Chapter 2: Step 1: The Food Plan
The clank of the scale jolted me out of an 18 year-long mental slumber. Like awakening from a coma to a loud, jarring stimulus, I watched the arrow quickly rise to the top of the slot without hesitation, bounce once and stick firmly.
My doctor slowly - in my mind as if taunting me - moved his hand over the larger weight and slid it from the 150-pound slot to the 200-pound slot.
“Looks about like 201”, he said peering past the narrow glasses at the edge of his nose.
I had crossed a chasm for the first time in my life. I may have weighed this much before, but this was the first confirmed registration of my status as a 200-pound person.
“The arrow is only in the middle of the gap,” I said defiantly. “I wrestled in college and when we weighed in, we moved it back until there was just a tiny sliver of daylight between the arrow and the top of the hole. I’m actually a little under 201.”
“200 and a half then,” he replied.
I subtly sucked in my gut. But when standing on a cold, calibrated scale, your body mass remains constant no matter what gyrations you make to influence the results.
Always a lightweight, the smallest in my high school grade, the only athlete in the school tiny enough to make the lowest weight class, this new plateau came as a shock. And yet, any wrestler or former wrestler has innate knowledge of their body. I knew my weight teetered at the edge of the cliff. I expected to weigh in close. But suspecting it in the back of my mind bothered me far less than seeing it, hearing it and knowing it.
“47 years of age, turning 48 in October,” the doctor said quietly to himself as he wrote in his folder. “Five-foot seven inches, 201 pounds,”
“Five-eight,” I corrected him. “200 and a half.”
“In shoes maybe,” he peered at me and smiled. “200 and a half.”
“200 flat without the shorts and underwear,” I said meagerly, smiling back.
“As a nearly 50-year-old man,” he stiffened, pushed his glasses further up his nose and closed his folder, “You need to consider losing weight, or at least holding the line. Without changing any of your habits, you can expect to gain an average of two pounds per year for the rest of your life. That puts you at risk for high cholesterol, heart disease, even diabetes.”
“My cholesterol has always been better than average,” I said. “I don’t have high blood pressure or hypertension. I play hockey three nights a week and volleyball every Tuesday. I’m still quicker and in better shape than most of the 25-year-olds.”
The doctor continued as if not having heard my diatribe.
“You should cut back on red meats and sugars,” he continued. “At 5’7”, or even 5’8” – I guess – and 200+ pounds, you border on …”
And then he said the word. It sounded like a foul-mouthed insult; a swear worse than any of the major four-letter words.
I pulled up my pants in disgust and tucked my shirt over my distended stomach.
“You have a couple choices,” the doctor continued. “You can cut back your diet, reduce your sugars and eat less red meat. Or you can step up your exercise. The best choice would be to do both. Or, you can always do nothing and just go on medication for the rest of your life like most guys your age.”
At home, later that day, I stood in the downstairs hallway facing the floor-to-ceiling mirror between the office, family room and kitchen. I looked deep into my own eyes and tried to find the ferocious college wrestler who had dropped 30 pounds to make the 126-pound weight class and win the New England Championship.
But all I could find was a pudgy middle-aged blob, with greying hair, puffy cheeks, an extra chin or two and a big mound between the pectorals and the belt. This couldn’t be the real me. I was never the obese kid. I had always been the slim, slight, little runt, running around like a newborn puppy.
In fifth grade, I wrote an autobiography for an assignment in class. I can still picture the hand-written page stapled to the wall outside the school cafeteria where I listed my height as 4’6” and my weight at 54 pounds. I was small for a fifth grader or even a fourth grader for that matter. In fact, I barely met the average size of the kids two years younger than me in third grade. By contrast, Mike Milliewski’s essay sat just to the right of mine where he listed his weight at 101 pounds.
I arrived in High School as an 88-pound Freshman, literally the smallest boy in the class, and not much bigger than the smallest girls either. By my Sophomore year in college, I wrestled at a rail-thin 118 pounds. And even by my Senior year, I had only stepped up by one weight class to 126 pounds.
But that was 75 pounds ago – or 74 pounds to be precise - and 25 years ago – an average of three pounds per year. I trended my weight gain out another ten years using the doctor’s estimate of two pounds per year. I couldn’t bear to use my past run rate of three pounds per year.
By 57, I would hit 220. By 67, I’d reach 240. And by 77, I could expect to weight a whopping 260 pounds. At 5’8”, or whatever – 5’7”, I’d literally look rounded. Would I even be able to walk at that size? Could I run? At what age would my love affair with playing sports have to end?
My wife’s stick-like uncle, who was 6’2” and 165 pounds said something to me years earlier about old people. He told me to look around the convalescent homes and see how many fat people there were.
“They all died early”, he said. “It’s the skinny ones that live the longest.”
So, I formulated a plan and committed myself to Step 1: “The Food Plan”. The plan consisted of the following components:
- Cut back red meats and sugars.
- Stop drinking soda and eating ice cream altogether.
- Cut out snacks between meals.
- Drink water all day every day.
- Reduce portion sizes by at least half.
But, what about the next steps. Would there be a Step 2, 3, 4? I had not completely formulated them yet, but I had an awareness of what they might be, and they would focus on exercising and implementing more physical discipline to compliment the Food Plan.
I already exercised more than many people my age. I played softball on Sunday mornings and volleyball on Tuesday nights. I also played in a highly competitive adult ice hockey league, three nights a week with 20 and 30-year-olds who all played in at least high school, if not college. What more exercise could I conduct other than running, which I hated.
In fact, one of the reasons I even believed that my objective to compete in the Senior USA Wrestling Nationals could be possible stemmed from the success I had in my recreational sports. In volleyball, I was still the quickest, most athletic player in the league, compared to the other competitors, many of whom were 30 and even 20-year-olds. In softball, I was still one of the fastest runners of all players on every team in the league. I could make diving circus catches that nobody else even attempted. OK, so virtually every team had that one 25-year-old speed demon. But of anyone else, I had as much pop in my legs. And then, there was the hockey league. One could argue that neither the volleyball, nor the softball leagues attracted the highest caliber athletes and that boasting of being the most athletic of the bunch was like claiming to be the tallest Chihuahua at the dog pound.
But the hockey league was different. This was much more intense. Most of the players had played in high school or college. The average age on our team was about 30 and in the league, was closer to 25. I started playing hockey as a four-year-old, but stopped playing when I was 15. I went through a 20-year hiatus and took it back up at age 35. I never played high school or college hockey. And yet, I was still solidly above the average in speed and skills and about fourth or fifth on the team in points scored. Put me in a league of ALL 40-year olds, and I was sure I would totally rise to the top. Based on these signs, I convinced myself that with a little added effort, I could be a world class athlete for my age class.
But, I knew it would take more effort than I had currently mustered.
I didn’t exactly hate running. The reason for my disdain stemmed from what I used to have to do in high school and college to make weight. I used to rip off five, six, seven mile runs at about a seven-minute pace, pushing myself the whole way to go faster, run longer and sprint the last half mile at a 5:30 pace. I ran nightly, oftentimes close to midnight, almost always on a completely empty stomach. There were days in college where I lived off a four-ounce glass of water, a piece of dry toast and an orange. And that nourishment had to get me through eight hours of classes, three hours of wrestling practice and a seven-mile run before bed. Needless to say, I had nightmarish memories of both “The Food Plan” and “The Exercise Plan”, which I had yet to implement, and which I seriously dreaded.
Part of my problem stemmed from the fact that I couldn’t just jog recreationally. I wouldn’t let myself. I had too much pride to waste my time doing 10-minute miles in the park or at the high school track. And I despised the treadmill at the gym. I found running in place wedged between an old guy and some yuppie millennial to be a mind-numbing experience. My philosophy about exercise was that if they kept score and named a winner at the end of the workout, I was in. Otherwise, no thanks!
And if I did somehow force myself to start running again, it would be an “all-or-nothing” proposition and I’d push myself to the brink trying to lower my splits to seven minutes or less.
Committing to a regimen of running for me, would have to become an all-encompassing obsession. I’d have to actually run at a respectable pace, or I would not be able to do it, which is why I dreaded stepping into that territory. But then again, nobody had ever implied to me that I might suffer from obesity either.
I gazed at myself in the mirror one last time and made my first commitment. I have these moments in life where I practice extreme mental discipline. One year, I gave up pretzels, potato chips, Fritos, Cheetos and several other salty snacks for my New Year’s resolution. And I went the entire year without touching any of those items. I followed that up a few years later with a ban of all sodas. But when I found myself drinking Snapple and other artificially flavored drinks, I realized that I was cheating the intention of my resolution. So, the next year, I banned them as well. Off and on over the past 20 years, I’ve alternated between banning soda and other sugary drinks, and then ice cream and then soda again. At least twice, I swore off both soda and ice cream in the same year.
The purpose of these New Year’s resolutions was partially about trying to force myself into making healthier choices. I took a food that I abused the most, such as soda or ice cream and forced myself to face the toughest possible challenge I could, head-on. But it was also about practicing my own personal brand of mental toughness.
I have this mental discipline process that I often put myself through. It’s the last connection to the total body discipline I’ve retained from my college days. I pick something hard to accomplish – the closer to “impossible” the better - typically a food-related challenge. And I make a firm commitment to myself. And once I lock that commitment into my mind, I achieve this state of extreme dedication to achieving the objective at any cost. The trick is to find a way to care overwhelmingly more about the ending outcome than about the short-term immediate desires that detract from the objective or degrade the positive progress to the end goal.
As a 14-year-old, I vowed not to swear. I don’t know why. But I didn’t like the sound of swearing. I didn’t like the image it projected. I wanted to be viewed as a nice, upstanding kid. And 33 years later, I still don’t swear, ever.
As a 16-year-old high school Junior, I decided that I would not drink alcohol or smoke. These were vices that I saw as pointless and wasteful. And in the 31 years since, I have upheld that commitment, despite all the peer pressure and social expectations I experienced along the way. I remained resolute. I’ve never had a drink or smoked throughout my entire life.
I call these pacts with myself “Headlocks”. A headlock is a wrestling move that is particularly devastating. Like a bear trap, properly executed, an opponent should never be able to escape an appropriately applied headlock. Nobody in college had a better, more lethal headlock than me. Once I threw my opponent to the mat and locked it, the hold was like a black hole with no possible way out.
I would take control of my opponent’s left arm, by clutching my right arm over it and seizing the back of his triceps. I would draw that arm in and under my right armpit, called an “Overhook”. I would then start moving him out of his stance by lowering my hips, shuffling my feet and revolving in small circles. As soon as I felt him edge the slightest bit off balance, I would pop my hips deep into the space between our legs and sickle his neck with my left arm, torqueing his head sideways, pressing his ear against his own shoulder and sinking my left armpit all the way around the back of his neck. The result of this lightning fast reflective move would be that I’d yank his left arm down to the ground, pulling his head with it. My hips, which I positioned between our legs created an obstacle for his balance and caused his center of gravity to remain higher than mine. In sickling the head, I ensured that his ear would remain pressed tightly against his own arm as his entire body flipped over my hips and crashed to the ground.
It’s a move that should not work on the most accomplished wrestlers who know enough not to give away arm control and who can feel a headlock coming. There are numerous countermoves to block it. You can duck under my arm as I attempt to encircle the head. You can clutch my waist with your right hand and as we fall to the mat together, you can roll your hips underneath mine, spinning through. Or you can just drop your hips and make yourself too low to the ground for me to elevate.
And yet, I hit more headlocks in high school and college than anyone. And out of my several hundred wins between High School, college, Spring and Summer tournaments as well as all the Open tournaments in which I competed throughout my 20s, I pinned at least 100 opponents in headlocks.
In addition to executing the throw, the real secret to pinning my opponents came in the way I finished the move. Most wrestlers cling to the same arm and head that they had controlled while they initiated the move. I do the same until I see an opportunity to clamp down with my own special finish. I like to take the right arm and jack it straight up against my opponent’s head and then jam my own head up against his, pinning my ear to his triceps and his triceps to his own ear. From there, I can lock both arms firmly around his neck with no risk of being rolled over.
I’ve pinned every opponent that I’ve trapped by this hold. There are actually two different outcomes that I’ve seen. You either fight it until you can’t move and your shoulders touch the mat for the pin. Or you fight it until you pass out, in which case, your shoulders touch anyway. It’s happened both ways for me.
The reason I go into such description of my headlock is because I see it as the metaphor for my approach to setting goals and achieving them. Once I decide to make a mental commitment to myself, it’s like sinking that headlock finish around the objective and not letting it go until the referee blows the whistle and declares me victorious.
So, I stood in the hallway at my home and made my first set of headlock commitments to myself. I would ban ice cream and soda from my diet altogether. I would minimize my intake of red meat and choose other sources of protein such as chicken or fish whenever presented with the option. I would cut all portion sizes in half. I would only eat food when absolutely hungry, as opposed to some of the mindless snacking I tended to do. And I would avoid any snacking between meals.
This was a pretty aggressive agenda of commitments to make to myself. I stopped to ponder the feasibility of committing myself to this set of goals. I had never failed to uphold such a food-related set of objectives. But then, I had never made such an all-encompassing commitment. I didn’t want to set myself up to fail.
I stiffened, restated the rules of my commitments and locked them in my head.
This would be a good first step, and I was interested to see what effect these new tenets would have on my physique and my physical well-being. But I knew there was more to it in the back of my mind. I wasn’t ready to commit. I knew to make real, meaningful change, I’d have to do more than play hockey, men’s beer-league softball and B-level co-ed volleyball. The day when I would have to lace up a pair of running shoes and hit the pavement would come soon. I could feel it looming. I tried to push it out of my mind. I was not ready for that.
And then another thought came to mind. It was a new thought – one that I was definitely ill-prepared to process or internalize as a firm commitment to myself. But it came to me in passing and stuck in my mind. Could I even entertain the thought? Was it completely crazy? The amount of work it would take to realize this extreme stretch goal would be far beyond my means. And that’s what excited me about it.
I looked right into my own blue eyes and asked my soul.
“What would happen if I trained to wrestle again?” I asked, almost out loud. “Could I whip myself into the kind of shape that would enable me to compete at age 47 following an 18-year hiatus? In fact, I’m so much more athletic than guys my age could I realistically compete in the USA Wrestling Nationals for my age group? Could I win?”
I was pretty sure they had a senior division for over 40s, over 50s and so on. But I knew almost nothing about it. I had no clue when it might take place and what the caliber of competitors would be. I only knew that I was way more athletic than almost anyone else I knew in my age group. I still remembered every wrestling move like I had just competed yesterday, and I had a solid history of performing well in big tournaments. But, of course, the last time I had wrestled competitively, I was 28 years old and at least 40 pounds lighter. Could I even last 30 seconds today? Probably, I could not. Could I get there? I had no idea.
I closed my eyes and tried to shake the outrageous thoughts from my head. But they stayed.
“I’m not ready to commit to this,” I told myself. “See how the Food Plan goes. Think about running a little bit. But hold that thought about the Nationals. It’s a definite possibility to consider.”