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Tuesday, August 13, 2013

The first thousand miles was easy...

At 6'2", I'm fairly tall, and through my life until i was 30 or so I was pretty slender, I mean, I didn't get up to 170 pounds until my 30s. I was actually skinny in college. But as my life got more sedentary and I stopped noticing, I put on some weight. Over the next 20 years, about a hundred pounds.

I don't know if this is true of most people, i didn't really notice it until I hit 50. I noticed it in pictures, I suppose, but not as a problem of gravity. In fact, I remember exactlywhere I was when I decided to start some kind of regimen of exercise after two decades of tiramisu and Heath Bars. I was with my family at Disney World on the 4th of July. Now, any day at Disney World (Orlando) is an excursion into barely controlled mayhem, but July 4 was insane. It was hot. And humid. And it rained, as it is wont to do in Orlando in the summertime. But most of all it was crowded. And, it seemed to me, it was crowded with obese people who were eating junk. It finally dawned on me that I was one of them, and I have to say I didn't like what I saw. It was a picture of excess. Mind you, I don't think about other peoples' weight, everyone has to find their own level, make their own decisions, based on their psychology and metabolism. But it had never really dawned on me, in spite of my doctor's subtle use of words like "morbidly obese" and "infinitely off the avoirdupois scale", that I was fat, because in my mind I was a skinny guy. A priest had once told me that I looked like a plucked chicken. I knew it wasn't a compliment, but I think he meant that I was skinny. (I was just 11 or 12; I hope he wasn't hitting on me...)

So, after a few more weeks of backsliding, I bought a pair of inexpensive walking shoes, and started using them. Barrington is a pretty town, and soon I had mapped out two routes of about four miles each, one that goes north through a park area and one that goes south through the village. Each could be shortened to about three miles easily if that was necessary, so I learned to like walking. (In emergencies, the southerly route is preferable, as it passes by a Starbucks, a Baskin-Robbins, and a Dunkin' Donuts.)
Migrating sandhills, one of dozens of waves

I got some great pictures on those walks. Or at least, the pictures I took remind me of how good I felt. Pictures of spring and autumn, especially, with crocuses popping through snow, or patches of tulips and daffodils, wild yellow dreadlocks of forsythia, summer fields of dandelions, the autumn fire of sugar maples, all of these with the earth and sky as backdrop were part of my daily routine. At least three times I witnessed the gathering circles of thousands of migrating sandhill cranes, probably half a mile high, but as noisy as though they were in the yard next door. I saw a lot of people from church, gave directions to lost cityslickers.

Since my 50th birthday, I had an iPod to take along with me, and wore out another one or two over the next 8 years or so. I almost always bring it unless I'm walking during a Cubs game, when I might opt for a cheap AM radio, cheap, so that when they lose, I'm not mad at myself for buying the radio to make matters worse. Sometimes, I put the iPod on and the earbuds in, but don't turn on any sound. That way, if I want to be alone with my thoughts, people will think I'm deep into my music and won't bother me. I've listened to dozens of recorded books that way, including many that I might not otherwise have picked up off a shelf to read.

I've gotten some good ideas for songwriting while on my walks, and fulfilled several commissions with ideas that came to me after percolating for several days on earbud-silenced ambulations. I know that at least three songs on Christ the Icon, including the title song, came to me while walking, as did the lyric for New Jerusalem, the text based on Revelation 21 that is sung to the tune of Shenandoah.

In 2004 I had cancer surgery, which slowed me way down for a few months, and somehow I developed a problem with my foot that kept me off the streets. I'm not too big of a sissy, but this was more than I can "walk through" consistently. My GP wasn't too helpful. It was a vicious circle: to lose weight, you have to exercise, but it's too painful to exercise, so I didn't. I sat around and fretted about it, writing, and if possible, eating Oreos.

I thought about getting a bike, or some kind of low-impact machine until I could get back on my feet again. I knew that I didn't want to gain another 100 pounds, or there would be a stability problem with the earth's crust as I walked to work, not to mention my throwing off scientific calculations of stellar distances by bending light around my substantial girth. I knew I needed to do something differently. I figured that, after walking almost every day for a year and then 3-4 times a week after that, I must have walked a thousand miles since I turned 50. But a more radical approach was required, even after my foot healed and I got back on the walking routine.

In late 2008, my doctor told me that Lipitor and Lisinopril had done all they could do, and my cholesterol and blood pressure were still too high. The only way I was ever going to get healthy would be to lose weight. She has some expertise in weight loss, so I committed to a program of a low calorie diet and exercise. She helped me for a few months with B-12 injections and an FDA approved appetite suppressant that tried to trick my ravenous brain into thinking that 1600 calories a day was more than enough for anyone. Through the comical period beginning in early 2009 when Terry was spearheading our campaign to buy a home, I was grousing to everyone, Woody-Allen-like, that all my meals were completely pleasureless experiences, like dining on loam, but the pounds did fall off. As they did, I was able to graduate from walking to alternating walking-running on the treadmill, and finally to jogging, which I took outside. I scoped out 3, 4, 5, and 6 mile routes from our house that I could choose based on how much time and energy I had for my daily exercise. By Christmas of 2009, I had lost about as much as I could stand, 80 pounds or so. I was off of the appetite suppressants. By spring, I was also off of Lisinopril, and on a maintenance dose of Lipitor. That Lent, Terry and I decided to try giving up meat for the season, and by Easter decided there was no reason to go back to it; we've been lacto-ovo-pisci-vegetarians ever since. 

Cuba Marsh, where I often go for a more bucolic five-mile run

About the time we moved to Lake Zurich in mid-2009, I got the kind of iPod that was able to use apps like Nike+, which uses GPS to track your mileage and time. Since I started keeping track with Nike+, I've done over 500 (tracked) runs, and over 2,300 miles. I say that with astonishment, not hubris, because it's nothing like I ever imagined I would be able to say about myself. At (a modest) 700 calories per 5 miles run, that's, let's see, about a million pounds that I don't weigh right now. But mostly it just amazes me that somehow I got the motivation and help to change my behavior so radically, both in exercise and diet, so that I could be healthier for my life and family. A journey toward healthier life that started with a single step stretched to a thousand, then twenty-three hundred more miles I wouldn't otherwise have walked. No reason that that road can't go ever on and on, like a hobbit's journey, or like a blog entry, looking for a happy ending, that final metaphor.