How to lose weight when you’re 46 years old and genetically disadvantaged

I promised my sister I’d post about my recent weight loss when I hit 125. I’m a little over 126, but I have a day off from all responsibilities today, so I’ll go right ahead since I expect to be down to 125 within a few days anyway.

When we got back from a visit with Jonathan’s family in England in May I weighed a whopping 141 pounds. I’ve been struggling with weight since late 2009. I’m still not sure why I put on roughly 10 pounds over the course of about 8 months. Nearly half of that piled on within about two months of starting a new birth control pill (Loestrin 24). Then the next 6 arrived very slowly over time. It may have been hormonal. My metabolism may have simply ground to a halt that year. Dunno.

Over the past 18 months of so of trying to shed the extra poundage, I could not get rid of it by eating sensibly, nor did heavy mileage help. I sought the help of a nutritionist and an endocrinologist late last year, also to no avail.

No wonder I'm so slow. I've been running carrying the equivalent of this box of cat litter for the past several years.

When I weighed myself on May 18, seeing a number over 140 — a weight that was flirting with what I weighed before I started running 12 years ago (an endeavor started because I’d gotten so fucking fat) — the same sense of shame and outrage that overtook me in 1999 reemerged. It galvanized me, inspiring a steely resolve: I was going to lose this fat even if people had to die.

In roughly two months, I’ve lost about 15 pounds. Fortunately, no one has died. It’s been a pretty simple process, but it has not been easy. Here’s how I did it, along with some observations and tips. I should note that I’m no medical expert and this has been an experiment on myself, not unlike the one William Hurt performed in Altered States. Although I have not yet broken into a zoo and eaten an antelope [2:20]. But, believe me, I’ve been close a few times.

Here’s what didn’t work

Going to an endocrinologist in search of a hormonal or other chemical explanation. I got tested for various things and got the all clear. I also got this annoyingly generic piece of medical insight: “Most women gain weight in middle age, especially around the waist.” Yeah, well, I’m not most women.

Going to a sports nutritionist. This was another useless exercise. For four months I followed a supposed expert’s advice, tolerated her insinuations that I was not being honest about what I was eating, and grew increasingly frustrated.

Going off the pill. Actually, that may have sort of worked, but it’s taken forever. Here’s something else I’ve observed: every gynecologist and article will tell you that the hormones in the pill are gone from your system in a week or two. I don’t believe this is true, based on several things. For one, I’ve had friends who were on the pill and went off it in an effort to get pregnant. Some of them took as long as six months to get knocked up. For another, the whole reason I went on the thing (beyond the obvious) was to regulate my wild cycles. I could swing 10 days in either direction. Yet for four months after I stopped taking it in January, I could predict my cycle’s start by not only the day, but also by the hour. In the last month I’ve started to go all wacky and unpredictable again. My weight loss rate has also picked up slightly. Coincidence? Again, dunno.

So what did work?

The nutritionist told me that my resting metabolic rate plus non-running movements resulted in a need for around 1850 calories a day. This was just to function. We based everything on that. I was told not to ever cut more than 500 calories a day from base + exercise output total (I don’t know what awful thing would happen if I did; maybe I’d actually lose weight?). Plus I was given elaborate formulas for how many grams of carbohydrate and protein to take in before a workout and in the hours after a workout in order to recover properly.

I’m sorry, but it was all bollocks. I lost no weight on this plan.

So you know what I did? I took the base calorie intake she had me on — roughly 1650 a day — and chopped it in half. That’s right: my new caloric ceiling was around 850. If I did any exercise, I’d add those calories back in. Here’s an example:

Base calorie intake: 850
Run 6 miles easy: 500
Total allowed: 1350

Following this rather parsimonious formula, I lost a little over 2 pounds the first week, then another 1.5 the following week. It’s varied from week to week, but it’s basically been around 1.5 pounds per week. During a PMS week, I usually stagnate, although I don’t gain water weight like I used to, so I think I’m still “stealth losing.”

There’s no secret to this

The laws of thermodynamics are absolute. Unless you’ve got a thyroid or other issue, if your body is deprived of external sources of fuel, it will start burning its own.

But it’s really hard to do

Aside from the behavioral challenges, I’ve got a few other things working against me. For one, I’m way over 40. If you think you can eat the way you did in your 20s and 30s, just wait. You can’t. For another, my physique lies somewhere along the body type spectrum between mesomorph and endomorph. I blame my Viking genes: you need a lot of muscle for hefting swords and engaging in extended bouts of raping and pillaging, plus you need fat to keep you from becoming too cold in Spitzbergen or wherever the hell my ancestors were from. I build muscle very easily, which is great if I want to be a power lifter, but useless for distance running. So I actually have to be careful about doing too much weight or other resistance work. For another, I hold onto fat like it’s going out of style. I gain it easily and then have a bastard of a time getting rid of it.

What does it all mean?

It means that while it’s possible for me to lose fat, it’s difficult and takes a huge effort and commitment. Have you ever tried living on 850 calories a day? It takes planning. It’s tedious. You’re hungry often. But seeing a pretty much constant weight loss of around 1-2 pounds a week is a great motivator. As I said to someone recently, I can deal with eating 850 calories a day for three months more easily than I can deal with eating 1200 calories a day for six months.

Are you ready to suffer? Here are some handy tips!

Use a calorie tracking program. There is no other way to know what you’re taking in and using up. I like Tap and Track for the iPhone.

Plan ahead. If you have a job that you travel to (as I have since I started this venture), pack your food. Apportion your calories among various food items and stick those items in your bag. If you eat all your food too early in the day, tough luck. You’ll only do this a few times.

Stop drinking. I shouldn’t have to explain this one. With only 850 calories to play with, there is no room for extravagances like liquor. Bonus: you’ll avoid embarrassing Ambien episodes.

Eat “big food.” These are foods that have a high density and volume relative to their caloric content. Examples are: fruits, vegetables, and lean animal proteins. I have gotten a lot of mileage out of grapes, cherries, nectarines, corn on the cob, steak and chicken.

Eat small amounts of fat throughout the day. For example, while nuts are very calorie dense, they will keep you full because they take forever to digest. Also, a cup of coffee with half and half will stave off hunger for a good hour or two.

When the hunger pangs get too bad, just close your eyes and think of England. Failing that, eat your own hand — preferably the one you don’t favor. It’s low in calories and you have another one if you need to make a phone call or something.

A special note for runners

Bear in mind that I’ve only been running 30-40 miles per week during this process and doing 2 hard sessions tops. I don’t know that I’d attempt this during a heavier training schedule. Also note that I’ve been careful to make sure I take in at least 200 grams of carbohydrates and 75 grams of protein a day. On days after a hard run or race, I’ll up the calorie intake a bit because I’m usually starving and to me that’s a signal that I need more food in order to recover properly.

Why am I doing this?

Because I not only looked a lot better when I weighed somewhere in the low 120s, but I ran better too. I am now running a lot faster, despite the heat and humidity. But more on that soon.

Running moment to moment in lane 4

[Warning: A bout of confessional bloggorhea follows. There is a running pay off, though. And maybe other useful things.]

This past fall and winter were rough. When I think of 2010, I see a year that began with disappointment and frustration (following hot on the heels of a less-than-stellar 2009), then had a fabulous high point — a couple of extremely good and gratifying months in early summer — and then began a nosedive in August followed by a flap-rattling death roll through the rest of the year and into this one. The ups and downs (mostly downs) weren’t limited to running — there were work/career goings on, social stuff, financial stuff. You name it. It was a year of extremes in many ways.

While I’d hoped that 2011 would bring instant relief — I don’t know why, since it’s just a calendar page, or dropped Times Square ball, or new crow’s foot, or however you keep score — the hideous blob of sheer misery and distress that was laying waste to my psychic backyard was rapidly advancing toward my mental domicile’s shaky foundation in the new year in a most horrific way.

On this blog I have not made a secret of my history of anxiety, a problem that I still struggle with now. I’ve also got a long history of depression — a constant kind (called dysthymia) which sometimes erupts into major depression (a delightful sequence known as “double depression”). This glowing tinder of seemingly innate unhappiness has become a full on conflagration on several occasions in my life, lasting anywhere from weeks to more than a year. I’d gotten a reprieve for most of the 2000s and thought I was out of the woods. But it was back late last year.

Why did I get depressed this time around? In some ways, it’s an impossible question. Why does anyone get depressed? Normal people — meaning people who are not otherwise vulnerable to depressive states — will get depressed in reaction to some catalyzing event: extreme loss, for example. Again, this is normal. Others, like me, will get knocked slightly off balance by some event that is not on its face disastrous — in my case, it was a couple of things that don’t need detailing here, but [here's the tie-in] included my stress fracture and subsequent total layoff from running for about 4 months. It’s not an event in particular that’s causing the quick slide down off the mountain. The event may be disappointing, but it’s not the problem. The problem is the reaction to the event — or, really, the chain reaction of mental machinations, all of them harmful in their extremity and breadth, and based on ingrained patterns from previous death spirals, that cranks into motion after that single event.

And what’s feeding that engine of awfulness? For me, it’s anxiety. And feeling bad about the anxiety. Then the anxiety about the anxiety feeds the depression and then the depression, in turn, feeds back into the anxiety in a crescendoing feedback loop. Pretty soon the top flies off your Waring blender of distress (“Hey, what’s that burning smell?”) and before you know it your kitchen walls are covered in the worst parts of yourself.

Holy crap. I finally get this. For some reason, this was the year that I was able to step back and observe what happens. I couldn’t stop it from happening, mind you. But, once things lifted enough for me to think straight, I could somewhat recognize cause-and-effect/effect-and-cause. That small shard of perspective produced a glimmer of hope. That hope got me thinking. The thinking got me reading. The reading got me working.

It’s not fun to be me much of the time. I think I’ve established that. But I will always be me, so I’d better learn how to live with myself. What I suspect needs to happen is that, going forward, I need to focus less on fixing and more on just being aware of the pattern and movement of my own thoughts and feelings, with an aim to get out of my own way. Floating, not flailing. I don’t write all this because I feel sorry for myself. I write it because I’m a slow learner and I hope that someone else can learn from it a little quicker than I have. It’s also nice to share news about things that are working well.

I am now trying some things that are wacky, or at least they are to me. I gave up on psychoanalysis several years ago. I will not take meds for these problems, as that presents a host of other potential problems in the form of side effects and — let’s face it — masking rather than actually addressing what’s going wrong. I am taking a bunch of vitamins and supplements that supposedly help with moods. We’ll see what those do or don’t do. I don’t put a lot of stock in them, but I figure they can’t hurt. I’m off synthetic hormones. I stop at one drink now.

But the heart of everything else I’m doing is a twosome of cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) and “mindfulness,” areas I only just became aware of quite recently. I so wish my former analyst had looked at me in 1991 and said, “Julie, your habitual thought patterns are toxic and your perceptions are totally distorted. You need CBT for your anxiety and the depression it fosters, not years of analysis from me.” But Freudian analysis is at best a quaintly blinkered belief system and at worst a cult perpetuated by adherents who I believe only have the best of intentions, so I bear them no ill will. But given what I know now, I’m not surprised that our exchange never took a more practical turn.

Okay. So what does any of this have to do with running? Fair question.

Running.

Running.

Running has given me so much when it’s gone well, but has hurt me so deeply when it hasn’t. Or, rather, it has set me up perfectly to hurt myself deeply. This time around, it lit a fire of depression. When I was limping around with my stress fracture in the fall, my dad, himself a former obsessed marathoner asked, “Why do you keep doing this to yourself?” By that I think he meant: “Why do you keep making this so important and setting yourself up for a fall in the process?”

The answer to that is because I thought in running I had found a source of pleasure and achievement that I could control. Boy, was I wrong about that! A sane person would have stopped caring so much about it after it went so wrong for so long. But I reacted by stubbornly caring about it even more. I devised new goals, goals that may or may not have been realistic. It doesn’t matter if they were or are. The problem is that I had goals.

Getting better. Changing myself. Fixing what’s wrong. Whether we’re talking about running or about my state of mind, these are all bad goals. They are all about forcing something to happen, denying what’s actually happening, giving potency to something that’s nothing, missing what’s real, and often good.

Edited: One book I’m reading quotes from Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet

“How could we forget those ancient myths that stand at the beginning of all races — the myths about dragons that at the last moment are transformed into princesses. Perhaps all the dragons in our lives are only princesses waiting for us to act, just once, with beauty and courage. Perhaps everything that frightens us is, in its deepest essence, something helpless that wants our love.

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises before you larger than any you’ve ever seen, if an anxiety like light and cloud shadows moves over your hands and everything you do. You must realize that something has happened to you; that life has not forgotten you; it holds you in its hands and will not let you fall. Why do you want to shut out of your life any uneasiness, any miseries, or any depressions? For after all, you do not know what work these conditions are doing inside you.”

One of the wackier things I’m trying — the “mindfulness” part — is meditation. I would like to say that I suck at it. But that would involve a judgment and I’m gathering that the whole point of meditation is to be, not to do. If you’re sitting there meditating and thinking, “I’m not meditating the right way,” you’re lost. You need to just sit there and be. If in one moment you realize that you’re thinking about what to make for dinner, then you’re doing it right; the work lies in the realizing and the accepting, not the thinking or the not thinking. Gaining an awareness of whatever’s going on in your head means you’re on the right track. Awareness of “mistakes” — and refusal to label them as such — is the success, not the failure.

Supposedly meditation can actually change your brain chemistry, affecting key areas like the amygdala, which is our brain’s bus driver for fear reactions (“fight or flight” — the core of all externally expressed anxiety)  and so-called “emotional memory” formation, and which comes into play in conditions like social phobia, depression and other problems that are near and dear to my heart and history. Working with the hypothalamus, the amygdala also regulates some aspects of our nervous system. Read up if you’re interested, since I’m sure I’ll screw something up if I continue here. I found it intriguing enough to pursue in addition to the more directed methods offered by CBT. This book, which was created by some of the authors of this study, in particular has been quite the mind- and eye-opener. Its approach works as well as happy pills, but doesn’t make you fat, dizzy or dullwitted in the process.

But back to running. All this other stuff I’m doing is having an effect on running, which is a welcome, and quite unexpected, side effect. I am starting to naturally run without goals, without expectations and without judgment. This is making running easier in ways I did not expect. For example, I had a very tough track session today. Since it’s unusual, I think Coach Sandra would consider it “proprietary,” so I won’t give details. But there was short stuff (a lot!) followed by semi-short stuff, followed by a long interval that was to be run “all out.”

I had never done this workout before. It frightened me a little, but I went in with an open mind. Stuff that normally would have bothered me didn’t today.

People were wandering chaotically around the track. I like running in lane 4 because it’s closest to 400m (the track in Bronxville is screwy because they shoved it into too-small a space, but the installers chose aesthetics over accuracy for the markers — so no lane is exactly 400m — inner lanes are shorter, outer lanes are longer). I did not let the dawdling interlopers get to me. I ran around them. I did not have to run in lane 4 at all times. Accuracy didn’t matter. The effort is what mattered.

I did not think of the many repeats/rests that lay ahead. I thought only of the one I was doing. I didn’t think of how far I was from finishing it. I didn’t think, with dread, “Oh, god, 300m to go…” or, with resentment, “This fucking wind is slowing me down” or any of the usual stuff I do when I’m doing track work. I just ran at what I thought was the appropriate effort at that point in time and kept the rest of the workout out of my mind. I would get there when I got there.

At one point I was running fast and realized that I was totally relaxed, watching my hands swing up, my right arm swing and wrist angle completely different from my left, something I now accept rather than try to correct, my flats eating up the curve. I enjoyed running in that moment. Thinking about it right now makes me happy. My splits were remarkably even — for 18 intervals (I did an extra by accident). Like within a second or two of each other. No watch required.

The last, killer interval was awful. It was slow, something I knew without looking at my watch. Then I realized that it probably wasn’t supposed to be fast. It couldn’t be. I had exhausted myself with the previous few miles of faster running; my legs were burning and aching. I realized midway through that I was now doing “get comfortable with suffering” training, something I’ve come to recognize in some of Sanda’s workouts. I made a mental note to ask her what the purpose of that horrible last big push was — mental, physical or both — and then I gently returned my attention to my hands, my feet and the metres unfolding in front of me.

Training: Jan 30-Feb 12

Astute readers will notice that I’ve skipped a week, Jan 23-29. That was just an awful, awful week, runningwise and in all other respects. Let’s move on.

What I like most about the above image is that it’s starting to look like the log of someone who is actually training. I’m not training for anything just yet, but I will be soon. For now, I’m just focusing on getting the mileage consistently in the 50mpw range and getting in at least two (preferably three) quality workouts a week. If I can do this for a few more weeks and stay uninjured, I will be a very happy woman indeed.

Then I will start worrying about training for my only real “goal” race on the near-term horizon, the Long Island Half on May 1. I’ll only have about two months to train, which probably isn’t enough for running my best. But I just want to run a decent half marathon. On the way, I’ll run two NYRR club points races: the Coogan’s 5K in early March and the Scotland 10K five weeks after that. To prepare for those I will be doing a fair amount of fartlek and tempo running over the coming few weeks. I hate 5Ks, but it’s a points race, so what the hell. I’m looking forward to the 10K.

After Coogan’s I’ll start focusing on training for the Long Island Half on May 1. I am hoping that by then I’ll have a good mix of speed and endurance in place. The Scotland Run should be a good “thermometer” race midway through that training cycle. It’s true that eight weeks is probably not enough to produce a great half performance, but I don’t have a lot invested in a May race. I just want to not implode during training, run a good race, and feel like I’m set up for starting marathon training in the summer (and perhaps I’ll run a good Mini 10K in June).

But I must stay uninjured.

To help preserve this state of affairs, I am stretching and rolling fairly regularly these days — maybe 4-5 evenings a week. This is a harder habit to establish than was daily flossing (which I am doing, by the way), probably because flossing takes 30 seconds and rolling/stretching takes 30-60 minutes. I would like to be getting more massages than I am, but money’s tight so I need to do that judiciously. I also started breaking up some recovery runs into doubles to try to further give the graint a rest. I did an eight mile run after Sunday’s race and that was a mistake. Mr. Leg was not happy.

Sandra has a standard pre-race-week schedule — for shorter distances, meaning half marathon on down — and I notice that she crams in two hard workouts back to back. This week I followed that schedule, piling on the work on Wednesday and Thursday: two hard runs plus a big weight session (I added that one — don’t try this at home before a race). The little recovery run on Wednesday evening helped enormously, I think. My legs felt ready for the progression run. Paces are no longer embarrassing: 6:20-6:40 for the fartlek segments and 7:00-7:20 for the fast finish run. My graint was bugging me during the fartleks (so I cut out the two minute segments on the second set), but it was not terrible.

I was tired on Thursday and Friday evenings, and hungry, so I know I worked hard. But I am okay today and plan to do 10 miler in Central Park tomorrow with at least the last two miles at what I suspect is probably my current marathon pace, maybe around 7:40-7:50 on those hills. I was going to do 12, but that’s too far still. Especially after this, what I think of as my first significant (running) training week since the summer.

One word about the metabolic testing that happened last week. There was no metabolic testing, as it turns out. It was actually just a V02 max test. That’s because there was no C02 sensor in the machine. Which explains why, when Jonathan was asking them about “fat vs. carbohydrate usage,” they looked at him somewhat blankly and didn’t give a straight answer. Now I’m really glad I didn’t pay for it.

But all is not lost. The Nutritionist is consulting nutritionist to the Columbia University sports department, where she is also an adjunct, and Columbia is outfitted with metabolic testing equipment (and, presumably, people who know what they’re doing). But it’s on the fritz! What is it with sports testing equipment?! As soon as it’s fixed, I’ll probably go run on a treadmill with a mask attached to my face again, as well as get the resting metabolic test done (which the other place also neglected to do, although they could have with another machine they have).

I’m down a couple of pounds, finally. But it’s too soon to declare victory. When I’m down five pounds I’ll feel more encouraged. The Nutritionist is working with a basketball player who has the same issue with fat loss, except she’s 6’4″ and weighs around 225 pounds. We are the hard cases.

The fat mystery widens

I went to The Nutritionist today. It’s been about a month since I last saw her. Since then I’ve been declared healthy by The Endocrinologist and I have had a VO2 max test at a local gym/personal training place in Hartsdale. But apparently the testers did not do a resting metabolic rate test, which they were supposed to. My data readouts also did not include calorie usage at the various heart rates, another requirement. The Nutritionist thinks the data for the latter is probably still in their machine, so she’s going to go try to get it from them. If it looks wacky, I will need to go back for a resting metabolic rate test. And if it’s not available, I’ll have to go for the VO2 max test again.

It’s been around 7 weeks since I first met with The Nutritionist and in this time, following what normal people follow to lose fat, I should have lost about 4 lbs. I have lost nothing. I have tracked every morsel of food and in fact, when asked if I’ve failed to account for the errant cookie, had to point out the cake I had for breakfast one day as well as double or triple vodka shots some evenings. I’ve been honest, even about things I’m not proud of.

It seems that on some days I am cutting too few calories, too many on others. I also am failing to take in enough carbohydrates after hard workouts. And I don’t eat enough fruits and vegetables. So I’m going to be given a menu of what to eat and when. We’re cutting calorie intake slightly. Then after we chase down the missing data, perhaps make more adjustments.

I would by lying if I said I wasn’t losing both faith and patience.

Here’s what the VO2 max test was like, if you’re curious. I was told that the place preferred to do it on a bike, and now I know why (wait for it). I requested a treadmill test nevertheless. I’m a runner, so I figured the calorie vs. heart rate/pace data would be more useful to me as a runner. Too bad it’s missing!

Okay, here’s what happens: They attach a big mask to your face with straps around your head. You look just like Dennis Hopper in Blue Velvet. The mask is equipped with a flexible membrane that contains a sensor that measures your intake of oxygen vs. your expulsion of carbon dioxide. From that they determine things like aerobic threshold, lactate threshold and VO2 max. I have a tiny head (no derisive comments, please), so the straps were at their tightest. Yet still the mask was loose, which means oxygen was escaping out the top, over the bridge of my nose. This was not a good thing. So one of the trainers had to stand next to the treadmill and hold the mask in place. Awkward.

The test lasted 12 minutes. The heart rate monitor was wonky at first (which is why I rarely use them anymore), plus I was nervous, so my heart rate was a soaring 104. This is double my usual resting rate. It would not come down. So we just went ahead and started the test.

After a very short warmup at 9:30 pace we launched into things, gradually picking up the pace over the next couple of minutes. Soon I was running flat at 7:30 pace. That was a pace I could run very comfortably at, which was a pleasant discovery. I think my marathon pace must be slightly slower than that at this point. After gathering some data at that pace they started to increase the incline. Little by little, the hill got steeper and steeper and my heart rate went up and up. At the 10:45 mark it was starting to feel very hard.

Throughout this process, I could only stare straight ahead and use hand motions (thumbs up) to communicate. That’s because there was someone standing six inches away holding a mask to my face while someone else’s hands fiddled with the treadmill settings. I could not see anything below the bridge of my own nose. It was disorienting and worrying. I realized at one point that the reason they’d had me sign a waiver wasn’t that they were worried I’d drop dead of a heart attack — it was that I’d pitch backward off the treadmill and crack my skull on the belt. Tremendous concentration was required to stay upright and relaxed.

At 11:30 I was struggling. The incline was up to 4%, at 8mph about the equivalent of 6:45 (although who knows how fast the treadmill was actually going). At 12:10, with my heart rate at 202, I was gasping and we stopped the test. It was close enough to max, which I have clocked at 208 at the end of an “I’m about to puke” 5K race.

My VO2 max is 45.5 at the moment, a little lower than when I’ve been at my fittest (it’s more like 47 then). That was good to see, because it tells me that the months of mind-numbingly tedious cross-training were worthwhile and even the little bit of faster running I’ve been doing lately has helped.

The guys who did the test were really nice, and we chatted for quite awhile afterward. They don’t do many of them (which is why they did mine for free — to practice). They only work with about five runners, and I got the distinct impression that I’m the oldest one. So I sort of felt like someone’s science project. They offered to let me come back to do the test on the bike to compare the results (and, now I realize, so they could practice some more), for free. I may take them up on it.

In other news, I am registered for Sunday’s Gridiron 4 Miler in Central Park. I picked up my bib and for a moment thought, with a frisson of delight, that it was number 666. The last digit was obscured by the attached D-Tag. I am, in fact, number 661. If just five people had registered before me I could have run as The Antichrist.

The bib is blue. At least my pre-injury speedster paces have not expired as far as corral assignment goes. I was on the fence about doing this race, but getting a blue bib (it’s the color of the first corral, for those of you not in the NYRR know) makes me feel obligated in a some weird way.

I have no time goal for the race. I just want to race as best I can. It’s been six months. I miss racing. My biggest worry is that my problematic adductor will rebel, as it’s wont to do lately if I try to run too fast. I have promised myself that if it really starts to hurt then I will drop.

“Everything looks great!”

The Endocrinologist has spoken in her three-word addendum at the bottom of my test results: there’s nothing obviously wrong with me, at least in any of the areas she tested for. While I’m glad there’s nothing wrong, I was kind of hoping whatever she tested for would yield some clues.

The Nutritionist remains puzzled by my total lack of progress: “I wonder what your metabolic rate is.” Uh, I’m thinking it’s in the basement, or being warmed by magma. To get an answer to that question, I am still trying to get an appointment set up at the fitness facility with the dodgy carbon dioxide detector. No one was there today when I called — another snow day?

Yeah, so here’s the part where I whine and wallow in a most unattractive fashion.

My damned adductor is acting up again, for no apparent reason, asserting itself during a two hour driveway-clearing session this morning. It’s been snowing non-stop, making getting the 25 minutes north to the gym impossible on many days. I often don’t feel like running on our treadmill, so I blow it off; it just seems completely pointless. I’m chronically injured (as is Jonathan). I’m getting fatter, for reasons no one understands. I cannot run outside because of the snow and ice. What the fuck am I even training for? I can’t even set any goals in this current state. I will part with $290 for two Chicago Marathon registrations next week, but I don’t even know why. I don’t know if I can even handle a 4 mile race in 10 days, physically or psychologically.

Why did I love running? What did it feel like, to believe I could improve? I’m having trouble remembering.

Okay, okay, I’ll consult with an expert

I posted recently about how I’ve stopped weighing myself. Many moons ago, I posted about being a fat, fast runner. I thought I could live with my situation, but I’ve decided I can’t. Why? Because over the past month I’ve put on a ton of muscle from the increased frequency (and loads) of weight work, and also from all the pool running. But, as per usual, I have lost little to no fat in the process.

Don’t get me wrong. I am more or less happy with the way I look. Although now my clothes are starting not to fit anymore, which was the catalyst for doing a Google search. I’m actually getting bigger. I now have both fat and muscular bulk to contend with. You know what people say about not worrying that if you’re a woman you’ll bulk up when you do resistance training? Well, I’m bulking up.

I will be going to see a woman with lots of degrees who specializes in working with endurance athletes. She’s a triathlete herself. At least in our initial emails, I gather that the issue may not be one of “calories in vs. out” but rather “what kinds of calories and when.” Her fees are not outrageous. Her CV is impressive. It’s worth it to me to find out if I’m just metabolically screwed by nature of my genes or if I can actually do something about this situation. At the very least, going to see her for a few months will be cheaper than buying an entire new wardrobe.

Why I’ve truly stopped tracking my weight

Longtime readers know that I have had an extended battle with the scale, my pants and race photographers over the issue of my weight. Or, more specifically, how much fat I carry and how it affects my ability to run fast. Here, for example, is a post from nearly two years ago in which, after a couple of years of calorie counting and restriction, and obsessive-compulsive tracking of my weight (Tanita) and body fat (Omron) readings, I had made no progress and decided it was pointless to keep caring. A check of my thyroid showed nothing unusual there, so my failure to lose (as it were) was obviously my fault somehow; or that of my ancestors. But according to at least one nutritionist runner, I shouldn’t concern myself with it.

That message stuck for awhile, but in the spring of this year, aware of my lack of progress in pushing my paces and race times downward, I looked for answers in the gravitational realm once again. Out came the evil twins, Tanita and her moronic brother, Omron, as well as my demented spreadsheets (which included colorful charts of my total lack of progress). Also, over the summer I acquired an Apple iTouch and among the universe of “apps” found something called Tap and Track, which would enable me to record every moment of energy expenditure and every morsel that passed my lips.

I dutifully tracked everything. I made adjustments over weeks, increasing calories slightly, or decreasing them slightly to drastically. I teetotaled for weeks. Or drank with wild abandon. Nothing happened. I began wondering if I might be the first person in the history of eating disorders to experience no change in weight.

During this time I’d started training with Sandra and, while the workouts were hard, the mileage was about what I’d been doing since January, or around 50 mpw, with very little cross-training. Then I got injured in August and could do nothing but limp and complain for about three weeks. I was not exercising at all, so I lightened up on what I was eating to compensate. I ate lots of cabbage and non-fat yogurt. I gained just over three pounds in those three weeks.

In early September I started cross-training and over a few weeks built up to what is now a steady weekly helping of hard work, with a day off about every 8-10 days or so. I kept up my compulsive taking and recording of readings. My weight did not change. My pants even got tighter for the first few weeks, which was quite discouraging indeed. In disgust, I sent Omron back to his dungeon under the bathroom sink and stopped stepping on Tanita every morning. I ate when I was hungry (about every 2 hours), stuck with reasonable foods (I haven’t eaten junk in years) and kept alcohol intake to a minimum most nights. But I stopped keeping score on the iTouch.

Then I started to notice things. Glimpses of shoulder muscles rippling beneath the fat. My arms had a nice, inward curve where triceps meet lats. I could see the adductor muscle that is giving me so much trouble. And veins. I had veins. My blouses were getting tighter, yet, paradoxically, I had obviously lost back fat. One day, getting dressed, I flexed my back and shoulder muscles for Jonathan and asked if he noticed a difference that would explain the shirt problem. “Do that again,” he said, a little stunned. Yeah, I had muscles alright. I think the weight training and spinning have helped my lower body, while I mostly credit the pool running for my upper body development.

Finally, my pants are loosening up, despite my emerging Incredible Bulk physique. But I think I will need new shirts. I still won’t weigh myself. But for shits and giggles I did some Omron readings over the past few days and they were consistently about 2% below the ones I got earlier in the summer.

I will probably always carry considerably more fat than your typical skinny bitch marathoner. But at least I’m learning it’s possible for me to lose some of it. Best of all, I’m saving so much time now that I’ve deinstalled Tap and Track.

The MRI experience

Imagine a 50 foot tall wasp humming selections from Laurie Anderson’s album Big Science while operating a jackhammer as rhythm accompaniment. That’s kind of what an MRI sounds like.

Jonathan tried to prepare me for the experience, as did others. But it’s nearly impossible to fully impart what such a visceral experience is like.

After swearing that I had no shrapnel, rods or tattooed eyeliner (?), I was told to strip, put on my gown and wait. Shortly thereafter I was ushered into the MRI room. I need to buy stock in General Electric, because that company makes all these diagnostic machines. It was smaller than I’d expected, which wasn’t necessarily a good thing.

I’d been given the choice of either the radio or plain old earplugs. I figured chances were good that I’d get stuck listening to Cristina Aguilera and 30 second spots for Ovaltine on Hot 97 if I went with the radio option. So I chose the earplugs and my own thoughts. I was given a little ball to squeeze as an “alarm” if I needed them to stop. In a way, being handed this device made me even more nervous. What were these people about to do to me?

Zoom. Whirrrr. In I slid. The technicians hurredly left the room. One of them crackled into being over the intercom, “We’re just going to do a short one to start.” Pause, fiddle. “Here we go.”

A series of three low buzzes, less than a second each, sounded. I came to think of those as the “Okay, it’s show time, folks!” intro sequence, as they featured before each new round of buzzing and banging that accompanied the creation of each new image, which typically took about 3-4 minutes.

I really was not ready for what happened next. I can’t explain it, but when the loud noises and vibrations started, I suddenly felt awful. My heart rate shot up and I started to mildly hyperventilate. This lasted only for about 15 seconds or so, but it was bad. It passed, probably because I just tried to focus on the rhythm of this sequence’s particular banging and bring my breathing in line with it. I also did not want to screw it up and have to start all over again.

After about 10-15 minutes of sitting through repeated rounds of banging, buzzing and whirring, I got used to it and was able to relax a little. I thought a lot about how powerful sound is. I remembered once reading a chapter in the book Pranks (page 72-74), an interview with an artist named Monte Cazazza who did a lot of, um, interesting things with ultra-low and ultra-high frequency sound. In it, he describes an experiment he did on himself using ultra-low frequency sound. He basically made himself ill:

“You felt bad. If low frequency sounds get to a certain level, the molecules in your organs start rubbing together, and your cell walls could eventually break down and turn to mush. At lesser levels you’d lose control of your bowels…People don’t realize how much sound physiologically affects them — it can make people sick, and it does in their jobs. It’s dangerous to work in a really noisy environment. Of course, some frequencies bother you more than others.”

Another thing I remembered during the cacophony was a former girlfriend of Jonathan’s who claimed she’d once had a spontaneous, totally hands-free climax at a Led Zeppelin concert. Having inexplicably burst into tears myself at more than one classical concert, I was inclined to believe that story.

The power of sound to affect us physically and psychologically has not escaped the private sector. Nor has it gone unnoticed by the military. That second link is a particularly fascinating read and worth the time.

With all this on my mind, the time flew by. As I was slid back out I asked one of the technicians if people ever experience a lot of anxiety during the procedure. Actually, the term I wanted to use was get totally freaked out. She nodded. “Oh, yeah. We have people we can’t do this with.”

On my way out they gave me a CD with the images, since that’s what the doctor ordered. They will not mail one, so I have to mail or bring it in myself. I am tempted to open them up in Photoshop. But I don’t want to break the seal. I’m sure he’ll show them to me while I’m there anyway.

In treatment

I had session 2 of myotherapy this morning. My next one is on Thursday to be followed by a fourth on Saturday. Sandra leaves town after that so I hope this gets me well enough to run since she’s not back until early September.

Since I did session 1 without any pain relief whatsoever, I decided to take a painkiller before this round. She’d said that was probably a good idea as she needs to get deep into the muscles and that’s difficult when I’m screaming and attempting to squirm off the massage table.

Today I revised my opinion of Percocet (Oxycodone), which I previously thought was the bee’s knees. This morning it made me feel like warmed over dogshit. While I know it killed some of the pain, it also made me nauseous and drowsy (sensations that don’t go well with driving), and, eight hours after taking it, I’m still incredibly fatigued even after an hour nap. Not just tired, but also dimwitted and hopeless. It reminds me of my occasional bouts with moderate depression, with a touch of flu thrown in.

Much as I’m tempted to take it again before Thursday’s mauling, I’d rather experience pain than lose the entire day to feeling like this again. I think these sessions are supposed to get easier anyway, since I’m getting used to it and with each one the knots and scar tissue are broken up a little more. In my next one I get heat and ultrasound.

It’s only been a week since my hip implosion, but this issue feels intractable. Part of the problem is that I still can’t even walk without pain. Every morning, I get faked out — I get out of bed and for the first few minutes I think everything’s fine. Then the pain comes back and settles over me for the rest of the day. If I try to do anything that puts significant weight on my right leg, the problem flares up and I’m screwed for hours, meaning I limp and grimace. On Saturday, after a few pain-free hours, it happened when I did just one dynamic stretch on the right side. Yesterday, again feeling relatively pain-free and hopeful, I took a few exploratory jog steps — meaning I just hopped across the dining room to assess if I could go for a short run. My hip complained bitterly about this latest transgression and there went the afternoon and evening.

I am walking like my dad did right before he had total knee replacement surgery. I list to one side and grab onto any available item for support. It’s pathetic and infuriating. How did I go from running an 82 second 400m repeat on the track to not being able to walk just a few days later?

The good news is that both Jonathan and I got into the Houston Marathon, which is using a lottery system this year. Houston in late January is my goal marathon. Even though I’m prepared to travel there alone, I registered Jonathan just in case he wants to train for it (assuming his fall plans are blown due to his own injury, which it looks like they are), or just run it for whatever reason. He is running again, with some pain. But, hell, he’s running. That’s after two months of not running — so he’s lost a lot of fitness despite having biked like a fiend.

The idea of running a marathon seems entirely theoretical now, for both of us.

One other piece of hopeful news is that I can ride our stationary bike without it making things worse. I did 90 minutes yesterday. If I can manage to tear myself off the couch, I’ll probably do 2 hours later on today. If I still can’t run this week I’ll also look into pool running somewhere. I can feel my fitness ebbing away. I’m glad my motivation is still there, at least.

Fuck. I really miss running.

I’ve used the word “hope” in this post several times in both positive (“hopeful”) and negative (“hopeless”) forms. Sandra said something to me this morning that made an impression on me, and which in an unintended way gave me hope: “You’ll never run faster if you don’t fix these problems.” That got me thinking about the possibility that one reason I may not have been able to run faster so far has been because of tight muscles. I like to think that all this painful work will lead to not only being able to run again, but perhaps — as a bonus — also running faster than I could have otherwise.

Oh, how I wish I were a masochist

Today I hobbled up to Coach Sandra’s magic workshop in Ossining for something she’s been promising for several weeks — an examination for “weaknesses” (I have lots of them, but I don’t think she’s talking about vodka) and imbalances. But it got put off due primarily to her travels.

Because of my recent incident, however, this visit turned from one of mere examination to therapy. Or should I say torture? Sandra is a myotherapist. I think myotherapy should replace waterboarding as our nation’s preferred interrogation technique. It’s certainly less messy.

The good news is that I don’t have anything seriously wrong with my hip. The bad news is that I was compared to a kitchen sink that has for years gone unwashed. It takes a lot of scrubbing to undo that kind of neglect. The hip is just the tip of the iceberg that is the whole of my problems, it seems. In fact, Sandra was amazed that I haven’t had more issues given how totally fucked up I am below the waist.

To summarize, here’s what happened on Saturday. The hip issue was the final straw in a cascading series of events having to do with tight muscles in my legs. My right hamstring had been giving me trouble for days beforehand. During the race it tightened up to such an extent that everything around it went into spasm and seized up as well.

My hip is not actually the problem — it’s just where the problem is most acutely expressed at the moment. The most notable issue is a large muscle knot (two, actually — but one is much worse than the other) deep in the heart of my right buttcheek (gluteal muscle). It sits at the top of my iliotibial (IT) band, which is no great shakes either. The IT band is not only tight, but it has scar tissue all up the side of it (both of them do, actually, although the right side is much worse than the left is). Did I mention my calves? They are also tight enough to bounce quarters off of.

I got scolded for running on pavement all these years. And not stretching or getting proper massages (meaning deep enough to be painful) all this time. Who knew?

What does this mean for me? A world of pain, the intensity of which I can scarcely describe.

For close to 90 minutes Sandra dug into these problem areas and made me alternately shriek and weep. Lots of her athletes break into tears while she does this, so I was told not to feel bad about it. I was also told that since she is undoing years of neglect, it’s going to really hurt and take at least another few sessions. She said the muscle knots have been there for a long, long time, given their density and size.

I also have about around 50 (seriously) stretching and strengthening exercises that I am to do twice a week now, working up to three times a week.

I was also told that, when she was still running competitively, Sandra would go engage in this process for 10 days with a guy in Ireland who is the best at this in the world. It was basically a Torture Holiday. Myotherapy, then run, then check things and do myotherapy again. Khalid still goes to him for this treatment. She ended up studying under the torture master and forging a parallel career.

Here’s what happens in these sessions:

  1. Sandra picks an area to work on. She digs into it (often using her elbow with full weight on it). I scream and cry. She expresses sympathy, but also warns that she’s just warming up the area — loosening the surface tissue so she can get closer to the source of the problem (knots and scar tissue).
  2. She digs and stabs. Then checks the muscle or tendon. Then digs and stabs some more. Then asks me if that last round of digging and stabbing was any less painful. I am tempted to lie sometimes, but I don’t because I know that will only prolong the process.
  3. Then she focuses on another area, letting the first recover a bit. Then she goes back and works on the original area some more. In the meantime, neighbors call the police because it sounds like horrific crimes are being committed on the second floor.
  4. I go home and take an ice bath. I do my stretches. I go running and see how far I get before it becomes painful. Then we do this again a few days later.
  5. Repeat until knots and scar tissue are gone.

There are some bright spots in all of this. For one, it’s not a serious injury. I was worried about a hip stress fracture or that my award-winning left bunion was causing all of this and would require surgery. For another, if I get all this shit worked out and do my stretching like my life depends on it (and try to stay off of pavement as much as possible), I should never have to go through this “cleaning the kitchen sink” process again.

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