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Chapter 13: Self-Discovery at Disney

Starting sometime in May or June, 2016 when confidence that I could realistically compete in the USA Wrestling Nationals started to soar, I looked ahead at the calendar and identified two roadblocks that could hinder my success.

I had hit the road every other day or so and reached a great rhythm of running late at night after the family hit the sheets. But would I be able to continue the momentum come December, January and February in the bitter cold? Would a five-mile run in minus-3-degree weather with the arctic wind chill, five-foot snow dunes and black ice shut me into the house and block me from maintaining my momentum?

I had just successfully hit 137 pounds. I had made weight six weeks in advance, I had the luxury of settling in to the weight class and entering the tournament feeling completely at ease as a 138-pounder. I worried that I’d spend all that time and effort to lose the weight and gain great fitness only to give it all back to the blistering cold winter.

I also identified our nine-day family vacation to Disney World as a red flag. Sugary pancake and pastry breakfasts, fast food lunches and fancy dinners at sit down restaurants, night in and night out would surely obliterate the progress I had made with my weight, and fitness. Where would I run? Would I squeeze in my push-ups and sit-ups between the two Queen sized beds that my family of four would share for more than a week. I figured that nine vacation days could amount to at least a +10 on the scale, if not 15 or even more.

It wouldn’t be so bad if it weren’t jammed up in the year only about six weeks away from the Nationals. The timing stunk. Overcoming the 10-15 pounds I expected to pack on in that timeframe would come at the worst possible time. With my work commitments and the pressure of delivering my project, the cold northeast winter and the ticking clock, I dreaded what should have been the highlight of my year.

But instead of imagining bustling mornings on roller-coasters and carefree evenings in shorts and a t-shirt under the bright lights of the Disney fireworks, I pictured myself going off the rails and losing the discipline I had worked so hard to achieve.

I didn’t want to come down to crunch time, the week of the tournament, still overweight and find myself trying to dehydrate on the four-hour flight to Iowa or sprinting through the corn fields to drip enough sweat to make weight. And I certainly didn’t want to have to throw on the old plastics and drag the exercise bike into the steam room. I’m just too old for those shenanigans.

I had envisioned a nice leisurely flight. I pictured myself napping away without the stress of wondering what I weighed and how many tenths of a pound I might float between the 7am flight and the 5pm tournament weigh-in. I had hoped to leave Connecticut at 137 flat and not worry about getting to the UNI Dome with any danger of blowing the weigh-in.

The cold didn’t turn out to bother me. I just bundled myself in a thin pajama bottom and thick sweat pants along with a thin cotton t-shirt, with a thicker long sleeve cotton t-shirt, a hooded sweat shirt and a plastic wind breaker. I threw on my favorite knitted cap and ski gloves and barely felt the cold air or the frozen wind chill. In fact, the reduced temperature made my body work harder to stay warm while the cold air energized my lungs. I found myself running as often in January as I had in July. I also took that turn at the top of the avenue and committed to the full ten-mile run down under the highway and all along the shore.

In fact, once I ran the 10-miler once, I made it a habit and started completing the route sometimes twice a week. I racked up nearly 200 miles between the months of December and February.

Disney turned out to present a greater challenge. For one, I had less leeway to decide when I wanted to eat and when I wanted to skip meals. In the office, away from the watching eyes of my wife and kids, I could snack on carrots for lunch. I could have an apple and some low sodium Wheat Thins. Or I could just all out skip lunch and wait until dinner time.

At home, I tried to keep up the impression that I had not made too many drastic changes to my eating patterns, other than reducing my meal sizes. I didn’t want them to know the full scope of my approach.

Throughout the several weeks prior to the Disney trip, I had cut my breakfast intake to a handful of Life cereal or granola in the morning before I caught the train. During the work day, I engaged myself so intently in my work, that I plowed right through lunchtime without a scrap or even so much as a glass of water. I ate a little more at dinner where I made up for the depravity I put myself through during the day. Nutritionists would tell you to do it the opposite way. Eat more in the morning and cut back in the evening. But I didn’t want my family to see me eating scraps. I didn’t want them to observe me engage in behavior that they would undoubtedly perceive to be unhealthy.

I generally knew what I was doing and when I needed nourishment. As well as I understood my caloric intake and the impact each mile had on my weight, I knew my body. I knew when I needed the vitamins in green vegetables, when I needed protein and when I needed a bit of dairy. I drank enough water to stay hydrated and regularly monitored the color of my pee every day.

I knew the tightness in my stomach every afternoon after consuming less than 4 ounces of nourishment was not perfectly healthy, but I also understood the bare minimum I needed to keep a healthy energy level and avoid malnourishment. I pushed that limit and played up to that line. But I took care of myself in a way I knew would work for me.

I also knew my family would not understand. And I’m sure doctors and nutritionists would point out how risky my behavior was. But that was the whole point. It wasn’t unhealthy behavior. It was just risky. I felt like I had total control over my body and knew what I needed and when I needed it. I had done it before in high school and college. I had the experience to toe that line and the motivation to stick with it.

However, in Disney, we spent every waking hour together as a family. I had much less control of my schedule and no time to myself to make my own choices. We ate where and when the kids wanted to eat, which left me little choice in an environment filled with minimal options for low calorie, high energy health-conscious meal selection. When the family grabbed burgers and fries at the snack shop, I wasn’t going to skip an entire meal and allow them to see me sit there with nothing to eat. I’d select whatever I could find that fit my Food Plan; a wilted salad, a chicken sandwich on a bleached white role, a rice bowl with some sort of pork-like meat.

I managed to escape breakfast time with a handful of granola each morning. Occasionally, I’d finish my wife’s half eaten croissant or take a bite or two of a cinnamon bun that one of my boys left on their plates. The dinners gave me the most difficult challenges. It’s not like any of the menu selections presented two ounces of meat with four ounces of vegetables. And I didn’t want to leave so much on my plate each night to cause the family alarm bells that Dad is starving himself.

Plus, I must admit, all the food looked so good, I just couldn’t stop taking that one last bite over and over again. In the lobby of our hotel every night, a spread of amazing deserts; key lime pies, pecan pies, cheese cakes, cupcakes with mounds of frosting, chocolate chip and sugar cookies all sat out on display, free for the taking.

They lined the trays in bite-sized portions with spotlights shining down on them. And I just couldn’t lay off. I found the more I ate, the hungrier I grew and the more I could rationalize that one more two-ounce key lime desert wouldn’t make that big of a difference.

They tasted so delightful. I experienced a burst of joy every time I ingested one of the tiny little treats. The heavenly combination of sweet crust and gooey sugar lit up my taste buds. And the portions were so small, I found it too easy to rationalize each transgression.

So, where I had previously been relegating breakfast to a handful of granola completely skipping lunch during the week days and cutting my dinners to about the amount of food that could fit in the palm of my hand, I was now eating at least double the amount of breakfast, closer to a full lunch, definite full-sized dinners and numerous high calorie sugar deserts every night.

It felt weird, although perversely nice at the same time, to walk around the parks with a full stomach. I hadn’t eaten like that in at least six months. But I also knew that I was starting to realize my worst fears.

I don’t know why it didn’t occur to me until a few days into the vacation, but I asked the concierge if they had a workout room on the hotel property. I just never equated Disney with working out. When you go to a Marriott in Dallas, Texas, you expect a workout room. But at the Grand Floridian Hotel, it just didn’t seem like a necessary amenity. Who goes to Disney and works out?

Apparently, someone does because, as it turns out, they did have a small gym on site. It had a couple treadmills, one or two nautilus machines and a rack of free weights.

So, one night, about halfway into the trip, I asked my wife if she would mind if I went to work out after she and the boys fell asleep for the evening. They were all so tired from walking the parks all day, they typically dropped off into deep slumber around 9pm. My wife had no problem with it if I returned quietly and showered before I came to bed.

That night, I waited until everyone dozed off, threw on my running shoes and a pair of shorts with one of my t-shirts and headed off to the gym. The clock showed about 9:45pm. The first item I looked for was a scale and thankfully they had the same metal scale as my doctor in the corner of the room. Before leaving for Disney, I had reached 137 pounds and held that line for a week. Now, I stepped on the scale. I fearfully predicted 150 and begged God not to make me move the large counter weight from the 100 mark to the 150 mark. If I weighed any more than 150, I’d kick myself for falling off the rails so badly.

I registered about 146. That wasn’t so bad. I had gained close to 10 pounds. I had a month and a half until the Nationals. I felt like I could manage that.

Another guy, a younger dude, entered the room as I started up the treadmill. One phenomenon I discovered was that with ten extra pounds of food in my stomach, I had an extra bit of pep and energy. I started off running a half mile at a 7 ½ minute pace. But quickly felt like running faster. So, each half mile, I notched the pace down by 30 seconds. I ran the second half mile at seven minutes and the third half at 6:30. By the third mile, I found myself all out sprinting at a five-minute pace.

I hadn’t run in more than a week. But I felt amazingly strong and fit.

After banging out 200 push-ups and sit ups in four groups of 50, I curled the free weights, did some fly-ups and a few other strength exercises. Occasionally, I nodded in a friendly way to the 20-something guy who shared the room with me.

Then I saw the rack of jump ropes. In high school, I loved emulating Rocky Balboa with the jump rope. I taught myself to sling the rope with lightning speed and then cross my arms and then whip the jump rope through the air twice beneath each jump. I didn’t know if I could still skip rope as well, but decided to give it a try.

It turns out that jumping rope is a lot like riding a bike. The skill stays with you many years later. So, I grabbed that rope, stared at myself in the mirror and ripped off 1,000 hops. It took me about ten minutes. The rope whistled as it sliced through the air. My running shoes barely made a sound as the pads of my feet bounced gingerly above the rope – leaving just the half inch clearance needed for it to swing through, loop over my head and snap back through again.

Sweat poured down my stone face as I stared almost catatonically into the mirror. And when I finished, I felt so good, that I went back to the treadmill and ran two more miles at a six-minute pace. And when I finished the two-mile sprint, with the clock reading 11:15pm, I grabbed the jump rope again and banged out another 1,000 hops. By 11:25, the younger muscular guy left the room. As he did, I could see him look back over his shoulder with a twisted expression of shock and admiration for my insane workout. I wanted to make it a clean 11:30, so I plowed out 500 more jumps.

I stripped off my soaked t-shirt, peeled back my slimy socks and hit the scale. I had lost 3 and a half pounds and weighed a manageable 142.5. I was down to only a five-pound weight gain from my average the week prior.

I skulked back into the room, took a shower and laid in bed. I could feel the blood run through my veins. My stomach already felt like it had streamlined from the slight bulge I felt before the workout. I slept like a baby and woke up the next morning with the most amazing energy I had felt in a long time.

I realized the benefit of eating more and then converting it to energy through my workouts.

I hit that gym for at least an hour and a half every night for the next five nights. I ran insanely fast miles, averaging below a six-minute pace for three, four, sometimes five miles at a clip. I worked my push-up and sit-up count to 250 and jumped rope 2,500, 3,000 and eventually 5,000 times one night.

I didn’t change my eating habits during the vacation, but with the extreme workouts, my weight stabilized right around 140.

By the time we arrived home and I hit the little scale in our upstairs bathroom, I registered at a perfectly acceptable 139.6. The vacation had not hurt me at all. In fact, it taught me a few lessons. For one, I could eat more and still stay on track. For two, I could run much faster than I even believed, and I could sustain a pace that would win local road races for many miles at a time. And for three, I felt like Rocky Balboa in my ability to workout with such passion and focus.

Where I expected the family vacation to set me back, I had succeeded in moving another step forward in my crazy Headlock plan to carve myself back into the world class athlete I had been in college. I was getting there. I could feel it.

With the weather turning slightly for the better and the vacation behind me, I had no roadblocks left between me and the national championship which was now 45 days away.

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