Headlock

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Chapter 4: The Weight of the Risk

After the doctor called me “obese”, I kept the conversation with him to myself and neither told my wife, nor my two teenage boys. But for lunch that day, as the rest of the family had roast beef with my favorite A1 Steak Sauce and grilled onions on hard rolls, I opened a can of tuna. I love goopy tuna with excessive mayonnaise and hot peppers on a hard roll, or with melted cheddar on a toasted English muffin, briskly salted. But I kept it light. If I was going to execute the Food Plan, I had to uphold the spirit of it and make real, positive, healthy choices. I ate the tuna on wheat with lettuce and tomato. I added a minimal amount of mayo. It was an encouraging first step and it felt good to make a healthy choice.

But one tuna sandwich on an arbitrary Friday afternoon and a concerted effort to always make healthy choices present two completely different levels of difficulty.

During the week, I’m on my own for lunch while at work in Manhattan. I can control what and how much I eat. We all mostly eat at our desks, so nobody notices if you eat more, less or nothing.

For dinner, my wife provisions the food, but she hates to cook. So, I take the train back, arrive between 6:30 and 7:00 and cook most of the meals for the family. With her procuring the ingredients at unawares to my headlock decision to cut back on fatty meats, she still brought home hamburger, steak and sausage on a regular basis. Eating these foods set me back in my objective, but avoiding them at our family dinner table threw up red flags. So, I hedged and ate a little, but tried to fill up on the vegetables and fruits and leave more of the meat behind.

With our kids’ sports schedules, oftentimes, dinners took place at Subway or Wendy’s. These fast food places would kill me if I fell into that habit. In these situations, I did not eat at the restaurant, instead opting for leftovers when we returned home for the evening.

I started putting less food on my plate. I subtly cut back portion sizes slowly. For one, I had to ease into this new diet. And for two, I didn’t want to raise the attention of my family. We had manicotti one night. I casually took a tiny two-ounce piece and filled the plate with broccoli and watermelon. We had filet mignon on the grill another night. Unlike what I would have done in the past, I took the smallest piece for myself and then only ate half of it, offering the other half to my intensely carnivorous sons.

This continued for a week or two, but I could tell that my wife had noticed. And maintaining the ruse was not a sustainable act.

I had to share my decision with the family so that they would understand my choices. So, I spilled the beans. But I didn’t just talk about diet, exercise and health. I doubled down on disclosure. And in saying it out loud, the objective locked into my mind and became a headlock.

“I’ve decided to cut back on my diet and lose weight,” I told them all at dinner one night. “I have this crazy idea that I could train for my age division at the nationals in wrestling.”

My kids immediately thought the idea was cool, although they also eyed me suspiciously thinking I had no chance to get into good enough shape to survive. I think they pictured me broken in half by some jacked up professional wrestler.

My wife had only one comment for me.

“Don’t get so skinny that I have to buy you all new clothes,” she said.

Unlike my kids, who know I am very athletic, but never fully experienced what I am capable of accomplishing, my wife has seen me at close to my best. I met her when I was 23 years old and in the best shape of my life. I was wrestling in open tournaments throughout the spring and summer and winning most of them. An accomplished sports photographer, she came to many of the tournaments, sat mat-side and snapped great photos of me in action.

She’s seen me play other sports too and she knows what a gamer I can be. She’s seen me place high in road races with minimal training. She’s seen me compete with her much younger 20-year old cousins in touch football and whiffle ball and fit right in as if anywhere close to their age.

We used to compete together in two-on-two volleyball tournaments. Like beach volleyball, most of the tournaments in Connecticut take place at parks on the grass. She played division I college volleyball and has amazing skills. I was a quick, agile, athletic guy who played an awful lot of rec and pick-up volleyball and could hold my own against the bigger guys, many of whom had played high school or even college volleyball.

My wife and I won the majority of our games. We would usually come out of our pool with a 5-1 or 4-2 record, make it far into the playoffs and eventually get overwhelmed in the semi-finals or finals. I don’t believe we ever quite won a tournament together. But the experience of playing doubles volleyball with her was intense and exhilarating. We argued and bickered, but we also made each other better and leveraged each other’s athletic talents extremely well. Like in marriage, we are a strong team and better as a unit than as a pair of individuals.

We would arrive at the park by about 7:30am and play 8-10 games of volleyball over a 10-hour stretch in the blazing summer sun. I would drink my share of water, but I didn’t eat much. Maybe due to my experience as a wrestler, I had learned to play hungry and preferred having an empty stomach. Given the heat and the intensity of the games, I would lose five or six pounds from start to finish at these tournaments, which helped me stay trim and in shape for the wrestling tournaments.

I also played volleyball every other weekend with my friend and regular partner Roger Anderson. Roger was a bigger, taller guy with amazing jumping, spiking and blocking talents. He eventually went on to become a highly successful High School volleyball Coach. Like with my wife, Roger and I also won our pool more often than not and made it to the semi-finals of several tournaments. We finally won a couple after playing together for several seasons. Only 5’8”-ish, it was hard for me to hit the ball hard and straight down the way the six-footers could. I had excellent touch and could place the ball effectively, but Roger had to account for most of our offense. I was so quick and coordinated and willing to throw my body around with reckless abandon, that there were no better defensive players in the area than me. And that was the primary value I brought to our union.

My wife had seen me wrestle and was well aware of the way I played volleyball, so when I told her that I wanted to wrestle again, she knew where I was going with it and had a good sense of the dedication I would devote to it.

In addition to her concern that we would have to replace my entire wardrobe, she also worried that I might suffer an eating disorder or that I would contract a skin disease from the other wrestlers. I would have to remind her and reinforce that the tournaments all hire dermatologists to inspect every entrant before the weigh-ins and that anyone with any suspicious skin is disqualified from competition. My wardrobe and skin paranoia became her biggest concerns, as opposed to me pulling muscles, tearing tendons or seriously hurting my neck like I had in college one season.

Secretly, I worried about the latter.

I’ve always boasted that I am made of rubber and can’t be broken. Until I hurt my neck in college, I had never suffered more than a broken toe or finger. I always had an extremely high tolerance for pain and as a result, I threw myself around in ways that caused people to raise their eyebrows or shake their heads at me.

My brother, John, was just as crazy and reckless, although considerably less injury-resistant. We used to play “Take-Out” on the hill in front of our yard. The game was barely a game at all. We didn’t keep score and there was really no point other than to show off how tough we could be. My brother and I were the only ones in the neighborhood brave enough to play “Take-Out”. One of us would stand at the top of the hill. The other stood part of the way down. We would get a third friend to throw a football out over the decline. The person at the top of the hill would dive out over the drop and try to catch the ball, while the one lower down on the hill would drive his shoulder into the airborne receiver’s knees and “take him out”.

The game produced spectacular highlight reel wipe-outs. As an adult, I would never let my kids play such a game. Everyone in the neighborhood conceded that it was a miracle neither my brother nor I ever broke our neck or died playing “Take-Out”.

But that’s how we lived. One spring afternoon, my brother had to climb on to the roof to retrieve a whiffle ball that lodged itself into the gutter instead of rolling back down the roof after I took him deep in our backyard ballpark. Looking down from about 20 feet in the air, my brother inexplicably took a running start off the peak of the sun porch roof and launched himself 30 feet in the air, crashing to the soft muddy ground and nearly breaking both legs. As he lay there writhing in pain, I asked him why he did it, and his answer made perfect sense to me.

“I thought you would think it was cool,” he said.

As another example of this stupidity, in eighth grade, I had a Huffy dirt bike. It was hardly professional grade performance equipment - more your garden variety $59.99 bargain from Caldors. But I rode that piece of twisted metal through the woods, up and down hills, on the beach and everywhere in between.

In the cul-de-sac behind my house, there was a flat circular section of the road, followed by a steep hill fading down and away from the circle. My friends and I set up a horribly constructed ramp made of garbage cans, lawn chairs and sticks with a paper-thin piece of plywood as the incline. We placed this deathtrap in the middle of the downhill. It resembled a poor-man’s ski jump.

Nobody would brave the ramp except me. I circled around in the cul-de-sac. My friends lined the hill adjacent to the ramp. I peddled wildly to generate speed and whisked toward the lift. My friend, Markie Battistoni, tried to stop me but I almost ran him over.

I hit the plywood at about 30 miles per hour. As I rolled over it, the board snapped in half and propelled my body 28 feet - as later measured by Markie - down the hill with the bike flailing out of my hands and tumbling past my upended body. I landed on my elbow and left a streak of skin embedded in the pavement. My body went numb. My elbow gushed. The bike barely survived.

My friends had to wheel me home in a little red wagon, as I could not move, with Markie retrieving the Huffy. But I survived with no broken bones. My bike was fine and the event went down in neighborhood history of how crazy, foolish and unbelievably indestructible I was. It also added to my assertion that I am made of rubber and can’t be broken.

That feeling of youthful physical invulnerability extended to my sense of mental toughness. Not only did I believe that my body could not be broken. I felt my willpower had the same resiliency as my rubber-made body. So, as I felt hunger pangs from my reduced intake of my mid-life diet program, I separated the emotional discomfort from the physical. I told myself that every rumble and twinge in my stomach represented the digestion process and probably meant that I had lost another quarter pound. This helped take a negative and convert it to a positive.

I applied logic to the process and tried to separate the act of eating based on desire from the practice of eating based on physiological need. In fact, I kicked around my own theories about why people consume food and drink when they do. I categorized eating into five levels of motivation explaining why people eat.

Nourishment: To feed the body and maintain physical health and strength.

Energy: To get through the busy day that often does not afford many breaks to rest.

Social: To connect with others over a common activity.

Taste: To satiate pleasure impulses that are stimulated by sweet or savory foods.

Habit: To follow time-worn patterns of blindly eating certain foods at certain times.

I convinced myself that I could eliminate some of these categories from my diet. For instance, I didn’t have to follow Habit patterns if I didn’t want to. I didn’t need a sweet snack at 2:00pm every day. I didn’t need desert every night just because I had always done so. If I wasn’t hungry for breakfast, I didn’t have to eat just because the clock showed a certain set of numbers or the sun rose to a certain angle in the sky.

And I didn’t have to be a slave to Taste impulses stimulated by pleasure centers in the brain. Once you realize that the desire to taste is little more than an instinctual manipulation put on by a series of nerve endings and synapses in your brain, it becomes relatively easy to deconstruct the emotion associated with this temptation. So, if my wife and kids took out ice cream for themselves, I could detach myself from the desire to join them and avoid temptation by reiterating to myself the importance of my end goal. In other words, I saw the bowl of ice cream as a negative influence on my long-term goal as opposed to a positive influence on satisfying a short-term impulse. The problem with satiating these impulses is that they never end and the more you satiate them, the more you experience them. They become a vicious circle that traps many people into a downward spiral toward weight gain and obesity risk.

When it came to Social situations, I realized that nobody pays attention to whether you actually consume food or drink. They simply socialize and consume mindlessly. So, at business meetings, networking lunches and breakfast gatherings, I just took small portions, ate slowly and focused on the social interaction without the habit of eating excessively in the process.

In terms of eating to maintain Energy, I recognized this as more of a physical necessity. I have a full-time job and I can’t take a nap in the middle of the day or doze off in meetings. In fact, I had to maintain high energy to perform at my best and continue to meet and exceed the expectations of my employer.

However, I also challenged myself to exhibit high energy on less fuel. I tried to gut through the times when I felt tired. I could always sleep on the train or rest when I returned home. It’s amazing how little of the food you consume at snack time actually contributes to any meaningful sustained energy boost. In fact, most snack breaks feature high amounts of processed sugar, which operate much like the Taste level of eating. They provide a short-term boost, but then create a greater need for another sugary snack soon after.

Like with Taste-based eating, Energy-driven eating can also create a scenario whereby the more you snack – on the wrong foods – the more your body signals you to continue to snack. In this way, your mind uses signals and the resulting emotions against you in a deliberate campaign to continuously increase food intake and ultimately stockpile fat. The best example of this points to coffee drinkers. The more they drink their coffee for energy, the more they grow to need it. And then, one day, they find that they have little or no energy until they have that caffeine boost every morning and sometimes several times per day.

I am not a doctor or a nutritionist, so none of my theories represent any thought rooted in scientific certainty. But I have observed enough to have confidence in some of these concepts.

I try to force myself to exhibit as much energy as I can without snacking. I try to infuse excitement and enthusiasm in my work. I try to focus on thoroughly enjoying what I do as often as possible. This generates natural adrenaline and allows me to maintain acceptable energy levels on minimal nourishment. I also turned to snacks such as baby carrots and grapes when I needed energy, as opposed to processed foods with high levels of sugar or salt such as chips, cookies or candy, which had been my previous habit.

So, I managed my diet by eliminating four of the five motivators for eating. At 47 years old, I had to be sure to consume enough healthy foods to maintain an acceptable level of base health and Nourishment. I needed calcium for my bones. I needed protein for my muscular health. I needed vegetables for the vitamins to support my eyesight, my skin tone, my immune system and my heart health. As indestructible as I still felt, this far along in life, I knew that I still had to take care of myself at my age. If I was wrong about this perceived infallibility, the price could be steep. And I intend to live a long life with my family. I couldn’t do anything to jeopardize my long-term health. I could survive bumps, bruises, pratfalls and physical exertion. But when you think about heart attacks and other serious ailments that come later in life, even I knew I wasn’t impervious to those more serious risks.

I had made some dangerous choices in my youth that could have cost me more than they did. Even so, knowing some of the crazy ways that I made weight in high school and college, both my dad and my wife believe that I would have been a few inches taller if not for the extremities I endured for my sport. I don’t completely buy in, but I concede that they could be right.

For the record, I have heard stories of the biggest time wrestlers in faraway places like Oklahoma and Iowa going through far worse measures to make weight. Some kids took suppositories. Some kids threw up. I was always more inclined to simply workout harder and run farther. Although, I can’t say all my decisions were perfect.

As a high school senior, I broke my toe a week before the states. It hurt to run. After a couple miles, the swelling pressed against the top of my running shoes and I couldn’t keep going. Instead, I went into the school. There was a small area between two doors that had a heater. The idea was that you would come in from the cold. The heater would warm up a small six-foot by six-foot area and then you would enter the school without bringing all the cold air with you. We had figured out how to jam a screw driver into the sensor mechanism and trick the heater into filling the chamber with inordinately hot air. In essence, we build our own little steam room.

So, after running a few miles and working up a sweat, I went to the hot room, sealed myself in a sleeping bag and dozed off in the heat waiting for the sweat to continue to pour out of me. When my father came to pick me up and found me there, he nearly took me off the team on the spot. In addition to the risk of severe dehydration and possible suffocation, I could easily have passed out and never awoken.

In college, we used to throw on what we called the “plastics”, a plastic-rubber suit with tightly sealed neck and arm openings specifically designed to maximize sweating. We would run in the plastics, practice in them and we would spend time in the sauna, also wearing the plastics. Of course, the level of dehydration skyrocketed when doing this.

Sometimes we would remove the plastics in the sauna and watch the water stream out like little rivers. Then we would take our student IDs and for at least 20 minutes, we would use them to scrape off the sweat from our bodies. By removing the bead of sweat from the top of each pore, it allowed the next bead of sweat to formulate that much more quickly. At least, that was the lore. It may have had some basis in science, but we all believed it.

I had found through observation and in learning how my body works, that every time I initially broke out in a sweat, I lost a quarter to a half pound. So, if you can clear the first wave of sweat and achieve a second or third wave, it stood to reason that you could lose up to a half pound each time. Of course, the physiology was much more complex than that, but the system seemed to work.

Some guys chewed gum and spit in a cup in a similar effort to remove as much saliva as possible. That was not my favorite exercise and that’s where I sometimes opted to just run an extra mile.

I remember before the Ithaca Tournament in my senior year, I got to the weigh-in and I was still two pounds over the 126-pound limit. So, I threw on the plastics and ran up and down the stairs about a dozen times to work up a sweat. Once I had a decent sweat going, I assumed that I had lost a half pound by working off the calories from running and a half pound from breaking out the sweat, I estimated that I had only a pound left to lose.

That’s the way it worked back then. You knew your body so well that you could guess your weight within a half-pound at any moment. You knew exactly which foods you could digest or work off in what time frames. And at the end of a work-out, you could calculate the caloric impact of your efforts, factor any loss of fluid and predict the impact on your weigh-in success within an industrial grade tolerance. I remember flexing my fist and monitoring the muscles up and down my arm. I felt like a machine. I had less than 5% body fat. I could rip off seven miles in about 45 minutes. I could sprint a mile in just about five minutes. I could bang out 1,000 push-ups in ten sets of 100 in less than 15 minutes. I knew every wrestling move, set-up and countermove that existed across collegiate and both Olympic styles of wrestling. Could anyone blame me for this feeling of invincibility?

I had only ten minutes left before the weigh-in at the Ithaca tournament closed. So, I dragged the exercise bike out of the gym, across the locker room and into the steam room. I didn’t care that I wasn’t an Ithaca student and that they probably did not want their exercise bike removed from their weight room. I just did what I needed to do.

In the plastic suit, in the steam room, with sweat gushing from my face, I sprinted a mile on the bike. I got to the scale with a minute or two to spare. I stripped down, wiped all the sweat off my body with a towel that I found in the corner of the wrestling room. I cleared any dust off the bottom of my feet, spit a few times into my coach’s handkerchief and stood on the scale, watching just enough daylight shine between the pointer arrow and the gap to be declared eligible to participate.

Incidentally, I ended up winning that tournament. As mentioned earlier, I was the 32nd seed, basically dead last. It was my senior year. I had been out my junior year with a neck injury having attempted to beat teammate and All-American Brian Allen, for the starting spot at 126 pounds. So, nobody knew who I was. That was my big opening win against Dave Hirsch from Cornell. And, it sums up why I was willing to subject myself to such torture. It also explains how I gained 75 pounds over the next 25 years. Once I no longer had the thrill of the competition and the motivation to rack up these amazing accomplishments, I had no desire to make those sacrifices either. If I wanted ice cream to satisfy a pleasure impulse, there was no reason not to do so.

But here I was, a middle-aged fat guy. I had just implemented the Food Plan. I had new motivation and a renewed objective. I could feel that I had lost some weight by cutting my diet alone – maybe five pounds down to 195. I felt pretty good about myself. I was about to take on Step 2, “The Measurement Plan” and Step 3, “The Exercise Plan” simultaneously. I hadn’t done any running in at least a decade and a half. Could I get back into it and regain some of the fitness I had previously enjoyed? I was about to find out.

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