215 to Tough Mudder
On August 16th I did Tough Mudder in Tahoe (technically it’s in Truckee). I completed the course - I failed on one obstacle and skipped 2/3rds of another, but otherwise I fucking did it. I was covered in scrapes and bruises and my everything was sore and aching for days after. If you’d told me ten years ago that I would be able to do Tough Mudder, I’d have laughed at you - probably choking on soda and junk food in the process. I didn’t wake up one day and decide to do Tough Mudder on a whim. I wasn’t born with a metabolism and body naturally suited to that kind of competition. I played soccer for six (non-consecutive) years during childhood/adolescence and I was the only one of my siblings to even participate in a sport outside of required PhysEd classes in school - but I have never really been ‘athletic.’ I’ve always seen myself as the fat friend..
But today I am basically the size that I was when I graduated high school in 2000 - wearing pants size 32W and, finally in the past month or so, making the transition from wearing shirts size Medium to Small. After topping out at pants size 38W in college and steadily wearing 36W and Large size shirts for almost ten years, in 2010 I dropped to W34 and Medium shirts. In high school I was able to maintain my size primarily by not eating breakfast and lunch during the school week. Seriously. I gained well over 50lbs my freshman year of college and I let myself go - I was undergoing a gender transition (basically a second puberty) and gave up on trying to take care of myself in terms of nutrition health as a result. In the years before I had surgery it was hard to work up the motivation to work out or do much of any physical activity while wearing a tight compression shirt. So I didn’t work out. I didn’t make any effort to eat well or take care of myself. Though I will never claim to have had an ‘eating disorder’, my eating has always been disordered.
I finally freed myself of the excuses of binding in early 2007, and later that year I took up the one physical activity I have ever maintained in my life. Indoor rock climbing. It took me months to work my way up to climbing at the level that most of my friends would start at. I still remember completing my first 5.7 climb - I was shaking so badly from the effort that it was at least five minutes before I could untie myself. But I stuck at it and slowly got better. Though climbing never helped me lose weight, I became more active and began to feel better about myself. About a year after I started climbing, as a favor to a friend I went to a student medical clinic and had a physical done. I hadn’t stepped on a scale in years. I always said ‘I don’t care what I weigh, it doesn’t matter’. But I learned that day that I weighed 215lbs. I’m (generously) 5’4”. Even taking into account my genetic tendency to be heavier than I look, that’s way heavier than I’d even thought I might be.
But what could I do? I saw the scale, I knew the problem, but you can’t just magically lose weight overnight and there’s no ‘lose weight fast’ solution that is sustainable. I also refused to police myself, I would not start eating ‘diet food’ and be miserable. What I did, on that day in 2008, was simply decide this: I’m going to change - I’m going to turn this around and I need to start somewhere. (Do Something)
At the time I was working in retail and since eating in the break room was a joke (you had to move out of someone’s way every 3-5 minutes, it was quite literally not possible to take a relaxing break in that room), I ate out at restaurants for lunch every single day. So what I did, as my first step in the fall of 2008, was this: I stopped getting sodas and fries with my lunches. If I was getting a sandwich or burger or something, that was all I got. A few months later, in early 2009, a friend showed me one of those calorie counting apps on their iPhone. I got myself one of those apps and I spent the next year calorie counting. By the spring of 2010 I finally had a handle on it and stopped using the app. By that fall, I was down a waste size in pants and down a shirt size through portion control alone. I backslid a bit the next spring - it probably would have been worse if I hadn’t begun to take my lunch to work four days a week at the same time. Despite the setback, I maintained my newly achieved clothing sizes. And though I didn’t lose any more weight, I wasn’t gaining again. I would guess that during that time I was hovering around 195lbs - about 20lbs down from where I had started three years before. This was strictly through portion control - I was still eating the same crap food, I just wasn’t eating as much as I had been.
I made a few attempts after that to eat healthier and to establish a workout habit, but nothing stuck. I would go to the gym and do an hour on the elliptical, I’d do P90X workouts after work - both turned out to be murder on my bad knee, so I eventually gave up on both. I was still climbing, but I had plateaued.
I broke the plateau in February of 2013. I try to use the month of February, every year, to establish a new or break an old habit. I figure it’s the shortest month of the year, if I’m going to form a new or break an old habit every day for a month, I stand the best chance of success with February and I had seen success in the past with things like ‘Take my lunch to work every day for the month of February’ turning into ‘Take my lunch to work 3-4 days a week’, so I decided to spend that month not drinking soda. I had made many attempts over the years to kick my soda habit - I’d even once tried to spend a past February simply not drinking soda, but I hadn’t made it then. During college, I used to buy cans of Coke by the crate at Costco and chain drink them (popping open new cans before finishing the old one). I had gotten my habit down to one soda a day at lunch during the week, but I was still buying bottles of soda on the weekends. But I didn’t drink any soda for the month of February last year - if I felt myself tempted to drink soda, I would ask myself ‘Well, is it still February? Yes? Then no, not today. In a few weeks if you still really want it.’ And though I’ve had the occasional soda since then, they are few are far between. I had finally broken my sugar addiction - no easy thing. I also began to buy vegetables and less food with added sugar. I stopped stocking my apartment with junk food.
In June of last year, Dr. Rose from Foodist came and gave a talk at my work. Inspired by her talk (and book, which I highly recommend), I bought a FitBit and made another change to my eating habits - rather than just focusing on less junk food and more vegetables, I began to cut out most processed (pre-packaged) food. I eventually started making my own sugar-free breakfast cereal and salad dressing. I still eat processed foods, but I’m mindful about it now. I read the ingredients of everything I buy. From June to September of last year, I dropped down to my current (approximate) weight of 165lbs. I say ‘approximate’ because, though I religiously weighed myself for many months after I plateaued at 165lbs, I had not weighed myself for many months. I am no longer concerned about my weigh as a number. I am concerned only about remaining healthy and active and focusing on what I’m eating and doing (in terms of active time). Weight is just a number to me now and that is a huge privilege, hard earned.
But even with my weight no longer a concern, I felt like I could still improve myself - I wanted a challenge. I needed something to push myself to the next level, I needed to shape up. Aside from climbing, which was becoming more and more infrequent, and making sure I hit my daily step goal with my FitBit, I wasn’t getting any regular exercise. Then, at the beginning of May, an email came through at work, inviting anyone interested to join the Tough Mudder team. The email said they would be doing trail runs and team climbing trips. I read up on Tough Mudder and knew that this was it - my challenge. Perfect, too, because there would be a team and a goal in mind. I thought to myself “I can do this - I’ve been climbing for seven years now, I just need to start running.” So I began to run. I plotted out a progression plan, but basically I just decided one morning to wake up and fucking run. The first run I did was about a half mile out, then I was going to walk back, and I did walk back most of the way but I ran about half of it because I felt like I could. I slowly increased the distance I was doing, I didn’t run every day, and about three weeks later when I went on my first Tough Mudder training trail run, I had worked my way up to running about 2.5 miles about three days a week. That first trail run was 5 miles total - 2.5 miles out and then back. I did fine on the way out and suffered hard on the way back, but I made it. And I kept going. The longest trail run we did in training was probably a shade over 9 miles. I can fit in about a 6.5 mile morning run if I get up early enough (though I’m more likely to do between 2 and 5 miles). Running isn’t always easy, but the high I get out of it brings me back again and again. I’ve had to stop for shin splints, for runners trots, and for just feeling shitty. But even if I took a day, two days, three days, a week off, I was still coming back to it and running again.
Early on in my running, I was also trying to cross train by adding in some Focus T25 workouts, but I didn’t have the energy for it. I was continuing to climb whenever I could also. As Tough Mudder got closer, I was getting super excited. And then, not quite two weeks before the event, doing nothing unusual or even training related, I sprained my left foot. I don’t know when exactly it happened - I was climbing in the morning and after climbing, I noticed that it really hurt to walk. I spent a few days not walking much (which was difficult for me, I usually try to do about 20k steps a day) and, after it hadn’t hurt for two days and I hadn’t limped for almost a week - two days before Tough Mudder I did a slow and easy 2 mile morning run. My foot hurt for a few hours after the run, but by the end of the day there was no pain and the next day it didn’t hurt at all. So I was all systems go for Tough Mudder.
Before signing up for Tough Mudder, I had read up on all the possible obstacles. The day before, they posted the course map and obstacles. I read up on each one again and watched at least one YouTube video of each obstacle included. Most of them I knew would be challenging, but I was sure I could do them (crawling through mud, though not comfortable, is not something I shy away from). What concerned me the most were: the final obstacle, ElectroShock Therapy, where you are pretty much guaranteed to get electric shocks, and the one called the Funky Monkey, which is inclined monkey bars high over a deep pit of water. Most of the other upper-body intensive obstacles didn’t really concern me - Balls to the Wall where you use a rope and your feet to climb over a high wall, and Ladder to Hell where you climb up and over a high slatted wall - I knew that, though these would come late in the course, I was more than capable of doing them. And I did and they were fine - challenging but fun. The Funky Monkey, though - that came after the rest and really had me worried. I’d been hanging and doing pull ups on my door-frame pull up bar at home to help prepare for the entire course generally. But I had not successfully crossed even a short span of monkey bars since I was 5 years old. Back then, I had practiced hard and was able to cross the monkey bars on our backyard swing set. One night after dinner I was practicing in order to be ready to show off for my grampa, who had come over for dinner. I fell off the monkey bars and landed on my arm, breaking my wrist. Though in the past few months I had done a few monkey bars here and there at various parks I’d take my niece and nephew to, I hadn’t really done the monkey bars since 1987.
The Funky Monkey was in the last mile of the course - I had already done over 9 miles of running, up and down hills, and doing various obstacles that had left me with bloody knees and elbows, as well as a cut up left hand (though all cuts on my hand were outside of the zone engaged by hanging on the bars, thankfully). I stood waiting my turn and knew that I couldn’t overthink it, I just had to grab those bars and fucking go. It was my turn, I stood on the platform and looked up at the bars. The guy said ‘Go!’ and I swung out, taking the bars one at a time, knowing that I had to keep my momentum up - I kept my eyes locked and focused on the next bar, never looking down. I chanted to myself ‘Just Keep Going’ as I went. At least two or three times I almost lost momentum, but I kept going and when I did stop to look down, I was well over the platform on the other side and everyone was calling out to me that I’d made it, I could let go and land. I was shaking for minutes after I landed. I wanted to cry, but I didn’t have the strength - I still had to make it up Everest (which I did on my first try, with assistance).
Though I ate shit hard on Electroshock Therapy - and I would not do that one again - I finished the course. Aside from falling off just shy of halfway along on the Pole Dancer obstacle, and skipping the last two of the Berlin Walls, I did every obstacle successfully (many with help). I earned that headband, (small!) shirt, and beer.
Today, all my scabs have come off and healed nicely. I’ve been running and climbing a few times since finishing - I have my first 5K coming up in a few weeks. This isn’t really a story about how I ‘lost weight’, though I did do that. Weight is just one number that doesn’t necessarily reflect your overall health - just as calorie counting can be helpful but is not the definitive measure of health either. Though I spent three months training for Tough Mudder, I spent about five years prior to that making small changes to turn my life around. I wasn’t happy, not only because I was heavier than I wanted to be, not only because I didn’t think I looked good - I didn’t have confidence. I didn’t have my health. I was often sick, had indigestion, would cycle through comfort eating and guilt eating and hating myself. Now, if I want ice cream, I eat some fucking ice cream. If I want a treat, I’ll have a treat. But I don’t want them nearly as often or in anywhere near the volume that I used to. And I know that I’m going to keep running. And I know that I’m lucky to enjoy running - I didn’t always enjoy running, but I’ve always loved the feeling of exhilaration that it brings. And I’m not really writing this as an inspirational message, but if that’s what you’re looking for, I have this to say - you don’t have to start where I started, you don’t even have to start trying to make changes in your life. But if, like I was, you’re not happy with yourself, you can start off with the smallest of changes and end up with huge results. It took me years and it hasn’t been easy. But it happened. And is still happening. I didn’t follow a fad diet or workout program. I made permanent changes to my life (on Foodist she calls it your ‘healthstyle’) and, as much of an asshole as it makes me sound, I’m pretty fucking happy about where I’ve ended up.
PHOTOS: A ‘Before and After’ photo of my weight/size loss - the first was taken at Angels Landing in Zion, Utah in 2007. The second was taken at the top of Mission Peak in Fremont, CA in 2013. Then there are the ‘Before and After’ team photos from Tough Mudder last month.