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Chapter 8: Return to the Mat

With two weeks to go before the New Englands, I weighed between 162 and 164 pounds. I couldn’t believe the weight loss pace I had set over the past three months. I counted on losing 2.5 pounds per month. But instead, I was dropping 10 pounds every two weeks. When I broke the 160 mark with about 10 days to go, I decided to try to make 152. At this point, I wanted to hit the mark just as a personal affirmation that I could do it if I set my mind to it.

I assessed my own vitals. I was still peeing daily and I had saliva in my mouth, so I didn’t think I had dehydrated myself too much. Back in college, I would go days without urinating and my mouth would go so dry, I made a smacking sound when I spoke. My lips would crack and flake and I could feel my fingers whither. I didn’t experience any of those symptoms, so I assumed that my hydration level was at least not at Code Red.

I skipped breakfast and lunch on a regular basis, but made sure I nourished myself at night with vegetables, fruit and just enough protein. I ate a lot of watermelon for the sweet, satisfying juice. I drank about a half-gallon of water a day, usually my favorite - Evian. And I snacked on reduced fat Wheat Thins, baby carrots, almond granola and Life cereal when I needed to munch. Rather than large or even medium-sized meals three times a day, I ate small amounts of healthy, energy-producing foods about six times a day.

I upped my five-mile runs to almost every night for the week leading up to the tournament, averaging five to six nights a week. And I weighed myself three times a day to keep tabs on my two-pound daily float.

I hit 159, 158, 157 with a week to go. My wife watched TV for much of the evening and into the late hours sitting upright in a hard-backed dining room chair. Since I couldn’t help her, she told me to “just go do what I needed to do.” And, thus, I managed to up my running regimen again.

The 152-pound weight class looked like a real possibility.

Then I decided one night to push my mileage. I already felt weary. It was my fourth night in a row running a decent distance and part of me felt like I needed a night off. But I didn’t allow it. I wanted to push myself as far as I could. I hit the street and felt moderately strong. So, I decided to stretch my five-mile run up a block or two and make it a 6.5 mile run.

I whipped myself to take the additional hill. I pushed my pace down the back side. I sweat excessively. And I drove my leg muscles to a new level of fatigue. As much as the extra mile and a half hurt, I commended myself for the mental and physical toughness I displayed in racking up more than 20 miles in four days.

Then I went to the bathroom to weigh myself. I always strip down and try to squeak out some pee before I step on the scale to minimize my weight as much as possible.

As the ounce or two of pee came out, I was shocked at the color of it. As I had reached different levels of dehydration, I had seen bright orange pee and even a brownish color. But this was like nothing I had ever seen. It was crimson red. I had peed about an ounce of blood. I watched it come straight out and then drip down on the white porcelain of the toilet.

I froze, staring at the blood swirls in the bowl. This had to be a bad development for me. I was aware of the risk of losing too much too fast, but I was so sure that I knew my body better than that and understood my limits.

I had a choice. I could report it to my wife, see a doctor and take all the heat that I deserved. It would surely doom my hopes of wrestling in the tournament that weekend. Or, I could eat a little more, drink up and forget making 152, but salvage the tournament. I chose to ignore what had just happened, keep it to myself and maintain my plan to wrestle.

I weighed 155.8, my lowest mark yet. I Googled reasons why you might pee blood. At worst, I had liver cancer, some sort of liver disease, an infection or a severe drinking problem threatening to shut down my entire system. I don’t drink ever, so at least I could rule out that possibility.

Best case, I had overexerted myself and experienced leakage from my liver to my bladder. At least one web site referred to it as “common” among runners who push their limits too far. In all cases, the Internet recommended consulting a Doctor. If it happened a second time, I would have made that call. Instead, I drank an entire bottle of Evian, had a slightly larger dinner and went to bed without a word to my wife.

Fortunately, the next day, the issue appeared to clear up. I assumed that it was a fluke occurrence and that I was perfectly healthy. I also went right back to my routine, although I took a night off from running.

With two days before the tournament, my wife all but ordered me not to wrestle. She worried about me getting hurt and she convinced herself that I’d contract a skin disease. We argued moderately, but I could tell it was useless to push back. She had dug in her heals and could make life miserable for weeks if I went against her wishes. I had explained that they have dermatologists on site to inspect the wrestlers and that they don’t allow anyone with suspicious blemishes to participate. And she knows how malleable my body has been over the years. I simply don’t get hurt. But those arguments didn’t resonate. And she held firm that if I wrestled, I could sleep on the couch for the next eternity or maybe even move into the hotel down the road.

I spent the day in a foul funk and only spoke to her in short, curt tones. I didn’t agree to call it off, but I also didn’t take a stand and demand to be allowed to go. I simply walked away from the situation, leaving it nebulous. Despite working so hard to prepare - nearly causing major organ failure along the way - I spent all day stewing that I likely would have to abandon the plan.

And then she called me from the hair salon. Maybe she had overreacted, she admitted. She laid out a few terms. I’d have to be careful and I could only do it if the dermatologist inspects all the competitors. I would have to wear a T-Shirt under my singlet to minimize the amount of skin to skin contact. And I’d have to take two showers with a special anti-fungal soap as soon as I returned home. I felt like I had lost a pound of anxiety upon hearing her turn of heart and I had a deep appreciation for her understanding of how much this endeavor meant to me.

With a day to go before the tournament, I weighed 154.8. My co-workers asked if I would be able to make it to 152 with less than 24 hours to go. They wanted to know how I could possibly lose three pounds overnight. I explained about the float. I would fast the entire day and lose a pound and a half before sundown. Then I would drop another pound and a half over night. Inside, I worried that this approach would bring back the bright red urine and threaten my long-term health. But I took my chances.

The next morning at the weigh-in, I made 152 by a hair. That probably turned out to be the biggest triumph of the day.

In keeping with the Disclosure Plan, I told my dad about the tournament and he offered to come watch. I met his enthusiasm tentatively as I had no idea what to expect of myself. I awoke at 5:30am and hit the road by 6:00am. I packed my food for the day including watermelon for the hydration and sweetness it provided. I also grabbed a bag of granola to fill my empty stomach with something heavy and substantial that would take time but minimal effort to digest. The problem with the watermelon was that it would shoot through me. The granola would stay with me and provide energy for several hours. In fact, by eating the granola first, it would block the watermelon from streaking through my system so quickly and hold it in my stomach longer so I could benefit from the natural sugars.

I brought four one-liter bottles of Evian and reminded myself to drink them slowly but steadily. I wanted a consistent stream of liquids flowing through me, but I didn’t want to overwhelm my stomach’s ability to act as a sponge and absorb the water. I had overhydrated too quickly in the past and it usually ended with me vomiting the contents of my stomach like a Pez dispenser or flushing it out my back end like a faucet.

I brought a ham sandwich to be eaten in the later morning or early afternoon once my digestive system reacquainted itself with the need to generate acids and breakdown foods. I had my Food Plan, I had executed the Disclosure Plan with my Dad and the Exercise Plan miraculously landed me at 152 on the dot.

Now, I had to wrestle. I hadn’t been in this situation since the late 1990s. I wore my old singlet from when I was a 112-pound high school senior. I wore my goofy half shirt from college in 1991 and my Rhode Island College baseball cap. I listed myself as a member of the Avon Wrestling Club, a nod to my old high school. And I paid my $35 to participate.

I looked around. Hefty dads close to my age or a little younger milled around with their teenaged sons. Several girls stretched out on a corner of one of the mats. A couple burly dudes with shirts and jackets embroidered “Coach” across the chest strode in and out of the storage rooms setting up tables, warm-up mats and portable scoreboards.

I lay on the soft, spongy mat and stretched my groin. That took a good ten minutes. I pulled my heel up to my backend and loosened my quads. I rolled my ankles around in circles and bounced up and down to get some blood flowing.

A group of ten-year-old boys darted around the gym, chasing each other and tackling their younger brothers on the nearby crash mat. I could have looked around and questioned my sanity. But I didn’t. Instead, I focused on preparing my muscles to withstand the abuse that they would inevitably experience. I stared into the distance and replayed my old matches in my head to remind myself of all the options I would have to score points in various situations.

I felt great. I hadn’t felt so fresh and energetic in more than a decade. I sparred with the air, pretending to execute single leg and double leg takedowns against an imaginary opponent. I felt quick and capable, a little clumsy, but generally not too far off my recollection of how I felt in my 20s.

I had eaten well and replaced the contents of my stomach with nourishment that would provide adequate energy throughout the day. I drank, peed and drank in a repeated pattern until my body had effectively soaked in enough water to feel completely hydrated. I could feel the blood flow through my veins and fortify my biceps, triceps, quads and glutes.

The gym filled. I picked out a couple wrestlers close to my size that looked older than high school age. The tournament director posted the weight class list and a group of mid-sized athletic guys crowded around to see it. I had not heard of anyone on the list. There were 12 wrestlers in the weight class. Nine of them were in their young 20s with the oldest of them 23. One wrestler was 30. They listed me as 48 years old, even though, I was only 47. I was not the oldest guy in the lot. Unless it was a typo, there was a 49-year old.

Sure enough, a guy with a greyish beard ambled up to the wall and gazed at the chart.

“You the 49-year old?” I asked him.

“Yup,” he answered with a smile. “You must be the 48-year-old?”

“Actually, I’m only 47,” I answered, “I haven’t wrestled a tournament in almost 20 years.”

“Last year, I wrestled in this tournament,” he said. “It was a lot smaller. There weren’t nearly as many guys. It was my first time in more than 20 years.”

“How did you do?” I asked him.

“I did well,” he replied. “I did well at first anyway.”

I gave him a look as if expecting him to weave a horror story of getting crushed by the younger opponents.

“I won my first match,” he continued. “Then in my second match, I broke two ribs.”

For my seeding, which was randomly generated, I drew the 30-year-old first and I saw that as a positive way to ease back into the sport. Rather than tackle the youngest of opponents, I could start off with someone at least a little closer to my fitness and strength.

I drew a former Division I wrestler from Hofstra, Ryan Pingtifore. He had a whole team of youth wrestlers that he coached scattered about the gym. He was the head wrestling coach at a Long Island high school and he ran the local youth wrestling program. I noted that former college wrestlers who coach are usually in good shape and that the match would likely not be much easier than wrestling one of the 20-year-olds.

That sentiment proved prophetic. Pingtifore was stacked. An inch shorter, he looked way stronger. His rounded arms and chest took me by surprise as, up close, he looked like he couldn’t possibly have weighed the same as me. I shook his hand. The ref blew the whistle and we tied up. I immediately noticed the tightness of his grip on my wrists and my biceps. I fought for control of his arms and had trouble taking any kind of advantage in the tie up. His stance was impeccable and I couldn’t move him to set up a takedown, nor did I have much success pushing him off balance to set-up an attack.

He was as tentative as I was, and we sparred with little action for the first 20-30 seconds of the match. I tried to shoot low for a single leg takedown, but I had not adequately set up the move. He defended it easily and I had to scramble back up to my feet before he could counter. As I stood up, he caught me off guard and shot for my legs, sinking deeply and taking away my ability to sprawl and defend the move. I had to go to my stomach and concede the two points.

That’s where the match spun out of control for me. He tore me up on the mat, overpowering me with his strength and leverage. I never used to allow my opponents to turn me over my back, but the gap in strength was significantly starker than I had imagined possible.

First, he locked a gut wrench, squeezing both of his arms around my stomach with his shoulder digging deep into my spine. The move is designed to pin my face and chest to the mat while hoisting my hips into the air and allowing him to pry his hips underneath mine like a lever. I couldn’t keep my hips down, nor could I muster the strength to remain in a push up position or crawl forward to defend the move. After immobilizing me on the mat and maneuvering himself into position to flip me over, he easily rolled in an explosively quick motion, exposing my back to the mat for two additional points.

Now I was down 4-0. I tried to break his grip with my hands while arching my back to defend the move, but he used his shoulder to flatten me into the mat and executed it a second time. This elevated his lead to 6-0. I grabbed his leg to try and neutralize his advantage and he switched moves to a crotch throw. He simply locked his hands between my legs, pulled me into him, popped his hips up under my chest and lifted me off the mat. I tried to keep my hips down, but his strength completely overwhelmed me. He racked up two more points on the move to up the score to 8-0. One more two-point maneuver and the match would be over on the 10-point mercy rule.

The crotch-throw landed me close to the boundary circle and I astutely swiveled my hips to cross the line. I tried to make it look like I was attempting to execute some sort of move. But the reality was that I just needed to break the momentum and escape the hold. That cost me another point as one of the rules calls for a point awarded to the opponent if a wrestler willingly flees the mat. I was down 9-0, but having gone out of bounds, we could start standing again, where I had held my own.

I had little to lose, down 9-0. I took an overhook with my right arm and tried to move Pingtifore off balance. I pushed him a little, but not nearly enough. I sickled his head with my left arm and for a split second, I could feel the old headlock start to work. I threw my hips into his and attempted to bring him down to his back.

But I hadn’t gained enough advantage in balance. I couldn’t torque his head far enough over his triceps and my hips hit his like crashing into a brick wall. He clamped down on me, popped his head free and brought me to the mat for another two-point takedown. I lost 11-0. I didn’t score a point. I barely threatened him. And I didn’t last the full six minutes - a disappointment to say the least. I had felt so good and strong leading up to the match. I expected to compete more competently.

I practiced what I professed and tossed the loss from my memory. The tournament was a double-elimination format and I had a 20-year old to battle next. On the positive side, I had nearly hit the headlock and with a little rust shaken off the move, I could envision myself trying it again with better success. Also, I survived that first match with my back intact, my neck relatively pain-free and my arms and legs still energetic enough to give it another try. I had half expected to get partway into my first match and have my entire body give out on me. That didn’t happen.

About 20 minutes before my match with the 20-year-old, I watched Pingtifore lose handily to his opponent. That opponent turned out to be Jon Ericco, my next opponent.

Errico, a 20-year-old recent graduate from an exclusive private Prep School in Connecticut, crushed me. I couldn’t maneuver him any more than I could move Pingtifore. He toyed with me for a minute and then grasped my arm in a Russian tie-up. I immediately executed a spin move to escape and take a shot at his legs, but he stopped me easily, scoring a two-point take-down along the way.

Then he tied me up in a gut wrench and turned me over my back almost at will. It took him about a minute to rack up points and beat me 10-0 mercilessly. After Googling him, I learned that he had placed fourth in the Prep School national championships only a month earlier.

I had survived the tournament. I had no idea that the caliber of competitors would be so high. I was outscored more than 20-0. And my back hurt for the next month.

In all, I focused on the positives about having worked down to the weight class and survived against the two monsters I faced. When I started my journey, I had a goal to lose 25 pounds down to 167.5. I exceeded that goal by 15 pounds, nearly doubling my expectations. I also aimed to reach a level of fitness that would allow me to compete in actual tournaments. I had accomplished both goals.

But my sons called it correctly. To compete seriously, with any chance to win – or at least to score a point - I needed to focus on my severely lacking strength. In addition to my plans around Food, Measurement, Disclosure and Exercise, I needed Step 5: The Strength Plan.

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