Chapter 15: 13 Miles
During my journey from a rotund 201-pound middle aged Dad, to whatever I had become at my new gaunt 137 iteration, my boys transitioned from admiring my efforts, to worrying about my well-being.
“You’re too skinny,” they’d say. “Why don’t you bulk up and wrestle at a higher weight class?”
Many people asked me that question during my high school and college years. The answer is not as simple as most people might think. And, to be honest, I don’t know that my answer is a universal truth. In my experience and among the majority wrestlers from my era, the prevailing opinion was that slimming down to the lowest possible weight class is the better way to optimize your competitive advantage than “bulking up”, especially among lightweights like I was in the 1980s and 90s.
The ideal scenario entailed cutting any excess fat, trimming down to the lowest achievable weight class while simultaneously building as much strength as possible. During my freshman year of college, wrestling at 118 pounds at Central Connecticut State University, the head trainer determined my body fat percentage at 4.7%, far below average even for highly active athletes. While I didn’t “bulk-up”, I did conduct the push-up and sit-up ladder every practice. I ran a good 3-4 miles per day and I wrestled in the room, utilizing every available muscle in my body. I believe the combination of elevated strength and reduced body fat that I achieved at that time represented the best possible athletic mix.
Could I have “bulked up” a weight class or two – say to 142? Well, first, I would not have made the Rhode Island College starting line-up at 142 as we had a two-time New England Champion who earned All-American honors at that weight class during my senior year. I couldn’t have made the team at 134 either because of our 4-time New England Champ who was a 2-time All American at that weight class. They were two of the three reasons why I never made the team until my senior year when the opening popped up at 126.
But setting that aside, no matter how strong I became as a natural 150-pound guy, wrestling in the 142-pound weight class, I would have run into numerous other bigger competitors who cut down from 170 or higher, and who already had a bigger base of “bulk” than me. They would have made it to 142 by trimming their body fat like I had while also retaining the majority of their greater strength. In other words, there are two ways to optimize your Body-Mass Index; increase muscle or decrease fat. The ultimate is to do both at the same time.
Since I wrestled in college, new philosophies and approaches have arisen as well as quite appropriate concerns about the health and safety of high school wrestlers. Most high school athletic commissions across the country have set new rules to disallow the extreme weight loss associated with the sport, which has made the “bulking up” strategy more attractive than it used to be.
But, I had to approach this objective the only way I knew how. Right or wrong, I had to conduct myself in my own way.
“The boys are confused,” my wife told me one night, lying in bed next to me. “You don’t look like the Dad they grew up with. They’re worried you’re going to have a heart attack or get injured. You’re so skinny. You think you look great, because this is what you looked like in college and when we met. But when they look at you, they don’t necessarily see how you’ve built up your neck and back, or how your chest and biceps might be a little stronger. They see your sunken cheeks, your hollow eyes and your ribs sticking out on either side of your stomach. And they just think you look sick.”
It hurt to hear the feedback. I hadn’t looked at this from their perspective in quite that way. It bothered me to think I had created confusion or anxiety in their minds.
“Why are you doing this?” she asked me. “I get that you are doing it for your own reasons and I know you well enough that there will be no stopping you. But, do you really know why it has become so important to you?”
I thought about her question. I tried to answer it. I didn’t have much of an answer. I thought about quoting George Mallory, the first person to climb Mount Everest and say; “Because it’s there.” But I thought I should give my wife a little more perspective than that obscure quote that popped into my head.
“Honestly, I don’t know exactly why,” I said to her as I stared at the darkened bedroom ceiling. “I just feel compelled to accomplish something; something great; something exceptional. You only get so many skills and abilities in life that truly set you apart from everybody else. They’re like your God-given gifts in life. I guess I just wanted to see how far I could push myself. I wanted to expand beyond my limits. And I wanted to maximize what I accomplished with my gifts.”
“Why now?” she asked. “You could have done this 25 years ago when you were still in your 20s, before we had the family. It would have been much easier for you.”
I thought about that, but I knew that answer.
“In my 20s, I had to work so hard to get my career off the ground,” I replied. “I was a Creative Writing Major at a somewhat mediocre academic college. I started at a very low salary worked insanely long hours to make my way up the ladder. I worked past midnight on a regular basis to accelerate my career path. And my approach succeeded very well. But, it didn’t lend itself to training for a national wrestling tournament. Plus, I had just spent 10 years killing myself for the sport. I needed a break. Then the kids came, and we wrapped ourselves around their activities and the years just flew by. I spent so much of my time coaching their sports, running their leagues and serving on the boards of those organizations, I had no time left to myself.”
“I get that,” she replied, almost wistfully. “I understand wanting to do something for yourself.”
“I feel so much better about myself since I gave up television, started eating healthy foods and filling my time with more productive activities like working out and writing,” I continued. “For so many years, I worked, I organized the kids’ sports teams, I put in the time coaching, I dealt with all the ridiculous parents and the politics of the programs. And at the end of each night, I was so mentally worn out, that I just plopped on the couch, flipped the channels and gorged on ice cream. It feels so much better to wake up every morning and decide to make every moment of the day productive.”
“That’s good,” she replied.
“Why am I doing this?” I reiterated her initial question. “I don’t know specifically why. I just know that I feel compelled to do it. And, like you said, I can’t stop until I see it through to the end.”
It was March 13th. I had just under three weeks to go.
“It will all be over soon,” I assured my wife.
But I knew I would never be the same. I was too motivated to convert whatever gifts of talent I had to accomplishments. I would keep wrestling in local tournaments and seek to return to the nationals the next year and possibly every year after for the foreseeable future. I’d also continue running in road races, looking to start winning – and not just in my age group. I wanted to win outright against all the ages.
At the beginning of February, I had pushed my mileage to 10. And, once I ran 10 miles, I couldn’t go back to any amount less than that. I started running 10 miles every time I left the house to workout. While it took a few days to recover, I found myself able to run the 10-spot about twice a week. I ran close to 70 miles in February – even with the 9 days in Disney injected into that month.
During the first two weeks of March, I continued the pattern. But a new thought that had simmered in my mind emerged. I could take a right turn at the church at the last intersection and add a three-mile loop to the 10-mile course. That would equate to a half marathon.
The national championship took place on April 1st. The following weekend, on April 9th, I had seen an advertisement for a half-marathon competition. I decided I would enter the race when I returned from Iowa. I had run 10 miles nearly a dozen times over the past 45 days. I could suffer through three more.
I left the house on March 13th. I weighed 137 on the dot. I felt strong on my feet and well rested. I had taken off more time between runs than usual due to family obligations each night. As I set off to run my 10 miles, I dreaded the work and sacrifice it would take to make it to the 127-pound weight class.
I figured I’d have to weigh about 128 ½ by the time I left for Iowa and that I could float the remaining ¾ pounds to get to 58 Kilograms, which was the precise measurement I had to hit. I wasn’t sure I could count on the float as I’d be at rock bottom in the high 120s. My stomach would be completely empty, so my metabolism would slow down or even stop altogether.
This had happened to me numerous times in high school and college where I emptied my stomach so drastically for such an extended period that I could no longer count on my natural engine to burn off those last pounds. I had to rely on extreme short-term dehydration to lose the last pound or two, which often made me feel sick and bereft of energy. I also found myself heaving up green bile – literally the color of anti-freeze.
I didn’t want to find myself in that situation. At 48-years-old, winning a national championship, especially if the field consisted of only one competitor, just wasn’t worth that amount of aggravation, physical risk and potential harm.
The few times this happened to me, I usually wrestled poorly. In my senior year of college, after having won a prestigious national-caliber pre-season tournament, I gained too much weight by generally making stupid, immature choices. I pigged out on pepperoni pizza, soda, cookies, massive brownie hot fudge sundaes and milkshakes. I had that brash overconfidence of youth and believed I could bound right back from bouncing up from 126 to 140 in three days. By the end of the week, I made it back to 126, but I was so sick at the weigh-in that by the time I stepped onto the mat for the opening home dual meet of the season, I had almost no energy.
My opponent, a Division II All-American from Saint Lawrence College, entered our building and blew my doors off. I barely put up a fight. He knocked me off my feet in front of all my classmates and manhandled me to the point of embarrassment. I lost 17-2.
One month later, having learned my lesson and managed my weight more responsibly, I wrestled the same kid in a tournament at Worcester Polytechnic University and crushed him worse than he had beaten me, winning by pin after throwing him around the mat for two periods.
I took the lesson of that match forward into my journey as a 48-year-old and swore to myself that I would lose the weight gradually and with unwavering discipline to avoid the scenario where I compete below my best ability due to a negative reaction of losing too much weight too quickly.
Despite the lessons learned in my 20s, I found myself at 48-years-old facing a situation where I had ten pounds to lose in 17 days after having already spent an entire year carefully crafting a path from 201 to 138. While I had averaged 8-10 pounds lost per month in the beginning of the year, throughout the back half of the year, I had stabilized in the low 140s and nudged downward by only a pound or two each month.
So, on that March 13th run, I engaged in two deep thought processes. For one I planned how I would have to drop the ten pounds to 127.75. I’d have to break from 137 to less than 135 that night and float to 134 by the morning. It was a Sunday night and I’d have to hold 134 through Friday, March 17th, when I could run another five miles and look to lose another pound and a half or two. That would put me at about 132.5 with exactly two weeks to go. I’d probably have to give back about a pound or two if I felt too weakened from the faster drop and the more extreme depletion of my stomach.
So, the following Wednesday, March 22nd I figured I could try to push myself into another ten-miler and try to get down just under 131, assuming I’d be coming from about 133 or 133.5. This would put me at three pounds over with just more than a week to go. I’d have to hold 131 or 132 at the most until the weekend before the tournament. That would be my last chance to run 10 more miles as I would not want to tire myself too close to the competition. I’d have to break 130 on that run and finish as close to 129 as possible. If I struggled to execute the plan and found myself still stuck in the 30s, I’d have to run one more time during the week before the tournament. But I wouldn’t want to do too many more than 3-4 miles that close to the competition. If I could get to 129 by Wednesday, March 29th, I could manage my intake from there and drift toward 128.5 over the remaining few days before the Saturday morning flight to Iowa. I’d land at 1:00pm and the weigh-in would take place from 4pm-5pm. With the one-hour drive from the airport, that would leave me little time to throw on the plastics and suck out the last little bit if I were still overweight at that point.
Once I made weight, I’d have the evening to rehydrate, replenish my energy, eat as much as I could handle without overloading myself and get a solid night’s sleep before the start of the competition at 9am the next morning. I’d have to choose foods that could provide valuable nutrients and high energy. But I’d need light foods that would not crash my stomach and overpower my digestive system. I’d also have to rehydrate slowly but steadily to avoid the vomiting reaction I had experienced in the past when I rehydrated too quickly.
As I mentioned, I had two thought processes that evening on March 13th. In addition to planning my weight loss schedule from 137 to 127, I contemplated my running goals. I thought further about the half marathon after the nationals. I hadn’t planned on it, but as I reached the end of my 10-mile route, I just turned right at the church instead of left and added the three-mile loop to complete the practice half-marathon. I ran with decent pace and finished in a total of 1 hour and 40 minutes, just under an eight-minute pace.
I decided to sign up for the half and work toward a full marathon by the end of the year.
That night, when I returned from my epic 13-miler, I showered, drank two ounces of water and stepped on the scale. Damn the plan, I weighed 133, nearly two less than expected.
I woke up the next morning at 132.4, almost two pounds less than the plan I had just made. And, I felt fine. I had energy. I peed a decent amount. The color had a healthy shade of yellow. I felt like I could navigate my day on the same minimal food and drink as usual.
I looked in the mirror at my image, obscured by the steam of the shower and pointed at myself with a huge self-satisfied grin.
“Not only did you just assure yourself of making 127,” I told myself. “You just won yourself a National Championship.”