Tuesday, August 2, 2011

Purpose, with a side of cheese fries.

When I talk about running, particularly about running ultra marathons, most people say (or at least think) "why the hell would you do that?"  So, I started thinking about an answer. I started thinking about the purpose behind my running, and that led me to starting thinking about what is--and isn't--really important to me in my life.  I came to the realization that my purpose is directly related to my happiness, which comes from the act of running itself and from the time I spend with the people I love (which, lucky for me, often coincide).   

Here's the thing: if you have ever spent more than 30 seconds reading online articles about running, you will see that many of them are directly related to weight loss.  This makes sense; running is a form of exercise that people often come to in an effort to lose weight, and it is very good for that.  At one time, I ran to lose weight--at some points in my life I have run obsessively in order to lose weight, and paired it with calorie restrictions and a generally unpleasant attitude.  But, somewhere along the way, between bouts of weight loss and regain, I fell in love with running.  The purpose was no longer about being thin, and was instead about how I feel about myself when I am running.  

Over the past few days I have had a series of conversations with friends about how they need to get skinny, and how they work out twice a day, especially at lunch so that they aren't eating at lunch time.  This struck me as the most ridiculous thing ever, really.  First of all, because none of these people are fat to begin with, and second because (as anyone who knows me can verify), I do not believe in skipping meals.  After having these conversations (and a big lunch), I went out for my afternoon run and started thinking about what exactly it was that propelled me out the door twice yesterday, and what I wanted to get out of all this running.  And I realized, as much as I would like to be in shape, I don't--can't-- run for that reason. 

A few months ago, I ran a marathon.  I trained for months, running upwards of 40 miles a week on a fairly regular basis.  I loved (in a loose sense of the word some days) every minute of it.  But I didn't lose any weight.  In fact, I specifically didn't try to lose weight; that wasn't my purpose in running the marathon and I didn't want to compromise my health by restricting calories while I was training.  That is not to say that I followed some incredibly healthy diet, either.  I ate more than my share of Doritoes and cheese sticks, and drank plenty of beer.  I became a vegetarian and had to deal with all the changes in my diet that went along with that.  But, through it all, I never purposely tried to lose weight through running.  Not that I couldn't have done so, I have certainly used running to lose weight in the past, but somehow the goal of the running itself, the marathon, was much more important to me.  And equally important was the time spent with friends, during training and at post-training meals.  For the first time in years, I didn't care how much I weighed, and I was really happy.      

Let me take a second to clarify: I definitely have not had some weird nirvana moment where I suddenly have stopped having "fat" days or anything like that.  In fact, there are plenty of days when I look at my mileage then I look in the mirror and I think "WTF?  For how much I run, shouldn't I be a lot thinner than this?"  It is incredibly frustrating; I hate feeling squishy when I put my hands on my hips and I hate being touched by other people because I am worried they will feel the same squishiness.  So yeah, I have my own baggage about my weight. And I could easily become obsessed about using running to lose weight.  I have done so in the past, but it never works out the way that I want it to.  Because there are still days when I feel gross, or I get on the scale and don't like what I see.  Knowing how hard it is to lose weight, I don't want  the frustration and guilt that goes along with dieting to suck the fun out of something that I love.  So, I (completely unintentionally, although I now realize it was the best thing I have ever done for myself) have separated the two things in my mind.  

There is, of course, the other side to all of this: the eating.  I love to eat almost as much as I love to run.  Umm... okay, maybe even more.  As I said, when I was training for the marathon I ate in proportion to my mileage, and it was great.  I realized, listening to my friends who talk about not eating to be skinny, that I love to eat, and I can't imagine not doing it--any more than I can imagine not running.   Here's the thing: running makes me happy; eating makes me happy.  Dieting, worrying about my weight, and feeling fat don't make me happy.  I live under the assumption that being thin will make me happy--happier than I am now.  But, as I was running around the pond this morning, I started questioning that assumption.  Would losing weight really make me happier than I am now, because I am already pretty happy.  So I started thinking about what parts of my current life I would have to change to lose weight, and would the happiness balance out in my favor? 

There are a few specific things that I would have to give up, the way I see it.  First: Friday nights at the Burren, specifically the beer(s) and cheesesticks.  I would also have to give up nerd nights, particularly Sundays with Ben and Leah, which typically include snacks, drinks, and ordering sandwiches from Deli-icious with a side of cheese fries.  Then there are all the random nights (or whole weekends in Maine) that include a bag of Doritoes, blueberry pies, and S'mOreos.  Basically, I would have to give up all the best days I get to spend with my friends, with the people I love.  You know, the days that make me happy. 

The truth is, a text message that says "We're at the Burren, let's get drunk" is just as appealing to me as a text message that says "Let's do 13 miles tomorrow, I'll see you at 6:30am."  Those are the things that make my life the life I want to have.  And those are the times when I feel beautiful.  I saw a quote recently from Molly Barker, who is the founder of Girls on the Run International: "Running is the space in my day when I feel the most beautiful--when I don't feel judged by others.  And that is what I want for all little girls."  I know exactly what she means.  When I am running is the time when I don't worry what other people think, or even what I think.  I can feel my muscles working, and that helps me worry less about all the squishiness that jiggles around over them. 

Wow, it would be amazing to be able to feel like that all the time, not just when I am running.  It would mean no more frustration over my weight, and no more guilt when I have a cheese stick with my beer on a Friday night.  Of course, that is easier said than done.  I have spent years (most of the past 33) worrying about being thin; it isn't easy to just stop thinking about that.  But, I am going to try.  For the next month, I am not going to weigh myself.  I am going hide the scale, the body tape and fat calipers (oh yes, I bought those in a fit of motivation only to find them to be a true instrument of evil), and I am even going to turn the full length mirror around so that I can no longer stand in front of it and poke at every defect I see.  At the same time, I am going to try to take care of myself: eat healthy, run and go to the gym, things like that.  But I am going to do those things purposefully to make myself happy, to do things that make me feel better inside rather than as a desperate (and ultimately un-enjoyable) attempt to fix everything I think is wrong with me.  Again, probably easier said than done, but I think that it will be an interesting experiment for me to try. 

On those days, which I know will come more often than I want them to, when I feel gross and frustrated, I will focus on doing things that make me happy.  Going for a run, or even a walk.  Spending time with my friends, or just reading a book.  And when I get the overwhelming urge to poke at my belly and get angry at it for still being there, I am instead going to look at it and say "Oh hey there; we've had some pretty good times, huh?  Blueberry pie in Maine!  That crazy Friday night at the Burren when I let everyone draw on my stupid pink cast while I ate cheese sticks!  Yeah, those were good times.  What do you want to do this weekend?  Chinese buffet?  Yeah, I think so, right after we go for a little run..."   

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