Thursday, September 26, 2013

Run To Mourn

I used to be a pretty decent runner. I wasn't competing or winning anything, but I ran and I enjoyed it. I usually ran 8-10 miles 3-4 days a week. After years of focusing on sports that required hand eye coordination and always being found wanting, I believed I was discovering my niche. My efforts had been misplaced. Basketball, soccer, baseball, football, lacrosse, cycling: I thought these were my sports, but I was wrong. I managed to avoid injuries that had plagued me when I ran before and as far as I was concerned, I could flat go. No concrete goals in mind, I ran because I liked it. I ran because running made me feel good. I ran because that speed between walking and hopping in a car is just perfect. I ran because one step out my door, my legs would take me exploring. I ran because I got fast. I will never believe my watch, but I remember one perfect, dry, cool evening in Phoenix looking down at my wrist after running six miles and it read under 36 minutes. That was two years, 30-35 pounds and a whole lot of heartache ago.

Late last year I started running again, this time it was different, though. This time I ran to exercise demons. I ran away from my problems. I ran because I was really, really ridiculously angry. I ran against a clock. I ran constantly beating myself down for not being as fast or as in shape as I wanted to be. I ran to punish myself. Unfortunately, the punishment worked better than I had planned because I was injured quickly. I needed some kind of outlet, so I changed strategies.

Speedhead to Meathead

I started going to the gym. A lot. 1.5-2 hours a day, 5-6 days a week a lot. Suddenly my goals changed quite a bit. I think most of us are guilty of having an ideal for what our bodies should look like. As a cyclist and runner, I knew I would never have the muscular, David-like physique that I idealized. I made myself okay with that because I was doing things I loved and staying fit. Now that I was hitting the weights, though, I was feeling a little different. You see, I've always kinda hated my body. In high school, I was so skinny I got called Skeletor. As I got a little older, I developed a broader chest and shoulders, but maintained my skinny limbs. I put on a little college weight and have been convinced ever since that I essentially have the body of Mr. Potato Head, the main difference between he and I being that I don't have a wife and sadly can't store spare limbs and clothing in my butt. At this point, I not only had anger, rejection and emotional self-derision as motivators, but hatred of my body as well. I think Dr. Cox sums it up best:

One more thing that Dr. Cox and I have in common is despite my hatred of my body, I do think I have a fairly nice can. The Barnes Booty is not to be trifled with.

Driven by the realization that I could possibly achieve this ideal, I really put the pressure on. Not only was I going to the gym 5-6 days a week, I was often rock climbing, mountain biking or running (If my legs let me) on my "off" days. It has not been uncommon for me to work out twice in the same day or go 14-16 days without a rest day. I did all this while convinced that my regimen was critical for my health. Emotionally, I was expending a kind of anger and violence that I couldn't in most other contexts. Physically, I appeared to be in the best shape of my life. Despite the clear warning signs concerning anger and distorted body image, I charged through every day and I was making progress toward my goals. What were my goals specifically? Well, let me show you.

I could never have those eyes. But the body? Maybe.

Yeah, I got really superficial. This is when things got even more confusing. As a culture, we often talk about the media's portrayal of the female form and how it's distorted and unreasonable. I think we are trending more and more toward the same truth with men. Between fancy camera angles, perfect poses and clever lighting we're making men look unrealistic as well. Why do I say this? Well, one day I was wondering how far off I was from being the hulking James pictured above, so I searched out his height and weight. I found that for his role as James Bond, Daniel Craig is 6'0", 180 lbs, with 10% body fat. The day I looked this up, I was 6'1", 205, 14%. While admittedly doughier than the international man of mystery, I was bigger and more muscular than him, no contest. However, I looked nothing like the above photo. I'd post a picture of myself shirtless for comparison's sake, but I'm just not that guy (Okay, I am, but I just don't want you to have incontrovertible proof that I am).

This was the first of several tough facts that I had known for a long time but had to formally admit to myself:

1. I was chasing an ideal that did not exist outside of Hollywood studios and the lives of people who commit far too much of themselves to their physical appearance or have superior genetics to mine.
2. Nothing would ever be good enough. I've said that if I reach 215 lbs with 9% body fat, I'll be happy. But I won't be. I'll want to be just a little bit bigger or to run faster or jump higher or something, anything that I'm not.
3. I need to work on my body image. Honestly, I'm like a teenage girl. By far, I receive more positive attention for my build than I have at any other point in my life. But I still see myself as a paunchy, skinny-limbed Mr. Potato Head. This is not healthy.
4. The best looking body is a healthy body.

This last point has shown itself more and more lately in my life. As my progress toward fitness has slowed, I've realized I'm just not taking care of myself. I am typically sleep deprived and throw all kinds of garbage in my body and expect it to perform at an elite level. Several times this year, I have pushed myself to the point where my body gave out and I became physically sick for a day or two. This just isn't healthy behavior. And honestly, what have I got to show for it? Certainly not that perfect body I'm chasing after.

A few weeks ago, I was getting my first massage. As I was laying on the table actually doing nothing for the first time I can remember in awhile, all of the above firmly asserted itself in my mind. It hit me that I had been abusing myself in the name of mental and physical health. It really struck me that I needed to pull back on my activity, but I knew it was highly unlikely I would do so.

Fortunately, I got a forced break just in time. I had to travel to some places where I didn't have the opportunity to hit the gym. Simultaneously, I had a friend suggest Born to Run as a book that I might be interested in reading.

Born to Run has several stories intertwined into one. The story that is most compelling to me is the one about a bunch of people who love running and love each other. Whether it's a nearly lost indio-Mexican culture or American and European ultra and marathon runners, a beautiful picture is painted of people who care deeply about caring for themselves, caring for each other and pushing themselves to the absolute limit while loving what they do. One of the main ideas set forth is that enjoying your run makes you a better runner. In one of the most poignant moments in the story, we see a tumultuous, angry runner verbally assault another happy-go-lucky runner at an aid station during a race, only to be overtaken and beaten soundly by that joyous runner later in the race. I know this feels a little new agey and weird, but perspective and emotions matter to me.

I had to ask myself a few questions. Whether running or working out, could being happier improve my performance? What if I was just happy with my body rather than judging myself while staring into the mirror at the gym? What if I listened to some uptempo music that made me happy, rather than the abrasive, offensive, violent music I listen to while exercising? What if I just ditched the headphones altogether? What if I wasn't racing ghosts and the clock on my runs? What if I just cruised and enjoyed the fact that God gave me legs that can carry me pretty amazing distances to see some pretty cool things? What if I focused on a well-balanced, vegetable rich diet rather than pumping myself full of protein in an attempt to increase my muscle mass? What if I my life was marked by discipline and joy rather than an aggressive reckless charge forward?

I think I know the answers to these questions, but living them out will be another matter. In the past couple weeks, I've tried to approach exercise with a heart of fun and enjoyment. When it starts to suck, I stop and go do something else. But I've still got goals, some of which are unreasonable, but I'm working toward something better. I've hit a tipping point. I used to run and lift exclusively to chase after ideals and so I wouldn't be angry. Now, I'm moving toward a place where these things bring me joy. I've got a long way to go, but I'm hoping to enjoy the journey.