My Fitness Anniversary: Progress and Heartfelt Thanks

I have a lot of people to thank. A year ago today, I walked into the studio at Fitness Together Alexandria and signed up for a block of personal training sessions. Prior to that moment, I had not done any form of regular exercise since my high school gym classes, some two decades or so ago. Each year I would get a little rounder, a little heavier, and I thought that I didn’t care. I thought that, sure, yes, of course, it’d be nice to look fit, to be healthier. “But think of all the work that I’d have to do, or all that I’d have to sacrifice to obtain that. It’s great that other people are into running or biking or hiking or soccer or whatever, but that’s clearly for them. I’m your man if you want to have a pint (or several) at the pub,” I would think to myself.

I’ve come pretty far from my outright refusal to care about my health. I’m at least 40 pounds lighter. I had to buy new clothes because all of my old ones were too big. My life has changed profoundly in the past year, and I am happier, healthier, and more confident in my ability to get things done. I have put in a lot of hours of work to make this change happen and to make it stick, but I could not have done it alone. As much as I’m writing this to celebrate a milestone that matters to me personally, I want to use it as an opportunity to thank everyone who has helped me along the way.

A Kick in the Pants

First, let’s establish a baseline. In March of 2015, I recorded my highest weight on the scale ever: 220 lbs. That’s 100 kilograms. Ten of me together would add up to a metric ton. It would be safe to call my life sedentary. I wouldn’t say I was entirely inactive, though. For our summer vacation last year, my wife Amanda, and I went to the southwest to hike around Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon, and the Grand Canyon. Here’s the obligatory selfie to prove it:

Amanda and me, Grand Canyon, June 2015.
Hiking the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, June 2015. Let’s consider this the “before” picture.

A few months later, at the beginning of August, I was out in Washington state visiting my employer’s headquarters location in Silverdale, WA. I had just been promoted at the end of July from being the company’s Chief Information Officer to being the Chief Operating Officer. I was out there to work with the CEO on our plans for the next year, especially the next fiscal year’s budget. I spent most of that trip in a conference room going over spreadsheets all day. I did get to enjoy a small amount of time that trip with our software developers, and one of them said something that literally changed my life. That’d be this guy, Alika Larsen.

Alika Larsen atop Mount Townsend, Washington near sunset, May 2016. Motion blur is his natural state of being.

I don’t recall the rest of the conversation, but I remember he slapped his hand (unnecessarily forcefully) on my shoulder and said, “Dude, you need to get in shape. We need you to not die on us.” In most corporate settings, that’s probably not something you’d say to the COO. I’m grateful, though, that he did. There was no malice behind it; he wasn’t poking fun of me. He was expressing genuine concern about my well-being. He made me stop and think and wonder if my lack of attention to my health was an act of negligence. He kick-started this whole transformation.

I have to get something embarrassing out of the way at this point in the story. Amanda, my wife of 13 years, is a fit person. She works out regularly, she eats healthy, and she has always been supportive of me doing the same. We tried working out together early on in our relationship, and I just got frustrated and angry (I think because I just wasn’t very good at it and she was). So, we had settled into a pattern where she did her thing and I did mine (which was pretty much nothing). It’s embarrassing that a coworker on the other side of country that I only saw a few times a year was able to say something to change my life when I had all the support and encouragement I needed at home the whole time. The best I can offer in my defense here is that sometimes you need an outside viewpoint to tell you what has been in front of you all along.

With the kick in the pants that I needed, I knew I needed to do something, but I didn’t know how to get started. I didn’t think working out with Amanda would be a good way to start given my tantrums in the past, and a gym membership was far too intimidating. Amanda told me to check out Fitness Together, and I called to set up an appointment for an initial consultation. I walked through their door the first time one year ago today, on August 22nd, 2015.

The Personal Training Experience

The great personal trainers I’ve worked with at Fitness Together Alexandria. Top row (left to right): Dominika Cihanova, Clark Sharp, Christie Hanes, Klaudia Raisinger. Bottom row: Michael Fennell, Elexi Morales, Scott LaPier, Kate Odulio

When I walked in for that first appointment, I didn’t even realize that Fitness Together was a national chain. Their slogan is “1 Client. 1 Trainer. 1 Goal.” Rather than a huge gym, they have studios with a small amount of cardio gear like treadmills, ellipticals, stationary bikes and rowing machines, and then a few rooms with weight sets, functional trainers (cable machines) and other gear. Sessions are 45-minutes long, and the trainer will tailor the workout for you and your goals. During that initial consultation, you write down a set of long-term and short-term goals that your trainer will help you work toward and hold you accountable to.

At the time, I didn’t even know what a reasonable goal would be. I just wanted to lose weight, as quickly as possible. It had been so long since I knew what “good” looked like, I wasn’t sure what weight that would correspond to. Sometimes, when you’re unclear as to the destination, you have to settle on just picking a direction and then heading that way. Sometimes a direction is all you’ve got.

I weighed 213 pounds that day. 34.2% of my mass was body fat. I could only finish six push-ups. I could only do nine sit-ups in a minute. The circumference of my waist at my navel was 40". I signed up on the spot for a block of sessions and committed to a three-day-a-week schedule. I was fortunate enough to have some flexibility in my work schedule that I could arrange to work out every Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday morning.

The first workout (with Kate Odulio) nearly killed me. I don’t remember what all we did (a lot of metabolic exercises I think), but I think it was a great achievement that I managed not to vomit during the session. I remember stumbling home, crawling up the stairs in our house, and laying down on the floor of the bathtub while I let the shower run.

For the first few weeks, I tried a session with each of the trainers to get a sense of their personality (honestly, they’re all great). I needed a lot of coaching then about the proper form for each exercise and a lot of encouragement. Everything seemed difficult. I wouldn’t call any of it fun. But when you’re done, you know that you’ve just accomplished something. Your memory of the discomfort of the exercise doesn’t last (thanks, oxygen deprivation), but your memory of having put in the work does. You know that you put in the time and effort and the sweat. That is a great feeling.

Skipping a session was never an option. The appointments were blocked off on my work and personal calendars so no one would try to schedule a meeting with me early on Tuesday or Thursday mornings. I had already made the choice to commit to this when I signed up, so it wasn’t like I had to make that decision again each morning. If it was up to me to decide whether or not to go to a gym to work out on my own, I don’t know I would have consistently had the willpower to do it. But I knew that there was someone waiting, just for me, and I had a responsibility to show up. I constantly struggle in my life with second-guessing my own decisions, but thankfully it was never like that with my personal training sessions. As my work became increasingly more stressful, in fact, I came to look forward to these sessions: it was a place where I had no difficult decisions to make. I just showed up and did what I was told to do. It would never have occurred to the old me that a workout could be a refuge.

I was impatient to see results, but these things take time. You look at yourself in the mirror every day, and you don’t see the progress. Other people could see the changes even if I couldn’t. If I had it all to do over again, I would take photos of myself at a regular interval to help combat the illusion that nothing was changing.

A whole lot of firsts

Within the first few weeks of starting my sessions, the folks at Fitness Together ran a promo where you’d get a few free sessions tacked on to your next renewal if you participated in the Clarendon Day 5k. I had never run in a 5k (or any race of any length for that matter), and I wasn’t really sure if running was a thing I wanted to do. After all, I told myself, I like the idea of having the use of my knees when I’m 50. The fact that the course is mostly downhill won me over in the end, and both Amanda and I signed up.

Amanda and me before the Clarendon Day 5k, September 26, 2015

My race time was 34:07 (a pace of 10:59 min/mile), which put me in the 90th percentile of the men in the 30–39 age bracket. But it was my first race, and I finished it. There was free beer afterward. Totally worth it. It whet my appetite for doing more events.

One of the long-term goals that I wrote down when I signed up was to participate in the Kennedy 50-mile hike in February 2016. If you’ve never heard of this lunatic event, it commemorates a hike that Robert Kennedy organized back in 1963, where he and a group of folks from the White House walked 50 miles from Great Falls to Harper’s Ferry. A group of intrepid long-distance walkers had recreated the event fifty years later in 2013, and were seemingly doing it every year thereafter. Even though I wasn’t in great shape, I figured I could walk long distances. I mean, what’s so hard about walking? I talked a couple of friends into going for a training walk, just 30 miles, to see how it would go. Amanda was kind enough to drop us off at Edwards Ferry, in Poolesville, MD (a.k.a. the middle of nowhere), and we set out with the goal of walking back to Georgetown.

Trish Kolb, Carey Kolb, and me at Edwards Ferry, starting our hike along the C&O Canal Towpath, November 28, 2015

I cried uncle after about 20 miles well short of Georgetown, and I called up Amanda to come rescue us with the car. Not long after that, the FreeWalkers group that organized the Kennedy 50-mile walk announced that they were canceling the 2016 walk. I had chosen the 50-mile walk as a long-term goal for my training because it was extraordinary — it was a real stretch goal. Without that event, I decided instead to set my sights on a new stretch goal, a 10-mile run. (Again, at this point, I have only ever run a single 5k, and I did that slowly.) I registered to run in the George Washington Parkway Classic 10-mile run in April 2016. I had five months to prepare.

I had used the RunKeeper app to keep track of our hike, and I found that the app also had different training plans that you could select. They didn’t have a 10-mile training plan, so I selected a half-marathon plan and just started following that. From that point on (in mid-December 2015), I was working out with a personal trainer three days a week at Fitness Together, and going for a run three days a week, doing whatever the RunKeeper app told me to do. I participated in a couple more 5ks, and I did my first 10k in March 2016.

When the GW Parkway Classic rolled around, it was a beautiful April morning. It was chilly but as the sun rose, it began to warm up. The course has you start near Mount Vernon and run all the way back up to Old Town Alexandria on the surface of the George Washington Parkway. My ambitious goal was to finish in an hour and thirty minutes, a 9:00-minute pace.

Amanda and me after the GW Parkway Classic, April 24, 2016

I finished in one hour, 29 minutes, and 59 seconds, exactly one second under my goal. I don’t think I have ever been as proud as I was when I looked up the time and I had made it. There were 5,339 runners that participated in that 10-mile race, but I was only ever competing with myself.

One Year Later

So, now we’re a whole year later. I still do strength training three days a week and run three days a week. I have logged 525 miles of running activities with RunKeeper, 84 hours in total. I have continued to lose weight, and I’m down at least 40 pounds from where I started tracking, down to about 18% body fat.

A year’s worth of weight data, from 213lbs to 172lbs, August 22, 2015 to August 21, 2016

I feel great, and I’ve still got plenty of room to improve. I’m not done setting goals and working to reach them. I’m training for a half-marathon in October. I’m going to run the Clarendon Day 5k again this year (actually, I’m doing the 5k and the 10k). Amanda and I are working out together twice a week now, and it’s fantastic.

All of this has been possible because I have been encouraged at every step along the way. I am deeply grateful for the support of my friends and family, and I want to celebrate this milestone by sharing my thanks and appreciation.

Thank you to:

  • Alika Larsen, for the initial kick in the pants,
  • Clark Sharp, Christie Hanes, Scott LaPier, Elexi Morales, Kate Odulio, Klaudia Raisinger, Dominika Cihanova, and Michael Fennell at Fitness Together Alexandria for coaching me and helping me make fitness a priority,
  • Toby Weston, Bryan Tower, and Alika (again) for the morning Bootcamp workouts at the Silverdale YMCA
  • Nathan Evans, Chris Trevino, and Alika (again) for some great hikes in the Olympic mountains
  • Bruce MacDonald, for taking time out of our work discussions to talk about and encourage my workouts,
  • Carey and Trish Kolb, for being willing to go on some crazy journeys,
  • and most importantly, Amanda Smith, for never saying “I told you so” when you perfectly well have every right, for patiently waiting for me to learn what you already knew, for being a role model and an inspiration. I love you.

This past year hasn’t been easy, but it’s totally been worth it. I’m eagerly looking forward to what we can do next!

A thinner, stronger, faster, happier version of me. August 19, 2016
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