance unless our orbit changes and we, say, go ploughing into the thing.

Yes, 2016 brought about all manner of political horror for some people, brought us a lot of celebrity deaths, saw the financial world being generally a bit confused and all that but life continues.  I, for one, rather liked 2016.  I'll probably always remember it as the year I fixed myself.

The whole thing probably started in July, 2015.  I received that phonecall, the one that you never want to get.  The kind of communication that most people are going to get at one point of another in their lives.  It was somewhere shortly after 1pm on an otherwise unremarkable work afternoon.  24 hours later I was ringing companies, family and friends to take care of the affairs of my dad who'd passed away in a car accident somewhere near Easingwold.  It's not an easy or pleasant thing to do, tying up a human life and making all the necessary arrangements to have their remains dealt with in the manner of their choosing.  For additional laughs, we found out the day after dad had passed that my aunt and uncle had recently been on holiday in Tunisia and killed in a terrorist shooting.  To describe things as bad would be wrong.  We were basically in the middle of a bad American soap opera.

I coped with it in a couple of ways.  Throwing myself into the task at hand with the funeral arrangements and the like was a useful distraction.  The other was a ready supply of pizza and fairly hard alcohol.  Dad used to keep a collection of strange drinks.  Nobody else was likely to go anywhere near them and it took the edge off of what was happening for a while.  Diet wise, the rest of the year wasn't very much better.  January came around after the first family Christmas sans a member and I got on the scales.  Every year it's a pretty grim January ritual.  17st 12.  I've never been at 250lbs.  I wasn't terribly pleased about that.  And so, as I tended to every year, I decided to start eating right and heading to the gym again.  Not a resolution mind you, I never formally make them because they add a nasty little edge to an already dull season.  Normally this tends to become a chore which turns into a routine and once I'm at the "I'm doing this because it's what I do on Monday" stage, I tend to keep at it.  Every time I do, after a month or two there'll be something which gives me a legitimate reason to stop for a while.  Overtime at work, injury etc.  In 2015 it was the funeral.  Once I've stopped for a week or more, I usually don't get back in until next January,

It probably all started in early Jan.  I used to play board games over lunch at work but one of the three guys in our group resigned to take up another position elsewhere.  Just the two of us makes for bad games of Munchkin but the other chap is quite athletically inclined and somehow we got onto the idea of going for a bit of a walk.  There's a short route around the back of the local shopping centre which stretches some 3k in a round route.  It's nice to leave the office and good to get some fresh air.  At the time I was lucky if I could run at 7.5kmph for 15 minutes without having to stop for a rest.  What I was doing at the gym was planning to run for 15 minutes, cycle for 15 minutes, cross train for 15 minutes.  Every two weeks I'd go up by another 0.1kmph.  As plans go, it would have helped me get fitter but not quickly, but I get stuck in ruts easily and I was happy with the plan.  Walking 3k up and down hills was actually getting me fairly out of breath but we kept going.  Even a year later it's still a daily thing.

The first big change came when I downloaded Google's Fit app.  It's a fitness and calorie tracker which can tell how far you go, what amount of time you spent moving and tracks your steps.  It gives you a notification if you hit a certain number of active minutes per day and a little animation with a pleasant dinging noise.  So now fitness was like a weird casual mobile game where I competed with myself to get better and bigger numbers.  Every session and every walk would go into the app and I began a process which I tended to refer to as "chasing the ding".  After work I'd go on a quick half hour walk to get my active time up.  I'd spend more time just walking for the Hell of it on weekends.  For a few months, this was a pretty solid routine and I lost almost 2 stone.

The second was my diet.  I tried eating porridge in the morning, a can of soup for lunch and something reasonable for dinner.  I've got access to the literature for Slimming World and for the most part, it's actually pretty nice.  I don't agree with their "potatoes are guilt free" stance, nor on their group meeting philosophy (I don't have a problem with the meetings, mind, it's just that I really don't personally benefit from a peer support structure like that) but the rest is pretty fine and not restrictive in the way some plans are.  They will say "it's not a diet, it's a lifestyle" and sure, a lot of what they preach is doing different things with your food but seriously, it is a diet.  It's a structured approach to nutrition and weight loss in which certain items can be consumed in moderation and high consumption of certain other items is heavily encouraged.  If I'm making a conscious choice about my meal plans and their nutritional content rather than just getting 5 main courses that I happen to feel like at the time, I'd class that as a diet even if it didn't feel like work. I digress.  This whole Slimming World thing actually worked out pretty well, too, but better than that was tricking myself.  I'm a creature of habit.  Once you realise that you do things because you think you should and because "that's just what I do because I always do it", it's very easy to manipulate yourself.  I'll keep a big bottle of water on my desk and drink a full one in the morning because I always drink a bottle before lunch and another before 4 o'clock because that's when I drink it in the afternoon.  Not for any reason, it's just the way things are.  Likewise, I'd buy a week's supply of soup and a few packs of porridge.  That's the week's food at work.  I wouldn't take any money into work so I couldn't buy snacks, soup was what I had for lunch, porridge for breakfast.  After a while, that becomes routine and the cravings become less of an exercise of willpower because it's something I become used to.

The third was around summer.  May, I think.  I'd decided to try to see if, at a moderate pace, I could stand a longer run.  I'd lost about 2.5 stone by now and was feeling pretty good about that.  I set off on a treadmill and tried to block out the worst of the fatigue with an aim to hit 5k without stopping.  I was gasping for breath by the end and my legs were shaking a little but it happened.  Took about 45 minutes but it happened.  Shortly after this, a friend asked if I wanted to try our local Parkrun.  He'd been interested in starting to run after a long term injury with a view to getting his strength back up.  Seemed fine, I was full of slightly misplaced confidence.  We got there, ran into a third mutual friend and went to the back of the line.  It was my first time actually running out of doors due to self confidence issues (and hey, the gym was fine) but definitely my first time in a situation that could be considered a race.  Not one I intended to win.  Good God, no.  It's a great atmosphere, though.  We'd been down, my wife and I, to see them set off so we could ask the organisers about meeting times and such.  The sound of 400 people running in unison is pretty cool and everyone is either clad in running gear or just out for a good time with friends.  These guys were all enthusiasts, it was their hobby.  It was a weird company to be around for somebody like me.  We set off and quickly lost the chap with the injury who had unfortunately realised that it was still a problem.  I also realised quite soon afterwards that I wasn't going to be finishing this any time soon.  God bless her, the lady we'd met with at the start line was shouting very encouraging things but I had to keep stopping to walk and get my breath back.  I think I clocked my first in 37 minutes.  It became a pleasant routine in the end as it was a really great way to start the weekend.  I was up early on Saturday, got to make a lot of use of the day and generally kicked the weekend off with a lot of endorphins.  Every session I went to I'd get another 30 seconds or so quicker.  After my third, I wasn't slowing to a walk.  Eventually there was a session with a 30 minute pacer.  It's a time I'd had my eye on since the beginning.  That would be the point at which I'd consider myself "fit".  I managed to catch up with him in the initial rush and off we went.  I remember that at the 4k mark, all the strength in my legs had gone completely and I could feel myself physically shaking but we kept on and there it was, something like 29:57.  That was wonderful.

The thing about getting into running is that you have this series of little goals you can aspire to.  Do it faster, do it longer, do a harder route.  It feels great to achieve any of them.

Next, a local running club started a session backed by the council after park run.  One of those 5k training programs for people wanting to get into running.  By this point, I'd picked up a fourth friend, a chap I knew who'd started working up at my office, who came down pretty regularly.  I had 5k sorted out and I was really keen to go longer, to hit that next milestone.  10k seemed reasonable but a long way off (except for my friend who was probably good to go).  We'd had an email at work asking for people who wanted to run in the Leeds Age UK Abbey Dash so I signed up.  Having a commitment is a really big motivator.  So there was a session occurring after the morning's 5k where new runners were broken down into ability groups and every week we ran a bit longer than the last, starting at 2.5 and getting further each week.  Seemed a reasonable way to start, just run the 5k then run the training session afterwards.  By the end, we were running 9.5 with a 10 minute cooldown/warm up in the middle.  My actual first 10k came from a facebook message from the lady who we met at the first park run.  I was free one Saturday morning, she asked if I was up for a 10k, a couple of hours later we're heading out of Greenhead Park and out towards parts unknown.  I remember getting home ad pretty much collapsing for the rest of the day because 10k is apparently my cutoff point.  If I run 10k or more, I need to eat within a couple of hours or I'll experience fatigue bordering on flu symptoms and slowly shut down internally.  Felt fantastic despite the exhaustion.

The day came.  The last 5k training session was "run a park run" so the previous week had been an oddly short session.  The awards thing afterwards was very nice and it was a really positive atmosphere but there was a behemoth on the horizon.  I had all my stuff together the night before, had my train plans sorted out, had a post-run protein bar on standby, had my sad corporate team member shirt (they were paying my entrance fee, I couldn't say no).  We got to the station a good half hour early.  Got to meet Felix the station cat, one of our weird local celebrities, but he was busy with some stalking on the platforms and didn't pay us much attention.  The only problem was the weather.  It was bitterly cold that morning.  Truly horrendous.  The train replacement bus was thankfully well heated and off we went, me with a couple of slices of toast in my stomach and dreams of my companion's decision to get a massive Wetherspoon's breakfast in my head.  Got to the venue, didn't fancy the warm up.  I'm not big on public dancing.  We got to our appointed gate and shivered violently for a while before the elites set off.  I think I was faintly nervous but the race atmosphere is actually pretty intoxicating.  More than anything else, I wanted to get moving just to warm up.  Eventually we were allowed to start.  I'd had all these idea about there being huge crowds to cheer us on and actually, yes, there were a lot of people at the start line all shouting to us.  That was actually great.  For someone who's been the fat kid for 20 years, being cheered on by strangers for a sporting achievement is inconceivable.  I actually belonged with this giant crowd of sweating, gasping idiots.  I was a runner now.  I'd joined the club which organised the training program a while ago but this really cemented it.
The crowds soon thinned out and we were heading up a main road through Leeds.  That was really fun, just running along what should have been a crowded main road through familiar surroundings.  We hit a retail park and diverted through (I think to add another 0.5k to complete the full distance) and headed up to Kirkstall Abbey.  After a while I saw people coming the other way and was heartened.  We couldn't have been that far off, the race leaders were running the other way.  Then I realised that this was the "sub 30 minutes" crowd.  That was a blow.
As we reached Kirkstall Abbey and the water station, I realised my pacing was a little off.  I was getting quite fatigued, even if the water helped significantly.  I had a playlist on my phone to keep me entertained and really to help with the mental aspect of things but it was getting quite hard.  Come 7k, I was getting close to finished and more than a little nauseous.  I really was worried I was just going to vomit on the street.  We passed our local radio station's little presence, more shouting, then kept on going.  Eventually the 9k marker came.  I know my time is around 6 minutes per kilometre, I knew I wasn't far and I kept running into colleagues who'd shout encouraging things.  I'd gone out for evening runs with a couple of them before an it was almost a kind of team thing.  As we climbed the last hill and I could just about see the finish line, it was time to use up the last reserves on a proper sprint finish.  I had my playlist on random but it had thankfully never hit one particular song, "Hopes and Dreams" from the Undertale soundtrack.  It's got an incredible amount of energy behind it and it's played during the most emotionally charged part of one of the most profound and powerful media experiences I've ever had.  The opening violin strains kicked in and I knew that no matter how much it was hurting now, I'd be sprinting until the end.
Somebody at work commented on the race photos a few days ago.  Said that in one of them it looked like I was roaring with determination.  I really was.
The finish line came and went.  Gate time around 1:17, I think.  I'd been hoping for 1 hour but to finish without losing pace was more than enough.  A merciful angel delivered unto us white chocolate lion bars and had I been a man of less self control, I may have made love to her there and then.  I would have melted that cheeky little crunchy chocolate beast and injected it right into my heart.  It was manna from Heaven.  Another person gave me a finisher's shirt.  So here I was, the fat kid who didn't get out much with one of those fancy technical running tees (I believe that's the accepted terminology).  I got lost for half an hour trying to find the baggage claim and my friend from work and the training sessions. It all worked out in the end.  I was borderline delirious, I think, and very disoriented indeed.  Maybe went a bit too hard, truth be told.  We found each other, though, and the protein bar gave me enough slightly hysterical energy to get to the train station.  Bus, spoons, sausages and lager, a short trip home and we were done.

It's January now.  I'm currently weighing in at around 12st 12, 70 lbs and 5 stone later.  It's the lightest I've been since before I was a teenager.  I lift weights 5 days a week, I do sit ups to firm up the loose skin around my stomach.  Nothing in my wardrobe fits.  It's quite wonderful.  I've got a race booked for next month, a local 10k, and along with that I'm training for my first half marathon, going back to Leeds for a much longer run.  My current distance record is 16k, a solid unbroken run of 10 miles, and even then I think the only thing that keps me from going longer was excruciating dehydration and a lack of energy intake mid-run.  I sat down at the end of that jaunt with a literal hangover from lack of fluid in my body.  It's the only hangover I've ever enjoyed.

This hasn't been without down sides.  My feet are different now.  I have one permanently black toenail.  I have to carve off my calluses with a literal blade.  I've had an extensive and varied collection of blisters and there sure isn't anything quite like the sensation of a wet sock when you know that it's dry outside and strongly suspect that you're now sloshing around in your own plasma.  Dehydration, exhaustion and fatigue are painful but you get to crave them, they're badges of horrible honour.  It takes a lot of time to really get into fitness and there's no denying that.  Also, clothes are expensive and while I'm replacing my wardrobe very slowly, almost all my outfits look like I'm wearing my dad's clothes (which...well, in many cases yes, I am, we had a similar dress sense for casual stuff and it he's not gonna wear it any more so...).  But for every problem that fitness and wellbeing cause, two other seem to get solved.  I have fewer heart palpitations, I get less tired on long walks, I don't get out of breath, I've got more energy... it's all a bunch of cliched stuff but it's really true.

If anybody ever does read this, probably that best I could say by way of advice is that honestly, you probably know how to lose weight.  Eat sensible meals, cut out snacking, think a little bit before you buy your meals, make a list before you shop.  Remember that it takes more effort to walk to the machine to buy crisps than it does to just sit where you are and wait another 2 hours until home time.  Harness that apathy, let it work for you.  Don't eat chocolate because you can't be arsed to get it, that's fine, that's great, celebrate your laziness!  A good diet choice for a bad reason is still a good choice!  And exercise doesn't have to be scary, either.  Once you do a bit of it, you'll find the sense of wellbeing quite hard to give up and you may actually come to enjoy it.  Or if nothing else, you'll become an endorphin junkie and get off on the smug sense of self-satisfaction you get from having spent an hour running before a lot of folks have finished their cornflakes.