Chapter 5: Step 2: The Measurement Plan
I had told my family about the overall objective and the Food Plan. I hadn’t mentioned the Measurement Plan or the Exercise Plan yet. In order to fully commit to the time and effort it would take to become a regular runner, I needed to find out more information about the objective. I vaguely knew that there was a division for older wrestlers within the USA Wrestling organization. I thought there was some sort of national championship. Or, at least, I assumed there would be. But I didn’t know when it took place, how you qualified, who typically entered, what it cost or how the age brackets were determined. I just blurt out at the dinner table one night that I had decided on this goal. And once shared with others, an objective becomes a commitment. At least for me it does.
So, I Googled “Senior”, “USA Wrestling” and “Nationals”. I learned that there were three distinct tournaments for each of the wrestling styles. There was a Folkstyle tournament, featuring the style of wrestling from high school and college. There were also Freestyle and Greco Roman tournaments, which are the styles used in international competition and the Olympics.
In a nutshell, Folkstyle is a very controlled format, rewarding the ability to take down and control your opponent. Freestyle is a more active format where the rules and scoring model favor quick explosive takedowns and more judo-like throws from the feet directly to the back. Lastly, Greco Roman follows much of the same format as Freestyle, only deliberate touching of your opponent below their waist is prohibited, which leads to even more judo-style throws. Olympic wrestling consists of Freestyle and Greco-Roman formats as they typically entail more spectacular throws and play better on television.
I Googled the tournaments on a Tuesday, April 15th to be exact, and found out that they took place on successive weekends starting April 21st. I had either a week to plan and prepare, or a year and a week.
My age category was actually called the “Veteran’s Division” and the birth years spanned from 1972 to 1962, which would be essentially 44-56 year old competitors. I’d age right into the middle of the division.
I looked at the weight classes. At my weight of somewhere around 197 pounds, I’d be a heavyweight in the “Unlimited” category. I could lose ten pounds and get to the 187-pound weight class. Or I could trim down by just under 30 pounds to get to 167.5. For kicks, I looked at the next weight class, 152 and calculated that to be a total weight loss of 48 pounds from my original starting position of 200-even.
I ruled out 152 and set my sights on 167.5. I had a year to train. I segmented a prospective 30-pound weight loss into 2.5 pounds per month over the next 12 months. And when I dissected it that way, it seemed relatively easy, or, I would say manageable. I had already implemented the Food Plan and had some initial success under my belt. I had confidence that I could work my way down to 167.5 pounds in the time I had.
I wasn’t positive of my current weight and I wanted to know where I stood and what progress I had made. So, I implemented Step 2, “The Measurement Plan”. In business and in life, the greatest accomplishments come when they are measured and reviewed regularly. Everyone knows how many NBA championships Michael Jordan has won. People who know little about baseball, most likely can tell you who hit 714 Home Runs in the Major Leagues or whether a batting average of greater than .300 is considered good or bad. These numbers have meaning because they are measured, monitored and discussed regularly.
I went out to the pharmacy and bought a digital bathroom scale and benchmarked myself against the goal. 197. I had guessed it almost perfectly. I had 30 pounds to go.
Fearing that my kids would want to lose weight like me, my wife asked me to stash the scale out of sight. Growing teenage boys don’t need to worry about the number on the scale as long as they eat heathy, exercise regularly and grow at their natural rate.
So, I stuffed the scale under the shelving unit and weighed myself in private every morning and night. I started a spreadsheet and mapped my progress in a chart with a moving average trend line. I took the lowest of my weigh-ins each day and found myself stepping on the scale, three, four and five times a day to try and find the portion of the day at which I weighed the least.
On the Food Plan, I notched down to 196, then 195. The progress went slowly. But I learned a lot about my “float”.
Your “float” is the amount of weight you lose naturally over a given period of time featuring regular daily activity. Typically, wrestlers will talk about the weight they float between the time they go to bed and the time they wake up in the morning. The reason the float is important to a wrestler is because if you have to weigh in the next morning at 126-pounds, and you know you float a pound overnight, then you know you can go to bed at 127-pounds and not have to work-out the next morning to make weight. Or you can opt to go to bed at 128-pounds and know that you will only have a pound to work off in the morning.
The float is simply the result of your natural metabolism at work. It isn’t constrained to night-time. You can float weight between meals. You typically float less between breakfast and lunch, because there is less time. You might float three quarters in eight hours of sleep. You might only float a quarter in the three hours between lunch and breakfast. Maybe the float would be higher if you are more active in the morning and your float might go up to a half. However, the float becomes negated if you snack between meals. Then you don’t know how much you lost versus how much you gained in the snack you ate. Even drinking water disrupts the measurement of the float, because, while water has no calories and is therefore worked off quickly, it still has mass and contributes to your overall weight. So, measuring your float throughout the course of the day is a nearly futile exercise. But monitoring it overnight became an interesting endeavor for me.
As you might expect, I found my float to be affected by the calories I consumed the previous night. A diet rich in low calorie items produced about a 1.5-pound float where a denser dinner only enabled me to lose about three quarters of a pound. I had been aware of this phenomenon in college. But in my older age, I enjoyed tracking and trying to predict it every morning.
And on weekends, I started trying not to consume any food or water between meals and then measuring the resulting intra-day float.
Simply by measuring my weight closely, my motivation to avoid higher calorie foods and eat smartly increased. Like watching your budget every time that you take out your credit card, I thought about the outcome of each eating decision and competed with myself to maximize my float and standardize it at about 1.5 pounds. This fun competitive challenge enabled me to gain further success and I edged down to 193 and eventually 192.5, all still within the month of April. So, if my objective was to lose 2.5 pounds per month for a year, I had already nearly doubled my quota for April, down five pounds from 197 to 192.5.
I felt a little better about myself, down nearly eight pounds from the doctor’s appointment three months earlier. I didn’t feel quite as full all the time. I checked myself out in the mirror and thought I could tell the difference in the size of my stomach. The Food Plan in conjunction with the Measurement Plan were working. I was ready to embark on Step 3, “The Exercise Plan”.
My kids had correctly pointed out that I would need to be in much better shape to reach the goal of competing in the nationals. And they had a point. I had to run and elevate my wind, my endurance and cardio-vascular shape if I seriously wanted to compete.
So, I threw on my tennis shoes, stretched meagerly and set out to jog around the neighborhood. I didn’t even own a proper pair of running shoes. I set my sights on running a mile. My oldest son took the liberty of Googling the route and determined it to be exactly .8 miles. That amounted to about a half mile more than I could comfortably run without experiencing sore knees, tight thighs, hurt feet, searing back pain and tired lungs.
I wanted to stop after the third turn of four, but I had made a headlock commitment to completing the run and I could not allow myself to walk. I slowed my pace and completed the loop in about ten minutes. In my mind, that was enough of the Exercise Plan for one day. But my kids met me in the front lawn with a customized workout agenda cobbled together from their joint experiences on various baseball, soccer, basketball and track teams.
They coached me to ten pushups, ten sit-ups, thirty seconds of planking, mountain climbers, ski jumpers, bear crawls, barrel rolls and a half-dozen other items. Though I needed to sit and nurse my already sore body, I threw on my game face and powered through the 20-minute extreme workout. I didn’t want to show weakness or let them down in their enthusiasm to coach their dad.
Fortunately, my wife called us into the house to escape from the early evening mosquitoes and I was spared something they terrifyingly called “White Water Rapids”.
The next day’s run hurt a little less. My knees held up. My thighs actually felt better. But my back still hurt almost enough to stop me in my tracks and I didn’t enjoy the discomfort in my lungs from heaving for air. Again, my boys ran me through their killer workout as soon as I caught my breath. As much as I dreaded it, I appreciated their enthusiasm and engagement.
The third run hurt about the same as the first two. I wanted to stop, but I would not let myself walk. I slowed to catch my breath, but made sure I kept dropping one foot in front of the other in a running motion. I played the soundtrack from the Rocky movies in my head. I stared down at the pavement watching each foot cross in front of the other. I tried to regulate my breathing and take in deep gasps with my nose and then exhale out my mouth as I had always learned growing up.
And I spoke to myself.
“Don’t stop,” I told myself. “No matter how sore or tired, don’t quit. It’s when you are the most tired and pained that you need to find the will and the toughness to continue. If you quit now, it will be that much easier to quit next time.”
Three or four runs later, I managed to survive with fewer aches and pains. My sore back gave me the most difficulty. Every time I ran, I felt like my lower back had hot acid running up and down my spine.
My wife suggested I buy actual running shoes and we picked up a new brand called Hoka. These shoes had a softer, thicker soul than most and featured a natural curve to help guide the foot forward. As soon as I took my first strides in my new running shoes, I knew the Exercise Plan would succeed. It felt like running on a cloud of whipped cream. I barely felt the road. My feet felt comfortable, like wearing a pair of slippers. My legs felt great and my back stopped hurting almost immediately. I was able to stretch the route to a full mile and eventually to a mile and a half. I added a couple hills and soon found myself able to run about 2.5 miles across to the adjacent neighborhood.
My kids’ complicated schedules did not enable them to continue wiping me out after each run. A big part of me felt relief when their interest and availability dissipated. But a small part of me missed it. As the time drew closer, I made a mental note to encourage them to again take up coaching me in my quest for fitness. I thought it would be good for me to work a wider set of muscles and would also enable us to better share in this unique experience.
Spending ten minutes running a mile between arriving from the city and sitting at the kitchen table for dinner time fit my schedule fairly well. But as the distance grew, so too, did the amount of family time impacted by my new activity. Two miles took about 18 minutes and as I approached three miles, it became more difficult to carve out 25 minutes from our busy days.
The boys had baseball games, track meets, soccer games and music concerts to attend. And I couldn’t leave work at 4:30 every day when the rest of my team typically worked through 6:00pm.
I needed a new routine.
My boys generally went to bed around 10:00pm. My pattern with my wife was to relax and watch TV on the couch together until about Midnight and then go to bed. Many nights, she dozed off by 11:00pm and slept on the couch until I nudged her and encouraged her to head upstairs to sleep in the bed.
One night, I waited for her to fall asleep. I wrote a note explaining where I had gone and I took off on a three mile run while she slept. Upon my return, she did not wake up, nor did she even know I had left. I told her about it the next morning and before I knew it, my new routine transformed to a revised schedule of running at 11:00pm.
I had a routine and it worked well for me. I could run three miles consistently at an increasing pace as the weeks progressed. I averaged eight-minute miles, stretching it out on the straightaways and struggling up the two hills near my house.
Most routes I took entailed cruising down the two hills at a brisk pace, followed by a couple miles of straight road. The last three quarters of a mile featured the same two quarter mile hills followed by a last flat stretch to the house.
Some nights I barely made it up the hill. But I always pushed myself to pour my last bits of energy into the straightaway and finish strong. The way I worked out would translate to the way I would wrestle.
In May, I had to leave for a week-long business trip. The word about business trips is well known. You eat huge meals, go out for late-night steak dinners and spend long days sitting around in conference rooms, munching on candy and snacks while your metabolism slows to a crawl.
I didn’t want to lose momentum. I was about to break 190 pounds and didn’t want to come back talking about the ten pounds I gained on my business trip like so many of my peers. It would break my heart to see 200 again.
I packed a dozen pairs of underwear, six t-shirts and two pairs of nylon running shorts. I crammed my running shoes into the bottom of my suitcase and committed myself to waking up at 5:30 every morning to run on the treadmill.
As much as I hated treadmills, I appreciated all the analytics provided in the console. I could control my speed and distance. I could check my heart rate and I could monitor how many calories I burned throughout the run. I found myself systematically increasing my pace as I approached a mile and then again at a mile and a half. With the insight into how many tenths of a mile I had left before I reached two miles, I jacked the pace and forced myself to endure it.
After each run, I completed 30 push-ups and sit ups. I made a tentative plan to increase by roughly ten each month. In college, I was capable of finishing 1,000 quality push-ups, conducted in sets of 100 over the course of about 15 minutes, I would never return to that outlandish level of push-up fitness. But I wanted to be able to do a couple hundred by the tournament. As my kids pointed out, getting in shape and losing weight was only half the battle. I had to be much stronger.
Throughout the conference, I found it surprisingly easy to avoid overeating. I had no idea what I weighed, but I returned home feeling better, faster and stronger than when I left. After landing and taking the car service home, I grabbed my luggage, left it in the downstairs hallway and shot straight up to the bathroom to check my weight. I pumped my fist in the air. I had hit 188 pounds.
From there, my running distance settled in to a brisk, 15 minutes for two miles. And I managed to run at least four nights a week.
At two miles, four nights a week, I had dropped to 187 pounds, 13 down from my starting point. At three miles, I approached 185. I was averaging between an 8-minute and seven-minute per mile pace. I completely sweat through my clothes. And I noticed that my belt felt a little loose as I was able to use the next hole down from the one I typically used. That seemed like a milestone.
On nights when I ran, late, then weighed myself, showered and went right to bed, my overnight float hit 1.75 and even two pounds at times. I had adrenaline levels and a metabolism that I hadn’t experienced in a dozen years. I felt great. I pushed myself to four miles, running to the high school and back. And eventually increased to five miles, taking the back roads to the High School and then the main road back.
Occasionally, I felt a strange pull in the tendon that ran along the back of my leg. But otherwise, I felt that runner’s high that drove people to long for their next run. I had mastered the aches and pains of running. My legs felt stronger than ever. At night, I would lay in bed, raise a leg into the air and flex all the muscles from my calf, up to my thigh. Most of the fat that had previously filled in the gaps between my muscles, tendons and joints - making them look like big round sausages - had virtually disappeared and each unique muscle had its own bulging definition.
I had mastered the five-mile run. I could complete it at will, pain free. But now, I had to work on pace. I needed to move my five-mile time from 42 minutes down closer to 38. If I could run consistent miles below eight minutes, maybe closer to 7:30, I’d feel like I had reached an acceptable level of fitness for now. Eventually, I’d want to average seven minutes flat.
One of the co-coaches on my sons’ baseball team told me about a road race in town. There was a five-mile race and then a few weeks later, a three-mile race at the park by the beach. On a whim, I decided to register. The five-mile race took place on a cool, misty spring day. It was a relatively flat course with one big hill at the four-mile mark. I had no idea what to expect of myself. I hadn’t run in a road race since 1999. I hoped to break 40 minutes.
The gun cracked through the air and the racers all took off. I started slowly, unaware of how well I could finish, or even if I could finish. I worried about the big hill and wanted to reserve energy to survive it. At least a hundred people ran by me, including the guy who told me about the race. I felt fine. About a mile into it, I had plenty of energy. My legs and lungs felt strong. I stretched my strides and increased my pace. I passed a group of teenagers running in a pack. I edged by a pair of ladies close to my age. I looked up at a steady stream of people in front of me all rounding the next bend. One by one, I passed them all.
In fact, from the first mile on, I passed someone every 50 yards or so. And nobody passed me.
I took the hill without a flinch and had enough fuel in the tank to sprint the final three-quarter downhill to the finish. Not only did I beat 40 minutes, I finished below 38 with an average mile of 7.35. I felt great. I enjoyed the competition and I couldn’t wait for the next one.
The three-mile race took place two weeks later. By then, I had logged another 50 miles running back and forth, to and from the High School at a sustained 7:30 or lower mile. In fact, two nights before the three-mile race, I did four miles in 28 minutes. So, my confidence that I could complete three miles in 22-minutes or so had grown significantly and I set a goal for myself of breaking 22 and dropping into the 21-minute range. The course was basically flat, aside from one quick hill at the beginning. And I firmly believed that I could push myself to a sustained seven-minute pace for three miles if I really set my mind to it.
It took place at the beach complex in my home town, Greenwich, CT on a beautiful Friday afternoon. There were 275 entrants from all over Fairfield County and Westchester, New York.
This time, I started as fast as I could. I jumped out among the top dozen racers and pushed myself to churn my strides as hard as possible from the opening gun. At the first mile marker, I felt the burn that I had expected to feel in the five-mile race. My thighs strained and my lungs gasped for air. I asked the teenager next to me, as he checked his watch, what our first mile pace amounted to.
“6:33,” he told me.
The second mile marker took forever to appear. The teenager was a few strides ahead of me and I was otherwise alone with a couple runners in sight ahead of me and not too many behind me. I had no idea where I stood, what my second split was or how much longer I could run at this pace.
I wanted to slow down, but my headlock commitment to never give in to pain or self-doubt would not let me. Two guys my age strode beside me and we silently pushed each other to maintain our pace. I rounded the last bend sore, tired, heaving for air. I couldn’t last much longer. One of the guys was a stride ahead, the other about 12 feet ahead. We all pushed for the finish line together.
As it turns out, I recorded a time of 19:18, which means I not only broke 21-minutes, but I sustained a 6:35 pace for the entire three-mile race. I finished in seventh place out of 275.
The killer was that I came in fourth for my age group. Both of the two guys who finished two-seconds and four-seconds ahead of me won medals and I did not. That detail aggravated me as all I had to do was summons one last surge of energy and will myself ahead. I could have come in fifth overall and second in my age category had I just pushed myself one iota harder to find that last ounce of desire to overcome those two competitors.
I learned two important lessons from the three-mile race. For one, I gained a glimpse at exactly how fit I had become and how much capacity I had for pushing my body up to and beyond limits that I initially thought I couldn’t overcome. And secondly, I reminded myself that the difference between “really good”, “great” and “the best” can sometimes amount to a 12-foot, four-second difference. To accomplish the kind of goals I wanted to set for myself, I would have to recognize those moments of opportunity and find the strength to push ahead from “good” to “great” and ultimately to “the best”.