Chapter 11: Step 5: The Strength Plan
I took a week off after the Nutmeg Games. I wanted to jump right back into my rigor, but I needed to give my body time to recover. My back hurt nearly as much as it did after the first tournament and the range of motion in my neck had many of the same limitations and sticking points.
And yet, the pain was not as deep after the second tournament as the first, lasting for approximately one week instead of three.
My weight stabilized, bouncing consistently between 145 and 149. I could eat a little more than I had, and remain in that target zone. I heard about a couple more tournaments in Massachusetts over the next few months. I wanted to set my sights on them, but we had a busy Autumn coming up with school starting, my older son’s college search and application process and the upcoming Fall baseball season. If another tournament worked out, I would go for it. But I had pushed my luck and maintained good will at home. I had to pick my battles.
I wrote a long e-mail to Jay Jones, my former college teammate, now the coach of the Rhode Island College wrestling team. I laid out my whole story for him. Now that I had won a match, I could confidently unleash the Disclosure plan on anyone in my circle of friends including my extended network of associates. Jay served as the central nervous system of the alumni network, so telling Jay about my exploits equated to sharing the news with everyone from my college days. This new exposure would further elevate the pressure to stay on track.
I doubled down on my Strength Plan. I didn’t want to just impress my old teammates simply with my new lean physique. I wanted the total body. I wanted to look the part. I wanted to look like the national champion I aimed to become.
I started at the gym doing curls and a few other lifting exercises. I also sought to complete the ladder; finishing 10, 20, 30, 40, 50, 40, 30, 20, 10 push-ups in succession during the course of a single workout. I had done a baby ladder completing 5, 10, 15, 20, 25, 20, 15, 10, 5. I figured it would take me until the start of the tournament in Iowa to build up to the feat of completing the ladder. But as I had done in estimating my ability to lose weight, I also overestimated the timeframe for completing the ladder.
One night, in mid-January, I watched the movie Creed as my wife dozed next to me on the couch. I always experienced great motivation from the Rocky movies. I stood in the hallway with no shirt staring into the mirror. I bounced up and down as if preparing to wrestle. Like I had done at the start of my journey, I stared deep into my own eyes. I liked the chiseled face that stared back at me.
I dropped for the first set of 10. I stood up and pointed at the skinny guy in the mirror, daring myself to complete the ladder right there and then. I banged out the next set of 20 without breaking a sweat. I took a minute to rest and then breezed to 30. A few minutes later, I finished 40 push-ups, struggling through the last 10 in the set. The burn started to seep into my pectoral muscles. I bounced in front of the mirror and shook out my arms. The adrenaline overwhelmed the pain. I finished my set of 50 on the way to ramping down to 40, 30, 20 and finally the last 10. The push-up total reached 250 in one shot, conducted over about a 20-minute time duration. I could hear the Rocky theme song in my head. Energy seared through my veins. I flexed and threw my arms in the air like the Italian Stallion himself. If I could have, I would have sprinted the steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art.
Completing the ladder seemed like another major milestone. I sent Jay Jones another e-mail asking if I could work out with his college team at least a couple times in the winter to help in my preparation for the Nationals. He wrote back that he’d love to see me on the mat at RIC and I added this “to-do” to my newly formed Workout Plan.
My wife’s back continued to turn for the worst. Some nights she had to go to bed at 7pm, lay under the sheets in discomfort and stare at the ceiling all night unable to sleep. Other nights, she climbed out of bed and wandered through the house unable to find any comfortable resting position other than to remain upright and in motion like a zombie in the dark. She sat rigid in a hard wood dining room chair, called out to our Amazon Alexa and passed the time listening to books on tape, since it hurt too much to lay in bed and hold a book out over her lap.
The physiologists suggested a cortisone shot in the spine. The Cardiologists all recommended surgery. She fretted over this decision, conducting tireless research, consulting her friends and parents and seeking second, third and fourth professional opinions.
Throughout her ordeal, I squeezed in five-mile runs whenever I could. I pressured myself to run as fast as possible to maximize the value of each workout. A slowly-jogged five-miler 2-3 times a week would not maintain the pace of physical metamorphosis I had set over the previous five or six months. During the late Summer and early Fall, I saw my average mile drop from nearly eight minutes to much closer to seven. Every night that I managed to pull away from the family, I aimed to complete the five-spot in precisely 35 minutes and came darn close on numerous occasions.
I dreaded the winter as I’d have to find a way to maintain my weight and my discipline despite the biting cold. Would I still be able to go out nearly an hour at a clip and run in the sub-freezing weather? Would the snow and ice make it too difficult to run outdoors? And how much would Thanksgiving with my family and the Christmas week, spent half with my in-laws and half with my siblings set me back. I envisioned the great physical shape I had achieved slipping backwards and resolved to remain focused on a day-by-day basis until the weather turned for the worse.
I wrote an e-mail to coach Carlsten, to share my story of fitness, obsession and madness with him. As a coach, I adored Rusty. He saw my potential and encouraged me to stay with the team throughout my difficult underclassman years when I did not make the starting line-up and contemplated quitting. He had an interminably positive attitude and affirming nature that simultaneously comforted me and drove me forward. He had a vision of what he thought I could accomplish and a way of helping me see the best version of myself. It was Coach Carlsten that first suggested I could win the New England championship well before I ever set foot on the mat as a starter. He helped me believe in what I could accomplish with the right amount of effort, practice, patience, experience and will.
I wrote him a long e-mail, detailing how the doctor had derided me for my bloated weight. I told him about that first three-quarter mile run and the rapid pace at which I had shed the pounds. I gave him the play-by-play of my five wrestling matches over the course of the two tournaments and I laid out my plan to train for the nationals. His reply beamed with pride and encouragement. And, I gained further confidence in my mission having shared the plan with him. I promised to keep him posted and he expressed excitement at hearing the updates from me.
Until I corresponded with Coach Carlsten, I had identified two major challenges to my overall plan. There was the guilt of taking off and leaving the house a couple nights a week as my wife lay in agony on the bed, unable to sleep or even move with any great ease. And there were the growing demands of my challenging job as Senior Director of Business Automation Solutions at the Ad Tech start-up in New York City. Rusty added a third insidious concern to the list.
“Just remember,” he wrote. “At your age, the biggest competition may not be the other wrestlers that you face, but the constant risk of injury between now and the start of the tournament. Take care and be careful of your body.”
As I contemplated the increased pressure I would feel as a result of the impending cold winter months, I started to worry about overdoing the miles, pounding my knees too harshly on the rock-hard pavement or pulling a muscle in the increasingly cold air. I thought about slipping on a patch of ice or twisting an ankle in an unseen pothole in the dark of the night. As much as I felt like I was made of rubber, I conceded his point and recognized the fragility of my journey. At any point, a simple injury could end the whole endeavor. Or at least I could face a devastating enough set back such that making any reasonable weight class could fall out of reach. As quickly as I had lost 45 or 50 pounds, an extended period of inactivity due to injury could cause me to gain it all back quicker than I cared to admit.
I had never commuted to New York City throughout the course of my 25-year career. We had specifically moved to Greenwich, CT, along the Metro North railway line in case I ever needed to find corporate employment. I had always worked in Connecticut and driven to my office along Route 95 North in my car. But for the past year, I had relied on both Metro North and the New York subway system to get me to my new job on 23rd and 5th at one of the leading Advertising Technology firms in the world, deep in the southern bowels of midtown Manhattan and the beautiful Flatiron District.
The job rocked. I had a great team and we took on major business improvement initiatives, launching significant revenue-producing projects with increasing success. The 80-minute commute took some adjustment. But the excitement of the job overcame any downside of the longer commute time. It did, however, make squeezing in my 45-minute workouts that much more difficult. Family dinners floated toward 8pm. With my wife’s back agony, I spent 9pm-10pm cleaning the kitchen, carrying laundry up and down stairs and running errands necessary to get the next day started. I often found myself hitting the street at 11:00pm, even 11:30pm some nights. After returning past midnight, I often didn’t get to sleep until close to 1:00 am.
If my wife had managed to fall asleep by the time I returned, I didn’t dare climb the creaky stairs to join her in our bed. So, instead, I would take the couch and sleep there the best I could. This happened several nights per week. I knew it couldn’t be good for my back. And I understood that I wasn’t getting quite the deep sleep I needed. Coach Carsten’s injury warning weighed on me. But I had no choice. If I wanted to put in the miles, this was the only way to do it.
So, my typical day started at 6:30am, where I would roll off the couch to make scrambled eggs for my boys and a fried egg for my wife. I’d quickly clean the pans and put away the dirty dishes before jumping in and out of the shower by 7:15am. Sometimes my wife would drive me to the Riverside train station. Other times I’d ride my bike or walk the two flat miles. I’d work all day, allowing myself a four-ounce bowl of granola for breakfast and a two-ounce handful of reduced fat Wheat Thins with a two-ounce bag of cold, wet, sweet baby carrots for lunch. This would give me just enough energy, sustenance and vitamins to get me through the long day. By 6:00 pm, I’d walk three blocks to the subway with my stomach grumbling and tightening. I’d remind myself that the dull hunger pain represented the natural calorie-burning process and looked forward to weighing myself before dinner to see how well I had metabolized my eight ounces of easily digestible food.
My wife took care of provisioning the ingredients, but I cooked the meals. The task typically occupied my sole focus from 7:00pm to 8:00pm, with clean-up and errands lasting well past 10:00pm. I’ve always had great energy, so the limited sleep in combination with the active schedule did not slow me at all. The biggest difficulty stemmed from my wife’s continued physical deterioration and the growing frustration she experienced.
As guilty as I felt leaving her to run, I still did it. I had to. And I know, she didn’t always understand how I could make that selfish choice to prioritize my own physical enhancement over what she perceived to be a lack of caring for her situation. But I rationalized – fairly I believe – that there was little to nothing I could do to ease her suffering. And sitting around the house with her would not serve either her nor my purpose.
Maybe she resented that I could pursue an athletic objective and she couldn’t. Maybe there was more I could have done to help her through her issue. Maybe she just needed my companionship during those times when I was absent from her side. She clearly didn’t always seem to fully grasp why this wild goose chase of mine meant so much to me. And probably, she experienced a combination of all these emotions.
The bottom line was that when I needed to, I left and somewhat selfishly took care of my own fitness objectives. And as much as I worried about the impact on our relationship, I also did it unapologetically. A big part of me wanted her to care as much about my ambition as I did. I figured I could mend any jealousy, resentment or hard feelings after the tournament. But as time unfolded and her physical condition worsened, so did the tension between us.
As if the stress of my professional grind and the strain of my wife’s herniated disk issue did not make my Headlock commitment challenging enough, my oldest son would graduate later in the year and we had to help him apply to colleges throughout the early Fall. This process, as it turns out, can become a time suck. It can drain all your attention and sap every ounce of energy from your body and mind. The amount of research required to truly understand how to maximize your chances of acceptance at your stretch schools soon consumed my wife and son. I tried to pitch in. But I had little spare time between managing the breakfasts and dinners, my commute, the workload and my wrestling prep.
My wife spent her days on the internet reviewing all the application rules and procedures. She and my son spent countless afternoons planning his essays, helping him edit his ideas and fine tuning his grammar and word selection. We visited campuses, attended open houses, networked with alumni and corresponded with key Admissions professionals and staff at his target schools.
My wife spent hours thinking through strategies and coordinating with my son. I tried to help. But I just didn’t have the time to devote to it that they did. As a result, I was more of a bystander and a gofer, helping with smaller, more tactical aspects of the overall strategy. I helped edit the essays. I proofread applications and I rode along on the campus visits. But, for the most part, despite her excruciating ordeal, my wife found the strength to lead my son through the process.
This made it harder for me to take off and go running at night or retreat to the basement for 25 minutes of push-ups and sit-ups. I had to read the tea leaves and determine when to abort. If we had a pressing deadline or a critical challenge to overcome, I scrapped any thought of allocating time to working out and buckled down to help with the application process. On the nights that I did leave the house, I did so with a weight around my neck, knowing that the family left behind - in some way - might have resented my focus on me during this trying period of intense devotion to my son’s future.
I also experienced a major setback in my job right around the time that all the college application deadlines started to hit the calendar. My boss pulled me aside and gave me a heads-up warning that the company would be conducting some major actions to reduce staff and that my job would be affected. For the first time in my life, I faced the possibility of unemployment. We hadn’t saved enough – or barely any of our money for that matter. As if my wife’s horrendous back pain issues had not placed enough strain on our family, now, I had to deal with the uncertainty of my employment, my career path, my income and the financial security of my family.
Probably the biggest fear was the realization of how much we needed the healthcare coverage. The cortisone shots, the prescriptions and - God forbid – any decision to engage in surgery would exceed our ability to pay out of pocket. I needed to devote my attention to the job search and devote my sole focus to that over any other family priority – including the Headlock commitment to training for the Nationals.
I had until the end of the year to find another job. I felt confident that I could find “a” job. But could I find “the” job that would enable us to continue our lifestyle as is? That question weighed on my mind.
I turned 48 on October 30th facing a barrage of challenges. I was not at an ideal age to be in the job market. I needed a top of the grid salary to maintain our cash flow and with the nature of my expertise, the range of open and available jobs would be extremely limited.
My wife had finally decided to get the cortisone shot and it had failed miserably to provide any relief. Essentially, the doctor missed the spot and she experienced greater pain than she had before the procedure. I was a month into this period of career uncertainty. And we had seven college applications due within the next 15-days. This entailed multiple essays to complete and a myriad of decisions to finalize. Then, once we hit “Send” on the college application site, we had to apply for financial aid and start to plan how we would pay the exorbitant bills we would ultimately see six months later.
On a positive note, I still managed to maintain my hectic schedule and get out onto the road about three nights per week. I was pushing the mile count past five, hitting six and even seven miles per workout. And, I had stabilized my weight at 142 pounds, only three or four pounds over the 138.75 weight class for the Nationals.
But, I had to find a new job. We had to finalize my son’s college applications. And my wife needed her back problems resolved. She hadn’t had a decent night’s sleep in more than five months. She was grinding herself into the ground with the college process. And my self-driven focus on my physical training was causing a wedge of tension between us that I would have to eventually address with either a confrontation that I would surely lose or a tacit retreat, which would most likely damage or even end my quest to participate in the tournament. Something had to give. And it had to happen soon.
I took stock in my progress and the road ahead. I had started at more than 200 pounds and couldn’t even run a full mile only six months earlier. I thought about the nagging back problems that my wife faced and the strain it imposed on our entire family, including the tension in our relationship. I observed all the stress and uncertainty of my career peril. And my 47 years of age had just flipped to 48, reminding me that I was only getting older and my life was only growing more complicated. I longed for the days in college when I had no family to manage, no bills to pay, no job responsibilities to uphold and virtually no limitations to the direction I could steer my life. If only I had found the same level of focus, determination, vision and discipline then that I had discovered now, I might have won the National Championship as a college senior. And maybe I wouldn’t need to do what I was trying to do at this ridiculous stage in my life.
And yet, with all the challenges I faced at 48 years young, I still experienced growing confidence that I could reach any goal that I set my mind to accomplishing. Somehow, the input of my eternally positive father, the excitement of my brother, whose opinion and approval I craved, and now with the endorsement of my college coach, I started to think beyond the satisfaction of preparing to compete and achieve my own elevated level of personal fitness. I started to contemplate winning. I dared to envision myself as a National Champion.